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Community Responses to Gangsterism

Stories of drug- or gang-related incidents in the Western Cape command the headlines of the South African press at an alarming rate. Sampling stories from 2014 makes for grim reading: ‘17 Already Killed in 16 Days in Cape Town’ (January 22); ‘Gangs Forced My Parents to Leave Their Home’ (March 6); ‘He Runs with Gangs and He’s Only 9’ (March 14). Moreover, words such as ‘plague’, ‘epidemic’, and ‘scourge’ continue to frequently narrate South African media stories on drugs. While the periodic ‘busts’ or ‘crackdowns’ by various policing units are also reported, there seems to be a consensus, both in the media and academic literature, that the state has failed to curb or undermine the growing presence of gangs and illegal drugs in a number of impoverished communities in the country and province. Indeed, police officers are frequently implicated in the distribution of various drugs, the selling of firearms, and of turning a blind eye to specific gangs and individuals identified as gangsters. 

In response, a number of local communities have come together, forming committees and groups that have the sole purpose of rooting out illegal drugs and gangsterism from their areas. Perhaps most prominently, one community, in conjunction with the police, took to painting a large red ‘X’ on the houses of those individuals who had been identified as a drug dealers or prominent gangsters. In some instances, partnerships between different stakeholders (often deployed under the banner of community policing forums) have been successful in identifying and condemning these individuals. In other instances, some communities’ actions and responses have verged dangerously towards vigilantism. With this in mind, how do we understand this violence, how do we understand the state’s failure to adequately police these communities, and what can we learn from these incidents? This the primary question driving this research focus area, one that is long-term and ongoing. New publications will continue to be placed in both the media and academic literature. Speaking to this, Dr Simon Howell will be presenting a paper based on this research, in conjunction with SaVI, in the coming month (the original event of which was unfortunately postponed due to protest action on the UCT campus). The date and time of the event will be communicated on the website in due course.