Soldiers have begun patrolling poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Cape Town in a controversial move aimed at curbing gang violence.
The South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, signed off last week on the decision to send the army into the Cape Flats, a sprawling area of townshipsthat is a legacy of the repressive and racist apartheid regime’s policy of separating white and non-white communities.
Bloodshed over the past seven months in mainly poor black and mixed-race areas has killed more than 2,000 people, almost half gang-related, provincial officials said.
The South African National Defence Force said it was deploying a battalion of several hundred soldiers with support elements to back up the police, who have struggled to contain the violence.
“For an hour and a half they targeted houses and cordoned off some streets … They did some raids with the anti-gang unit and the local police,” said Kader Jacobs, chairman of the Manenberg Community Policing Forum, which helps crime prevention in the working-class Manenberg suburb.
“I think the people expected the army to be in the area at least between eight and 12 hours, not a cameo visit of an hour and a half and off you go,” he said.
Critics say the move will do nothing to solve deep-rooted social and political problems in areas suffering high rates of unemployment, domestic violence and drug abuse.
“It’s a temporary band-aid on a problem which lies elsewhere … When they leave, if they can, the violence will bounce back, as it did then,” said Don Pinnock, a correspondent in the area with News24, a local TV network.
One convoy of armoured personnel carriers, with an estimated 200 soldiers, drove through Hanover Park, a neighbourhood known for high levels of crime. It was built more than 50 years ago to house mixed-race families displaced from suburbs designated whites-only.
Shafiek Faure, a resident, told reporters the army intervention was necessaryto allow the police force to “take back the area”.
“So we citizens can live safely and especially our kids, who are dying like flies here in Hanover Park and so many other areas of the Western Cape,” Faure said.
The soldiers will stay on the streets until October, although the defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, suggested on Wednesday that the “exit strategy” would be determined by intelligence gathering.
The deployment was promised by the police minister, Bheki Cele, after he visited the poor Philippi neighbourhood where almost a dozen people were killed in three days this month.
Famous for its stunning tourist attractions, including Robben Island and Table Mountain, Cape Town has some of South Africa’s highest murder rates, with 3,674 murders recorded in the Western Cape last year, according to police statistics.
There is an entrenched gang culture with thousands of young men belonging to street gangs with names such as Hard Living, Sexy Boys and Young Americans.
Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday she hoped the army deployment would deter further gang violence. “It will have to be robust in the beginning to stabilise the situation and have an element of surprise,” she said.