Cape Gangs in Lockdown Saints or sinners in the shadow of COVID-19?

Did the coronavirus inspire an unprecedented gangland truce in South Africa? Have hardened gangsters really downed their guns and joined forces to deliver food parcels and help to the communities they have long terrorized?

These and other claims made international headlines in the wake of the country’s COVID-19 shutdown, joining a rash of media reports about gangs in Brazil imposing lockdowns in the favelas, supposedly to safeguard communities, and extortionists in Central America showing occasional leniency to those in their debt.

But the reality is often very different...

Photographs: © Halden Krog | Compiled by: Rukshana Parker and Michael McLaggan

Manenberg is a township in Cape Town, South Africa, created by the apartheid government during the forced removals of the 1960s in which people labelled as 'Cape Coloured' were summarily evicted from the city's 'white suburbs'. Situated on a desolate, windswept plain on the outskirts of the city, Manenberg remains a poverty-stricken community where little has changed since South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

The neighbourhood is also home to some of the city's most notorious and violent gangs, including The Americans, Hard Livings, Sexy Boys, Ghettos, Mongrels and Terrible Josters.

Gangs distribution in the Cape Town area

Crippled by gang violence, Manenberg has a staggeringly high murder rate of more than 100 murders annually per 100 000 residents. This is comparable to the most violent cities anywhere in the world, including Tijuana and Acapulco in Mexico. More than 10 dominant gangs and 40 smaller ones are thought to operate in the township, vying for territory in an area of just over three square kilometres.

An alleged gang member delivers food parcels to homes in an area controlled by Cape Town's notorious Americans gang.

On the surface, it seems like altruism: gangsters, encouraged by a pastor, go from door to door handing out food parcels to the poor, unemployed and elderly.

What we’re seeing happening here today is literally a miracle. It is absolutely incredible.

Pastor Andie Steele-Smith in an interview with the BBC

But Manenberg residents interviewed by the Global Initiative say the truth has a darker edge.

Two weeks into the lockdown, gangs reportedly agreed upon a 'ceasefire' to distribute food parcels to the needy. But, in some instances, food parcels are used to conceal and smuggle drugs and guns. In others, the parcels become currency to buy favour from the communities in which the gangs are active, or serve as a reward to loyal gang members and drug dealers.

Drugs and guns are still being sold, but now, during the lockdown, gangs are increasing their income by illegally selling cigarettes and alcohol [items banned from sale under government lockdown regulations]. It’s business as usual. – Manenberg resident, April 2020
Manenberg residents gather around a pastor as food parcels are handed out.
This is a golden opportunity for gangs to expand their activities in our society because, now, people are vulnerable, emotional and they are turning to any avenue for support. Gangs are handing out food parcels but drugs and even guns are transported in these parcels, and people have to sell the drugs in exchange for something to eat. – Community activist, Cape Town, April 2020
The very gangsters who now support NGOs and religious bodies during the lockdown by distributing food parcels are the same gangsters who will hound those NGOs and religious leaders for a reference letter and to testify on their behalf when they [the gangsters] get on the wrong side of the law. – Senior police official, Cape Town, April 2020
Only a select few have received food parcels while the majority are overlooked.

Gangs are also using the COVID-19 lockdown to find new recruits and expand their territory. By providing food parcels to the desperate and the hungry, they buy loyalty. Seemingly generous acts invariably come with a price.

Gangs have always done deceptively good work for the community, like providing food parcels and paying school fees but, as always, this comes with long-term conditions. It’s no different this time around. Today, they will give me a food parcel in front of my son but a few months later they will remind him of the food parcel and tell him to deliver ‘goods’ for them. This is going to come back to us. – Interview with Manenberg resident, April 2020
Gangs recruit youngsters to strengthen their groups. More numbers mean more power, more drug users and more shooters. If gangs need to pay a blood debt to another gang, they will sacrifice their latest recruit. – Interview with former high-ranking gang member, Cape Town, April 2020

And young children have become even more vulnerable to gang exploitation during the lockdown.

They can easily be enticed by money, medication, face masks, clothing, food and offers of safety and protection.

'In return for food they will have to become "springbokkies" for the gangs,' a court diversion programme worker told the GI-TOC.

'"Bokkies" are children who keep a lookout for the police and carry guns to a shooter. Sometimes you have three "springbokkies" operating like a conveyor belt to get a gun to a shooter. They’re like a relay team.'

Sometimes new recruits (often children), armed with a faulty gun, think they are going to kill someone from an opposition gang, but they are actually sent as a sacrifice. – Interview with former high-ranking gang member, Cape Town, April 2020

While hospitals in Cape Town are reporting fewer gang-related casualties, gangsters are continuing with their illicit activities and, according to Manenberg residents, it is 'business as usual'.

Having had time to regroup, recruit and expand their reach in communities, there is a strong likelihood that bloody turf wars between gangs will flare up again once the COVID-19 lockdown begins to ease, and police and soldiers are redeployed elsewhere.

Alleged gang members in an area of Manenberg known to be the turf of the Americans gang.
A man passes through an area controlled by a gang called The Jesters.

Gangs are capitalizing on the immense poverty, lack of access to social services and high levels of unemployment in Manenberg where more than 70% of residents do not have work.

'Gangs know people in Manenberg are uneducated. They live for the moment. As long as they can get food now, they don’t care about what gangs will expect from them tomorrow', said a police officer who works in the community.

Self isolation is extremely difficult in the cramped living conditions of Manenberg. Only a minority of residents have access to mask.

The lockdown has led to severe food shortages on parts of the Cape Flats. Community activists have banded together to aid the most vulnerable.

Veteran community activist Roegchanda Pascoe and the Manenberg Safety Forum are among the groups that have spearheaded efforts to help those in need.

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, they established a feeding scheme intended to provide meals to 2 000 residents in Manenberg. The initiative has grown by leaps and bounds. Now it provides a meal to 4 100 people every day.

Members of the Manenberg Safety Forum provide hot meals to those in need during the COVID-19 lockdown.