Residents gather in front of a member of the South African National Defence Force in Hanover Park, July 18 2019. Picture: RODGER BOSCH / AFP
Residents gather in front of a member of the South African National Defence Force in Hanover Park, July 18 2019. Picture: RODGER BOSCH / AFP

SA has begun deploying its army to quell gang violence in impoverished parts of Cape Town after 900 people were murdered so far in 2019.

While the deployment in support of an overwhelmed police force may be welcome by some residents, it also evokes memories of the military presence during the last years of apartheid, when the government crushed protests with a heavy hand. The army deployment is centred on the Cape Flats.

“The problem is that the police live in these areas and so are easily intimidated by the gangs,” said Howard Solomon, a former policeman and municipal employee in the Cape Flats suburb of Grassy Park.

The Cape Flats are sandy, windswept and poor, in stark contrast to the picturesque Cape Town frequently voted in international surveys as one of the world’s best places to visit.

Many residents are unemployed and live in neighbourhoods of low-rise apartment blocks riddled with rampant abuse of drugs and menaced by gun-toting gangs that go by names such as the Americans, the Hard Livings and the Sexy Boys.

“For those of us who can remember what it was like to have troops in the townships in the 1980s and early 90s this is very worrying,” said Chandre Gould, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies. “It’s really a sign of desperation.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has dismissed any parallels between the current deployment of troops and those of the apartheid era. “This is a defence force of a democratic SA,” he told MPs in Cape Town last week.

Since the end of apartheid, the army has been deployed sparingly to combat crime and unrest, most notably during xenophobic riots in 2008 and 2015.

Some residents worry that the latest deployment could have limited results.

“I saw gangsters burying their stuff last week already,” said Grassy Park resident Faladehla Williamson. “I don’t think the army or the police will find anything.”

The number of murders in 2019 has outstripped the total for the 12 months to end-September 2018, complicating efforts to address the root causes of gang violence, Gould said.

“It’s very hard to be delivering parenting programmes when bullets are flying overhead,” she said.

Bloomberg