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Former gang member Sammy Andries spent years dodging security cameras watching over Cape Town. Now, he is an unlikely supporter of the city’s plan to check an epidemic of violence by pouring millions into surveillance technology.

The proposals have divided residents in poor, gang-ridden neighbourhoods. Many say their areas also need community engagement, investment and jobs to help people turn away from a life of crime.

“The rich people have cameras, they know who shot at them. What about us? How can we also feel safe?” asked Andries, adding he would have been less likely to fire a gun in the past in areas covered by cameras.

Cape Town has the 10th highest murder rate of any city in the world, according to data site Statista.

Governments around the world are rolling out surveillance strategies, from drones to gun detection technology, in an attempt to prevent crime and enable arrests. In March, the city council announced it plans to spend R860m over three years on anticrime tech ranging from bodycams and licence plate recognition to aerial surveillance.

It is part of a record R5.8bn safety budget for 2023/24 that includes cash to expand a police college and hire more officers. The tech funding is a step up from its current crime-fighting tech budget of about R200m a year.

Still, many residents say officials also need to look at the drivers of crime and violence.

“Tech won’t fix the wound in our society,” said Cecil, 37, another former gang member living in Scottsdene, a neighbourhood about 30km east of the city centre, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

“Gangsters will just adapt ... We have to fight crime with jobs, safe spaces, cricket fields and role models to set good examples — we need to fight crime with opportunities.”

Cape Town’s city council did not immediately respond to criticism that the crime strategy is too tech-focused. The city runs a development programme for youth and has launched initiatives to boost employment and business investment.

Officials are mining and analysing massive amounts of data every day to anticipate problems such as land occupations, gang operations and illegal gun use.
JP Smith, Cape Town lead on safety and security

The surveillance rollout aims to tackle some of the city’s most pressing criminal activities including murder, sexual assault and street crimes such as muggings, said JP Smith, Cape Town’s lead on safety and security. The city will be adding to its 6,500 CCTV cameras, and is trialling drones, aircraft surveillance and control rooms that filter through the reams of footage, he said.

Its growing arsenal of technology will allow the city to “anticipate problems”. Officials are mining and analysing “massive amounts of data every day” to anticipate problems such as land occupations, gang operations and illegal gun use, Smith said. They are creating jobs in communities by hiring unemployed members of neighbourhood security groups to monitor camera footage, he said.

Though surveillance tech can help tackle crime, it can also limit individuals’ right to privacy and freedom of movement, says the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF), a nonprofit organisation focused on police accountability.

People could decide against attending political, social or religious gatherings, for example, if their attendance were to be picked up through facial recognition technology, the APCOF said.

Another concern about the surveillance is the lack of privacy regulation, said Louise Edwards, a director at the APCOF. “Guidelines on the collection, processing and storage of personal information by surveillance operators do not, to our knowledge, exist,” she said.

Smith said city officials are writing a CCTV bylaw to ensure cameras conform to a minimum set of accountability and privacy standards, including not invading people’s right to privacy in their properties. The data could be accessed only by authorised users who identify themselves through fingerprint scans, he said.

Alternatives to gangs

In Scottsdene and Hanover Park, two gang-ridden Cape Town neighbourhoods, locals largely welcomed the idea of surveillance — but with caveats.

Flip Botha, a security guard who takes in youths in need of shelter and support, said cameras could help gather evidence in areas where people are afraid to come forward as witnesses for fear of reprisals.

“But the cameras have to be maintained and the footage kept safe. We have a few here already but they are not working,” he said, sitting in his home as two young girls did their homework on a table nearby.

Studies show CCTV cameras’ effectiveness depends on factors such as the quality of footage and whether police can respond quickly to incidents, according to Safer Spaces, a platform run by SA safety researchers.

Tech without jobs and reform programmes will not work, said Gayle, a nurse at a disability care home in Hanover Park. She has witnessed shootouts, and cared for victims too.

SA’s unemployment rate is about 33% and it is expected to rise to 35.6% in 2023, making it the country with the highest unemployment rate in the world, according to the IMF.

“This tech will help, it will bring evidence forward, but then what? Criminals become more extreme in prison,” said Gayle, who asked to be identified only by a pseudonym.

Some of the cash spent on prisons and surveillance could be shifted to training and job creation schemes to help prevent people from turning to crime to survive, said Karien de Waal, a musician and founder of nonprofit Join Bands Not Gangs.

Her organisation uses music to deter people from gangs in at-risk neighbourhoods. It also helps get former gang members into rehabilitation centres and pays gangsters to plant vegetable gardens.

“No-one wants to be a gangster, they just need alternatives,” she said. “Without job creation, a security plan won’t work.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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