Of Guns and Gangs

John Webb
By John Webb | Follow @journojohn
John Webb began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He [...] See full profile

Senior Superintendent Chetty cuts an impressive figure. A dyed in the wool law-enforcer, his tunic is immaculately pressed, and he has the handshake of a British-Columbian lumberjack. I imagine he was the police college equivalent of the class nerd, scoring full marks for firearm proficiency and practicing choke-holds on bags of maize. 

 gangs

He’s striding between marked police vehicles, barking orders to members of his specialised gang units and yelling into his cell phone. We’re at the bus terminus on the outskirts of Hanover Park, across the road from the municipal swimming pool. It’s a hot day but nobody’s swimming.       

“I’ve forgotten my vest”, Chetty says, walking up to our vehicle. He gives a fatalistic shrug, and clears his throat for the first of several on-camera interviews.

Flak jackets have become standard uniform for Cape Town’s Metro Police units responsible for patrolling the ganglands of Hanover Park and Mannenberg. Journalists, too, are required to phone through their sizes prior to joining the stop-and-search operations conducted from time to time. In our case, they were handed out at a briefing at the Philippi Police Station. Chetty had clearly been distracted.

“Hanover Park and Mannenberg are among the most notorious: concrete and corrugated iron battlefields, a perverse Century Somme and Delville Wood where bloodlust is mistaken for valour.”

Or perhaps, like us, he considered the vest’s additional weight a hindrance. In an environment in which the trappings of middle class outdoor existence – like shade – are considered superfluous, Kevlar isn’t the ideal accessory. There is, too, the nagging sense that you might as well have a luminous bull’s eye painted on your back.

But, righteous indignation has no place on the Cape Flats. As incongruous as a journalist in body armour might appear in down-at-heel suburbia, pragmatism trumps appearance. There’d been a recent spike in gang-related shootings; the latest victim a Metro Police officer shot in the stomach.

Chetty has been at the helm of the Metro Police in this part of Cape Town for the past 15 years. His area of command encompasses some of the city’s most crime-ridden and violent suburbs. Of those, Hanover Park and Mannenberg are among the most notorious: concrete and corrugated iron battlefields, a perverse Century Somme and Delville Wood where bloodlust is mistaken for valour. 

Here, law enforcement is complicated by the proximity of the rival gangs. Their territories are often separated by nothing more than a thin wall of vibracrete or narrow street; the staging grounds for their conflicts, the wretched tenements so infamous in these areas of Cape Town. When adversaries live within sight of each other, the antagonism and threat of violence are constant.     

The City of Cape Town has invested in American technology called ShotSpotter that is able to identify the source of gunshots with extraordinary accuracy. Anecdotal evidence suggests the gangs are dumbfounded as to what alchemy is behind the arrest of their ‘shooters’ within moments of firing a weapon. NGOs operating in the area say there’s a renewed interest in mediation as a means to end conflict and, where shots are fired, they tend to be in shorter bursts.

But, it remains the job of Senior Superintendent Chetty and his dedicated officers, in partnership with NGOs like Ceasefire, to augment the technology with boots on the ground. ShotSpotter may have evened the odds in the battle against the gangs, but its ultimate success hinges on effective community policing.