In one of South Africa's most violent townships, a peace arrives

Can it last? And in a nation already plagued with the perception of violence and crime, can gangs stop warring?

By , Correspondent

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    Children play in a housing courtyard on September 11, 2013 in Manenberg, a township of Cape Town, South Africa. Gang violence, drug use, and unemployment are high in the area that was created by the apartheid government as a predominately colored township in the 1960s.
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“There is peace now, but I don’t think the peace will last. Look around you and you can see, something’s not right with this place.”  – ‘PK'

PK is amused. Everyone in this notoriously violent South African township says that “peace” has broken out. That’s almost funny to the short and solidly built PK, who has fought gang wars here in Manenberg township for years and who says the hate and pride that fuel rivalries here aren’t likely to end.  

Manenberg lies just outside Cape Town. It is a tough place with high unemployment and rival gangs; some areas are so poor and dense that residents sleep in shifts. Thousands live packed into alleyways lined with informal backyard shacks, or in three-story tenements with open courtyards that are easy for gangs to control. 

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This year the violence in the township reached new levels. Murders became routine. School attendance plummeted, with 16 schools closing. Gangs warred openly, and police flooded the area. Things got so out of control at one point that the head of the province asked – in vain – that the Army intervene. 

Manenberg has become emblematic of the crime and chaos often seen as synonymous with parts of daily life in South Africa. “The place is almost designed for crime to thrive,” says Kadar Jacobs, spokesperson for the Manenberg Community Police Forum.

Yet for some reason – a rare epiphany, a collective moment of realization – local ministers and the two dominant gangs got together and decided on a peace, announced in late August by a gang member named Chicken.

The real motive for peace may have been gang exhaustion over all the fighting, and a ploy for the police to leave. Still, whether the peace, or something like it, can be sustained against a powerful strain of skepticism and old patterns of behavior, carries much meaning for a nation struggling with violence and crime.

At the moment, PK finds himself enjoying the peace. He spends time with his daughter. His gang, the Americans, and their rival gang, the Hard Livings, stopped what had been a massive battle.

But the gang veteran, who tends to stare down those he speaks with, is also skeptical, since, as he puts it, “At the end of the day, nobody can stop nobody.”

This month, adding to the drama in Manenberg, the notorious leader of the rival Hard Livings, Rashid Staggie, has just been released from prison on day parole.

Mr. Staggie went to jail for ordering the rape of a 17-year-old girl. While he is now suspected of having had her shot five times in July, he can now walk the Manenberg streets again. He is working a manual labor job but hopes to move into motivational speaking – something that bothers the police, who worry he will talk his Hard Living gang into re-forming.

Donovan Meyer, a priest who grew up nearby, helped broker the current peace. He says, though, that little has changed since apartheid days. “With 1994, people thought that things were going to change for the better. But if you look at Manenberg…The place looks the same,” says Fr. Meyer.

Forcible re-locations 

High levels of violent crime have plagued South Africa for decades. Violence lowered after blacks and whites achieved legal equality in 1994. But it remains a potent source of both concern and instability.

Since apartheid, the murder rate decreased by 54 percent. But, “We still have about four and a half times the international average for murder, which gives you some indication of how violent it is,” says Johan Burger, a senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Program at the Institute for Security Studies.

Violent crimes are linked to alcohol and drug abuse, particularly in townships like Manenberg. A legacy of government repression along with perceived police ineptitude, indifference, and hostility has not helped.

 “The bottom line is that confidence in the state as an effective dispenser of law and order has never been comprehensively established in the poorer areas of South Africa,” says Gary Kynoch, an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University in Canada, who has written extensively about issues of South African crime.

Gang violence is highest in places like Manenberg where tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated during apartheid resulting from decisions to pull blacks and Coloreds out of cities to remote tenements or shanty-towns. The established social networks many families relied on were broken and gangs and crime rose.

Over the past decade, more than 10,000 murders and attempted murders have taken place in the Cape Flats areas, according to South African police statistics – including Manenberg, Nyanga, Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha, and Elsies River.

Officials have tried to respond. Cape Town authorities detailed 71 extra Metro Police officers who have conducted daily raids. Raids are also carried out by the South African Police Service. The Western Cape government diverted some $600,000 from the education budget to finance stabilization in Manenberg neighborhoods. 

 While many worry that crime may have just relocated to other areas, the current peace has brought some reflection and mingled hope and skepticism among locals who want the violence to end. In the isolated township, where everyone seems to know everyone else, gangsters are often seen as just regular neighbors and friends. The peace has brought some renewal of purpose among residents, officials, and NGOs.

Staggie, a man of God?

For Gary Roberts, a lifelong Manenberg resident who now works for Selfhelp Manenberg, a local NGO that helps locals find jobs, the peace is joyful even if he doesn’t fully trust it. “I fear that they will start over again," he says. "This is an ongoing thing.”

Still, Mr. Roberts tells of the day his 16-year-old son came home about to join the Young Monies, a youth wing of the larger American gang. Horrified, Roberts dragged his son to one of the leaders of the Americans, and explained his son wasn’t available. To Robert’s delight, but not his complete surprise, the leader told the young man that if he ever saw him hanging with any gangs, he would beat him up himself.

“A week ago, two weeks ago, I thought about leaving Manenberg,” Roberts says. “But at the end of the day I thought I can’t run away. Because there is need here.”

There’s even been the start of talk about a truly long-term strategy, says Rashid Omar, an imam and chairman of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum. He recently led a group of activists and researches on a tour of Manenberg in hopes of developing a plan that complements state efforts.

Christine Jansen of the Manenberg Development Coordinating Structure is encouraged by the new talk but notes that in the past such efforts have flagged as both government interest was quickly redirected elsewhere and residents themselves lost momentum. Recent plans to send kids in violent areas to a camp out of town for a change of scenery have already collapsed, she points out.

Also, this being South Africa ahead of an election year, there are various fears that the efforts for peace in places like Manenberg will become politicized and nullified.

Yet on the ground in Manenberg, what today looms largest over the future is the release of Staggie, the longtime leader of the Hard Livings. Staggie helped build the gang with his twin brother, Rashaad, until Rashaad was shot, burned, and lynched by supposed members of an Islamic vigilante group known as People Against Gangsterism and Drugs.

 In the years since, both Staggie and the vigilante group have rebranded: Staggie now claims to be a man of God. The vigilantes now run a website and stage marches on the homes of drug dealers.

While agreeing the situation is far from ideal, Mr. Jacobs hopes that Staggie will return to the neighborhood with a stature and message that will support the peace. “There is a fair amount of influence that Staggie has in terms of what will happen at the moment,” Jacobs says.

The residents of Manenberg, meanwhile, carry on, hoping the peace will last.

Reporting on this story was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. 

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