Small Wars Journal

Gangs, Criminal Empires and Military Intervention in Cape Town’s Crime Wars

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 1:59am

Gangs, Criminal Empires and Military Intervention in Cape Town’s Crime Wars

John P. Sullivan

The challenges to governance and states posed by gangs are increasingly recognized as a global concern.  No longer just local, turf-oriented groups of local youths, seeking protection and forging a common identity, gangs are involved in the drug trade and other illicit economic interests.  These ‘third generation gangs’ protect their markets and align with a range of transnational criminal organizations.  Some gain de facto political objectives, controlling terrain and providing alternative governance structures that compete with the state for territorial control.  This situation and the resulting crime wars and criminal insurgencies are pervasive throughout Latin America. In previous assessments, I have examined gangs and cartels, crime wars and insecurity in Mexico and Brazil while identifying broader urban security concerns.  This essay looks at gangs and urban insecurity in Cape Town, South Africa.

A Legacy of Apartheid, Poverty, and Inequality

The gangs of Cape Flats, an embattled district of Cape Town, South Africa—a city often known as ‘Gang Town’ due to its pervasive insecurity and entrenched gangs culture—find their foundation in the legacy of Apartheid, social division, and insecurity resulting from fractured social networks of kin and community.   The resulting harsh conditions and toxic neighborhoods fueled gang violence and gangs evolution as local turf gangs became ‘criminal soldiers’ to protect drug trafficking enterprises.  This evolution parallels similar developments in cities worldwide.  In Cape Town, the gangs are an integral component of the South African organized crime landscape.  And like many other criminal gangs, found their origins and were strengthened in prison.

The major players in the Cape Flats gang culture include ‘super-gangs’ known as the ‘Americans’ and ‘Hard Livings’ (HL).   In addition, the ‘Numbers’ gang (a prison-street gang complex) with an estimated membership of 50,000 throughout South Africa competes and co-operates with other criminal enterprises for power and profit.  The number related to crimes (26 for robbery, 27 for rape, 28 for murder).  Street gangs are the mechanisms of exerting prison gang influence in drugs, prostitution, and other criminal enterprises on the street.  Extortion and protection rackets are an additional means of solidifying control.

In the early days of Hard Livings, founded in Manenburg, Western Cape by the brothers Rashied and Rashaad Staggie, the gang adopted the guise of ‘social banditry.’ Post-Apartheid, this has been replaced in large measure by predatory exploitation of the communities they once claimed to protect.  Their rival, the Americans (the largest Number affiliate) on the other hand leverage political resentments over perceived betrayal by the African National Congress (ANC) and competition to escape the harsh realities of inequality within ‘coloured’ communities to sustain a political narrative justifying their competition with the state.  Both gangs wage neo-feudal warfare to sustain their power, market-share, and territorial control.  The Staggie Brothers fell victim to their violent trade. Rashied Staggie was fatally gunned down on 13 December 2019 in Cape Town’s Salt River district. His brother Rashaad was shot and burned alive in 1996 by members of the PAGAD vigilante group.

Competition with the State: Gangs Fill the Power Vacuum

The actual number of gangs in the Western Cape is contested.  In addition to the Americans, Hard Livings, and Numbers gangs, an estimated 130 gangs with up to 100,000 gang members (in a city of 4 million) have been identified by South African academics.  Poor governance, lack of political access, ineffective policing, endemic graft and corruption sustain the gangs.   According to statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS), this instability led to 808 gang murders in 2018 (21% of a total 3,729 murders).   Cape Town’s murder rate sits at about 66 per 100,000 rivaling the most violent cities in Latin America.

The Cape’s criminal empires collude with corrupt state officials and provide a range of social goods (food, protection, opportunities in the illicit labor market) to sustain their control.  They leverage this control to build and exploit links with transnational organized crime networks (including the Nigerian mafia and triads).  The resulting political and economic harm is amplified by community violence and environmental degradation.   Youths, essentially ‘child soldier gangs’ dominate the Cape’s violent criminal sub-culture.  Gangs, like those found in Cape Town are spreading to megacities throughout Africa including Johannesburg, Nairobi, Lagos, Dakar, Kinshasa, and Addis Ababa. In the Cape community of Delft, gang competition for the spoils of crime has added Somalian and Congolese gangs to the mix. This adaptation and ability to forge networks to sustain their illicit flows challenges states through the corrosive effects of corruption and the scourge of violence and insecurity.

Bringing in The Military

The gang situation in Cape Town has spiraled out of control in the past few years.  As a result of high levels of insecurity (95% of Cape Flats residents felt unsafe on the street at night) and doubts about police capacity to contain the situation, the South African government called in the military—the South African National Defence Force (SANDF)—to stabilize the situation and support the SAPS.   In July 2019, President Cyril Ramphosa called in the army to address the failure of police to prevent, investigate, and combat crime.

Deploying the military to contain ‘gangsterism’ and endemic insecurity is problematic.  The results in Cape Town have been mixed.  Despite an initial reduction in murders, intense gang crime persists.  The initial three-month deployment has been extended to March 2020 so the state can forge a comprehensive strategy.  As seen in Mexico and Brazil, the military is a cohesive force, but their training and experience does not directly prepare them for policing and crime control.  The deployment of military forces can yield human rights abuses and the military’s cohesion can be compromised by corruption.  Community members are critical and have accused the SANDF of illegal searches and a reactive response that ignores community social dynamics.

Conclusion: Resilience and Reform

Despite high levels of gang activity, violence and stability, the communities in the Western Cape continue to exhibit resilience.   The absence of effective governance and policing is exacerbated by corruption and violence.  Small arms are proliferating, and criminal enterprises are expanding their reach and corrupting both government and corporate interests.  Protecting the community and business interests alike requires public-private partnership, an awareness of violence and personal security measures, and a commitment to combating corruption and enhancing community resilience and state security structures. The ultimate solutions are political solutions that require engaging the entire community—including gang members and the police and security services to restore community stability.

Categories: crime - war on crime - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at



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