Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 24: COVID-19, Gangs and Lockdown in Cape Town
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker
Gangs in the Cape Town region have enacted a truce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Africa is in the midst of a lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak that is also leading to food shortages. The truce involves gangs throughout the Cape Flats, including Manenberg. The participating gangs are joining together to distribute food, soap, and essential goods in an effort to provide relief to the communities in which they exist.
South African Police Service (SAPS) Lockdown Checkpoint Source: SAPS, 3 May 2020, https://twitter.com/SAPoliceService/status/1256880475630682115?s=20.
Key Information: Peta Thornycroft, “Unprecedented truce in notorious South African slums as gangs join forces to hand out coronavirus aid.” The Telegraph. 12 April 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/12/unprecedented-truce-notorious-south-african-slums-gangs-join/:
It is being hailed as a miracle. In the face of a common enemy some of South Africa’s most violent gangs have put down their knives and are working together to help their rivals cope with the coronavirus crisis.
The gangs, until recently at each other’s throats fighting for control of scarce resources in the poverty stricken suburbs of Cape Town, have begun to hand out food parcels to their former enemies.
Organised by an investment banker turned church pastor, the initiative has seen the likes of convicted murderer Preston Jacobs, 35, distributing aid parcels in the deprived suburb of Manenberg, including to members of rival gangs.
Mr Jacobs, leader of the long-established ‘Americans’ gang, who was released in 2018 from a seven-year jail sentence for his part in the death of a man from a rival gangs, now finds himself handing out food to members of gangs he used to hate…
Key Information: “Literally a miracle”: Violent rival gangs in South Africa call truce to help people during pandemic.” CBS News. 18 April 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-cape-town-violent-rival-gangs-south-africa-call-truce-pandemic/:
Warring gangs in South Africa are working together in an unprecedented truce to deliver much-needed food to people under lockdown. The country has seen a 75% decrease in violent crime since it imposed strict restrictions over the coronavirus pandemic, and normally dangerous streets in Cape Town now see sworn enemies meeting up to collect essential goods to distribute throughout hungry communities.
Key Information: Tim Wyatt, “Coronavirus: Gang kingpins in South Africa call truce to help community during pandemic.” The Independent. 20 April 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/south-africa-coronavirus-lockdown-gangs-cape-town-a9474101.html:
’s has unexpectedly brought warring together to deliver food parcels to those struggling to make ends meet…
Across South Africa normally has some of the highest rates of violent crime in the whole continent but since the lockdown began has seen the numbers of murders, assaults and robberies collapse.
Some claim this is because gang leaders on the Council, a network of kingpins across South Africa, have collectively agreed to a ceasefire. Others, including the country’s police minister Bheki Cele are credited the ban on liquor as well as a slump in demand for drugs which fuels gang activity.
Key Information: Loki Prinsloo and Pauline Bax, “How lockdown got gangs to declare truce amid dwindling drug sales.” Business Day. 20 April 2020, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2020-04-20-how-lockdown-got-gangs-to-declare-truce-amid-dwindling-drug-sales/:
Gangs in SA [South Africa], which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, have agreed to a ceasefire during the nationwide lockdown that has caused a slump in narcotics supply and demand — with a resultant unprecedented drop in murders.
A network of gang leaders across the country’s nine provinces, known as the Council, have made funds available to members of the groups until June so they can feed their families during the shutdown, which aims to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, said Welcome Witbooi, a former gang member who mediates between gangs, local communities and the police in the Western Cape province…
Some gangs are even trying to “rebuild the relationship with the community” and are handing out food parcels to residents, he said.
Key Information: Rukshana Parker and Michael McLaggan, with photos by Halden Krog, “Cape Gangs in Lockdown: Saints or sinners in the shadow of COVID-19?” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 22 April 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/gangs-in-lockdown-manenberg/:
Two weeks into the lockdown, gangs reportedly agreed upon a ‘ceasefire' to distribute food parcels to the needy. But, in some instances, food parcels are used to conceal and smuggle drugs and guns. In others, the parcels become currency to buy favour from the communities in which the gangs are active, or serve as a reward to loyal gang members and drug dealers.
Gangs are also using the COVID-19 lockdown to find new recruits and expand their territory. By providing food parcels to the desperate and the hungry, they buy loyalty. Seemingly generous acts invariably come with a price.
Key Information: Lester Kiewit, “Gangs profit though guns are silent.” Mail & Guardian. 23 April 2020, https://mg.co.za/article/2020-04-23-gangs-profit-though-guns-are-silent/:
The illicit economy that underpins Cape Town’s crime underworld has not gone into lockdown like the rest of the city or the country. But while turf wars, shootings and sporadic gang violence have been at their lowest in years, the gang economy is still operating.
A leader in the Mongrels gang in Steenberg, Cape Town, whose full name is known to the Mail & Guardian but wants to be identified only as Toufieq, said the truce is in direct response to the Covid-19 lockdown…
Policing and gang analyst Eldred De Klerk said the move by gangs to lay down the guns and concentrate on business was expected and strategic.
Gangs will not sacrifice their members to a pandemic. Manpower is their most important resource.
“Criminal gangs are engaged in conflicts on multiple fronts — amongst themselves, with law enforcement and the community. So with everyone trying to get them, you add to that coronavirus, they’re like any organisation that asks ‘how do we keep our members safe and how do we protect our business,’” De Klerk said.
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and South African Police Service (SAPS) COVID-19 Checkpoint. Source: SANDF, 7 May 2020, https://twitter.com/SANDFCorpEvents/status/1258328341695864832?s=20.
Third Generation Gang Analysis
Gangs and criminal cartels—otherwise known as Criminal Armed Groups or CAGs—are responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic in a variety of ways. In some areas, CAGs exert social control where “crime groups, not police, are enforcing lockdown order in informal settlements and slums,” observes Robert Muggah; in others, there is a brutal competition for dwindling drug routes leading to an escalation in violence. Previous Small Wars Journal research notes have documented the imposition of social distancing and enforcing lockdown as well as the provision of humanitarian aid by CAGs in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico. In these cases, a state of competitive control among the state and rival CAGs exists. The lockdowns in Cape Town have led to food shortages and restrictions on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, fueling the illicit economy and creating opportunities for corruption, gangs and organized crime. Looting incidents—some believed to be sponsored by criminal organizations and gangs—have led to calls for escorts of food shipments. The intense gang crime situation in Cape Town and its neighboring townships prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic led to increased police attention and the imposition of military support to police operations, setting the stage for the recent situation.
Gangs in Cape Town and the Western Cape are also adapting to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and state–imposedlockdowns by enacting a truce and providing humanitarian aid to the communities where they operate. Gangs participating in the Cape Town truce reportedly include the Clever Kids, Americans, and Jesters. Social workers are hoping to expand the truce for humanitarian activities to include Hard Livings.
“Americans” gangsters, Cape Town Source: African News Agency/ANA [Used Under License]
As Parker and McLaggan of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime have observed, the long-term effects of humanitarian intervention by the gangs is likely negligible:
Having had time to regroup, recruit and expand their reach in communities, there is a strong likelihood that bloody turf wars between gangs will flare up again once the COVID-19 lockdown begins to ease, and police and soldiers are redeployed elsewhere.
The challenges presented by pandemics to informal communities and slums are clearly evident in Cape Town. Criminal collusion in resource provision (including water and food) is blended with insecurity that, in turn, iscompounded by distrust of police and informal justice provision by CAGs. The police and military may be viewed as corrupt and predatory, leading to decreased perceived legitimacy and thus opportunities for the provision of humanitarian and social goods by CAGs.
Chief of Joint Operations, South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Inspecting COVID-19 Response Operations. Source: SANDF, 7 May 2020, https://twitter.com/SANDFCorpEvents/status/1258492546877095936?s=20.
This situation presents potential long-term risks in addition to short-term volatility. On the surface, lockdowns enhance fear and lead to questioning of governmental authority and legitimacy. When CAGs enter and provide social and humanitarian goods, that legitimacy is potentially further eroded. If state (police, military, and judicial) public health and law enforcement actions (collectively, police powers) are suspect, public health measures may be ignored, potentially leading to greater morbidity and mortality and conflict between the populace, gangs, and state actors. Anger and resentment mount within communities and potential arrogance and impunity on the part of public officials is a possible political liability. Balancing civil rights, public health, and community safety is a necessary ingredient to negotiating the challenges posed by the pandemic which is now witnessing political and social action by CAGs (gangs and criminal enterprises).
Andrew Harding, Karen Schoonbee, and BarnebyMitchell, “How coronavirus inspired a gangland truce in South Africa.” BBC News. 8 April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-52205158/how-coronavirus-inspired-a-gangland-truce-in-south-africa.
Lester Kiewit, “Gangs profit though guns are silent.” Mail & Guardian. 23 April 2020, https://mg.co.za/article/2020-04-23-gangs-profit-though-guns-are-silent/.
Rukshana Parker and Michael McLaggan, with photos by Halden Krog, “Cape Gangs in Lockdown: Saints or sinners in the shadow of COVID-19?” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 22 April 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/gangs-in-lockdown-manenberg/.
“‘Literally a miracle’: Violent rival gangs in South Africa call truce to help people during pandemic.” CBS News. 18 April 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-cape-town-violent-rival-gangs-south-africa-call-truce-pandemic/.
Loki Prinsloo and Pauline Bax, “How lockdown got gangs to declare truce amid dwindling drug sales.” Business Day. 20 April 2020, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2020-04-20-how-lockdown-got-gangs-to-declare-truce-amid-dwindling-drug-sales/.
Shifan Ryklief, ”WATCH: Gangs in Manenberg call truce to help community weather lockdown.” Independent On Line (IOL). 11 April 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/watch-gangs-in-manenberg-call-truce-to-help-community-weather-lockdown-46589588.
Peta Thornycroft, “Unprecedented truce in notorious South African slums as gangs join forces to hand out coronavirus aid.” The Telegraph. 12 April 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/12/unprecedented-truce-notorious-south-african-slums-gangs-join/.
Tim Wyatt, “Coronavirus: Gang kingpins in South Africa call truce to help community during pandemic.” The Independent. 20 April 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/south-africa-coronavirus-lockdown-gangs-cape-town-a9474101.html.
 Shifan Ryklief, ”WATCH: Gangs in Manenberg call truce to help community weather lockdown.” Independent On Line (IOL). 11 April 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/watch-gangs-in-manenberg-call-truce-to-help-community-weather-lockdown-46589588.
 Robert Muggah, “The Pandemic Has Triggered Dramatic Shifts in the Global Criminal Underworld.” Foreign Policy. 8 May 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/08/coronavirus-drug-cartels-violence-smuggling/.
 See John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz, and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 22: Rio’s Gangs Impose Curfews in Response to Coronavirus.” Small Wars Journal. 10 April 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-22-rios-gangs-impose-curfews-response-coronavirus; John P. Sullivan, Robert J. Bunker, and Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 23: El Salvadoran Gangs (Maras) Enforce Domestic Quarantine / Stay at Home Orders (Cuarentena domiciliar).” Small Wars Journal. 5 May 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-23-el-salvadoran-gangs-maras-enforce-domestic; and Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 29: An Overview of Cartel Activities Related to COVID-19 Humanitarian Response.” Small Wars Journal. 8 May 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-29-overview-cartel-activities-related-covid-19.
 In Brazil, for example, some drug trafficking gangs (gangues) are imposing COVID-19 restrictions while rival militias (milícias) are urging a return to work leading to tensions and potential violence. See Roudabeh Kishi, “CDT Spotlight National & Local Tensions in Brazil.” CDT Spotlight, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) COVID-19 Disorder Tracker, 12-18 April 2020, https://acleddata.com/2020/04/23/cdt-spotlight-national-local-tensions-in-brazil/.
 See Lynsey Chutel, “Taking on Covid-19, South Africa Goes After Cigarettes and Booze, Too.” New York Times. 8 May 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/08/world/africa/coronavirus-south-africa-tobacco-alcohol-ban.html and Chiara Giordano, “Coronavirus: Police caught selling black market alcohol after total ban on sale in South Africa.” The Independent. 12 April 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/coronavirus-south-africa-alcohol-ban-lockdown-police-arrest-a9461666.html.
 Dan Meyer, “Food trucks to be supported by security details as looting incidents surge.” The South African. 23 April 2020, https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/food-trucks-looting-security-city-of-cape-town-2020/.
 See John P. Sullivan, “Gangs, Criminal Empires and Military Intervention in Cape Town’s Crime Wars.” Small Wars Journal. 2 February 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/gangs-criminal-empires-and-military-intervention-cape-towns-crime-wars.
 Shifan Ryklief, ibid, note 1. For imagery of commodities being distributed by the gangs to local residents see the 3:07 minute video broadcast “Coronavirus Pandemic Inspires Gang Truce In South Africa.” Gist Nigeria. #ChannelsTv #BBC #GistNigeria. 15 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56EfmJNl8aI.
 Rukshana Parker and Michael McLaggan, with photos by Halden Krog, “Cape Gangs in Lockdown: Saints or sinners in the shadow of COVID-19?” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 22 April 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/gangs-in-lockdown-manenberg/.
 See Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise, “When pandemics come to slums.” Brookings. 6 April 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/06/when-pandemics-come-to-slums/.
 See, for example, Stephen Grootes, “Political risks of Covid-19 lockdown, fuelled by hunger.” Daily Maverick. 10 May 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-10-political-risks-of-covid-19-lockdown-fuelled-by-hunger/.
For Additional Reading
John P. Sullivan, “Gangs, Criminal Empires and Military Intervention in Cape Town’s Crime Wars.” Small Wars Journal, 2 February 2020.
John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 22: Rio’s Gangs Impose Curfews in Response to Coronavirus.” Small Wars Journal, 10 April 2020.
John P. Sullivan, Robert J. Bunker, and Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 23: El Salvadoran Gangs (Maras) Enforce Domestic Quarantine / Stay at Home Orders (Cuarentena domiciliar).” Small Wars Journal, 5 May 2020.
Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 29: An Overview of Cartel Activities Related to COVID-19 Humanitarian Response.” Small Wars Journal, 8 May 2020.