How apartheid laid the bloody groundwork for the Cape’s gang crisis

How apartheid laid the bloody groundwork for the Cape’s gang crisis

The Cape Flats offers residents none of the sense of place and community they experienced before the forced removals. Picture: THE TIMES

When the apartheid government decided to evict people it called coloured from Cape Town’s inner city, it set off a chain reaction that now requires military intervention.

More than 50 years on from the mass evictions that drove anyone who wasn’t white from the city centre, the SA National Defence Force has moved in to guard the areas known collectively as the Cape Flats.

It was to these places that coloured people were pushed by the Group Areas Act.

So it’s necessary to look to history — which I’ve explored in a number of my books, most recently Gang Town — as violence in suburbs far from the city centre escalates.

Given the framework within which removals under the Group Areas Act took place in Cape Town, a social disaster was inevitable. As the familiar social landmarks in the closely grained working-class communities of the old city were ripped up, a whole culture began to disintegrate.

Networks of kin, friendship, neighbourhood and work were destroyed. The streets, houses and corner shops that also formed networks were torn away. With this destruction the mixture of rights and obligations, intimacies and distances, solidarity, local loyalties and traditions that bound established communities dissipated.

Above all, what the Group Areas Act’s inroads into the culture of the older districts fundamentally disturbed was the organisation and role of the working-class family. One of the major problems that arose from all this was the collapse of social control over the youth. One of the greatest complaints about Group Areas removals was that individual families rather than whole neighbourhoods were moved to the Cape Flats.

Amid these complex developments and realities, gangs emerged. There had been smaller, less hierarchical and organised gangs in areas such as District Six from which people were forcibly removed. But harsh conditions on the Cape Flats saw much fiercer gangs forming and increasing use of knives and, later, handguns.

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Isolation and fear

The first effect of the removals into the high-rise schemes on the Cape Flats was to destroy the way the street, the corner shop and the shebeens in the “old” areas had provided the residents with a great measure of communal space. The new areas contained only the privatised space of small, nuclear-family units.

These were stacked on top of each other in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space surrounding them — a space that lacked any of the informal social controls generated by their former neighbourhoods. A key control was that houses in the old areas had verandas where older people would sit and informally police the streets. On the Cape Flats you were either behind a door or on the street.

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• Pinnock is a research fellow and criminologist at the University of Cape Town

• This article was first published by The Conversation

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