CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African soldiers were deployed to gang-ridden Cape Town suburbs on Thursday to help quell escalating violence that has killed hundreds this year and that officials have likened to a war zone, a Reuters cameraman and community activists said.
Bloodshed over the past seven months in mainly poor black and mixed-race areas has killed more than 2,000 people, almost half gang-related, Western Cape provincial officials said.
The South African National Defence Force said last Friday it would deploy a battalion with support elements to communities in a vast area called the Cape Flats, where high rates of unemployment and drug abuse have fuelled gang activity.
“For an hour and a half they targeted houses and cordoned off some streets. ... They did some raids with the anti-gang unit and the local police,” Kader Jacobs, chairman of the Manenberg Community Policing Forum, which helps crime prevention in the working class Manenberg suburb, said of the army deployment.
“I think the people expected the army to be in the area at least between 8 and 12 hours, not a cameo visit of an hour and a half and off you go,” he said.
A Reuters cameraman followed the convoy of armoured personnel carriers, with an estimated 200 soldiers, from Manenberg to another crime hotspot, Hanover Park. Both areas were built more than 50 years ago during the apartheid era to house mixed-race families displaced from suburbs designated whites-only.
The deployment of several hundred soldiers to gang strongholds will take place from July to October, although Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula suggested on Wednesday that the “exit strategy” would be determined by intelligence gathering.
The soldiers were promised following a visit by Police Minister Bheki Cele to the Philippi shanty town on the Cape Flats after almost a dozen people were killed earlier this month.
Famous for its stunning tourist attractions, including Robben Island and Table Mountain, Cape Town has some of South Africa’s highest murder rates, with 3,674 murders recorded in the Western Cape last year, according to police statistics.
There is an entrenched gang culture with thousands of young men belonging to street gangs with names like “Hard Living” and “Young Americans”.
Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday she hoped the army deployment would deter further gang violence.
“It will have to be robust in the beginning to stabilise the situation and have an element of surprise,” she said.
Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Shafiek Tassiem; Editing by Frances Kerry