In August 1999, a tornado devastated the Cape Flats, a working-class area on the outskirts of Cape Town. Hardest hit was Manenberg, a neighborhood known for gang violence and drug trafficking. Shortly after the tornado tore through blocks of public housing apartments, looters took to the streets to plunder homes and storefronts.
The tornado exacerbated the city's existing problems. City employees struggled to deliver services in the crossfire of gang warfare, and health workers feared that by treating wounded gang members, they might inadvertently bring the violence into the clinics. Ahmedi Vawda, who led Cape Town's Directorate of Community Development, or ComDev -- responsible for improving residents' access to resources, services, and decision making -- recalled that the city officials suddenly had to ask themselves, "Who runs Manenberg? Do we run Manenberg?" They saw the devastation wrought by the tornado as a chance to reassert the government's authority and credibility in a community that felt abandoned to the gangs.
Neighborhoods like Manenberg suffered from long histories of discrimination and neglect. Under the apartheid government, the 1950 Group Areas Act forced the removal of black and "colored" families from Cape Town's developed inner-city neighborhoods. (The term "colored" denoted those of mixed race who possessed some black African ancestry.) Many families relocated to Manenberg, approximately 15 kilometers outside the Cape Town city center; these areas had limited access to government services and economic opportunities. Along with the booming drug trade, unemployment fueled gang activities throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Vawda's job was to establish social development efforts to reduce poverty levels, but he and ComDev officials worried that asserting the presence of local government might spark a dangerous backlash from the gangs. They had to seek a more subtle approach. Through the lens of a popular counterculture, gang leaders were often viewed as Robin Hood figures battling against the injustices the community faced. For young, unemployed residents who had few economic prospects, promotion to leadership positions in the gangs (often based on reputations for violence) became a source of pride. Although gangs relied heavily on intimidation and the threat of violence to control swaths of territory, they also provided a variety of support services -- loans, food, protection -- that bought them a certain level of respect and credibility.
Not all community members, however, bowed to the burgeoning influence of the gangs. Vigilante organizations sprang up as a reaction to the lack of government security. In August 1996, the assassination of a prominent gang leader brought national attention to the situation and caused a war between the gangs and the vigilantes; police lost control of the streets. In Manenberg, gangs in effect supplanted the government as the legitimate civil authority. According to the South African Police, more than 130 gangs operated in Cape Town with more than 80,000 members -- in a city of just over 2.5 million.
With as many as 50 shootings reported monthly in early 1998, many municipal workers in the Cape Flats feared for their safety as they tried to do their jobs. The residents of the community distrusted outsiders, not knowing whether gang members would retaliate if they accepted offers of government help. Gangs had a vested interest in making sure that government workers did not interfere, especially with regards to housing, where gangs often decided on evictions and subletting.