In 1945, the Apartheid government commissioned a study on coloured men in the Western Cape. After a survey of the community, the commission concluded that coloured men had a natural potential to turn criminal. The report stated of the coloured man that “…he may remain lazy, harmless, good-for-nothing but it is also possible that his activities may develop criminal tendencies in him and turn him into a skolly”. Negative stereotypes about coloured people as ‘violent’ and ‘lazy’ predate Apartheid. From that report onward, government attitudes and policies targeted at coloured communities began to acutely reflect this belief. As part of the governments ‘separate development’ policies, a Department of Coloured Affairs (DCA) was created with the mandate to regulate and administer coloured communities. The racialisation of the coloured community had many effects, but perhaps the most lasting one was the entrenchment of the idea that poor coloured people were somehow naturally prone to criminality and that this justified them being on the receiving end of government abuse.
A few weeks ago, years of neglect, violence and disenfranchisement came to a head again in the Cape Flats. Between November 2018 and May 2019, approximately 2300 violent deaths were recorded in the area stretching through Mitchells Plain, Hanover Park, Khayelitsha and surrounding townships. These numbers are widely attributed to the gang violence that has dominated the area. Communities across The Flats cried out that local authority had failed them. At the same time, Twitter user @Saint_Sheri began ‘The Orange Movement’: asking followers to turn their profiles orange to raise awareness about the situation. Dozens of accounts began to change their avatars to bright orange and #JusticefortheCapeFlats popped up across social media. In response to the social media and community activism, army troops were deployed to the Cape Flats to ‘halt violence’. Since their deployment, 46 violent deaths have occurred.
The violence that seems to define the Cape Flats now isn’t a spontaneous phenomenon. These communities have been living at the intersection of poverty, government neglect and systematic disenfranchisement since the early iterations of Apartheid. The gang violence that wreaks havoc across The Flats has developed alongside worsening conditions in the area. Many attribute the spike in gang violence to the forced removals of the 1960s.Desperate to make Cape Town a white man’s town, the Apartheid government pursued policies that moved non-white peoples further out of the city and into segregated areas that would go on, essentially, to become ghettoes that received little government support (with coloured areas receiving slightly more than black ones). Under the Group Areas Act, communities like District Six, Mowbray and Lansdowne were zoned as ‘white’ and the predominantly coloured inhabitants were pushed into what is now known as the Cape Flats.
At this point in history, coloured peoples had been removed from the voter’s rolls, had access only to inferior education and healthcare and were marginalized and discriminated against in the workforce. This dislocation of communities meant that there was a deepened disconnection between coloured peoples and the state, allowing for gangs like the Americans and the JFKs (to name a few) to fill the vacuum where local authority once would have had jurisdiction.
While people were being pushed out of their neighbourhoods, the Department of Coloured Affairs was implementing policies that would cause a gendered divide in the coloured community. The state understood coloured women to be decent ‘home-makers’ and not much else. Coloured men were typecast as irresponsible, criminal and weak. Neither of these ideas are universally true, nor do they do anything to advance coloured men or women. What these state-sponsored stereotypes did do is see to it that while many coloured women remained in the home while many coloured men were greeted with incarceration.
As Steffen Jansen explains, during Apartheid coloured men were imprisoned at disproportionate rates. Despite not being subject to the same pass law regulations that saw many black people imprisoned, coloured men were incarcerated almost twice as often: making up about 27% of the prison population yet only 8.9% of the country. The end of Apartheid brought down the incarceration rates of the country, generally. However, in 2018, coloureds made up 18.7% of the prison population but only 8.8% of the country. In prison, gangs re-form and morph into something with a life outside of the unincarcerated world. Within those walls, new members and modes of operations are made.It goes beyond just numbers and new criminal ideologies.Apartheid was, above all else, a capitalist system: and prison was a cash cow. The data shows that coloured men, on top of being over-represented in the carceral system, served longer sentences than other groups. During their time in prison, coloured inmates became ‘reserve labour’, working unpaid and in shackles on the same farms that the Western Cape is famous for now.
Gangs are made up of people, and people are ultimately the product of their environment. It’s becoming clearer with each day that we’re not as far removed from Apartheid as we’d like to believe. The legacy of Apartheid policy travels into our day to day. People living in the Cape Flats continue to exist in conditions not at all dissimilar to the conditions of those at the height of Apartheid. In Janssens study, he underscores that the violence perpetuated by gang members is on one side economic: people traffic drugs because it brings cash. On another side, it is a response to stereotypes that deem coloured men as weak and lazy. On the third side, it is both a reaction to and exploitation of the government’s lack of meaningful intervention in coloured communities, lack of support for coloured schools, lack of social assistance for coloured people. Gangs exist because the state creates and inflames them and then doesn’t give them any reason to disintegrate.
The current army deployment in Cape Town is another band-aid attempt by the government to engage poor coloured communities. It is not the first time that local authority has attempted to placate gang violence. Over the years, Special Task Forces, Neighbourhood Watches and Crime Investigation Departments have had a swing at ending gang violence in the Cape Flats. Violence has not stopped since the army arrived on July 12th. Shootings have continued. Gang members have come out to say that they know the army’s presence is only temporary and that they aren’t disturbed by it. Community members have claimed that the army is over-policing general civilians and not focusing on actual gang members. Despite the presence of the army, it seems that South Africa is still turning a blind eye on the Cape Flats.
Earlier this year, profile pictures across social media rapidly changed from curated selfies to blue circles. In what could only be described as a wave, social media users worldwide changed their avatars in support of the crisis. The use of social media to illuminate the struggle followed in the tradition of the 2010 Arab Spring. Unrest in Sudan had been brewing since late 2018 but picked up steam this year on social media after the death of Mohammed Mattar at the hands of the Rapid Support Forces on June 3rd. Mobile phone footage of the violence perpetuated by the Rapid Support Forces quickly made the rounds online. Posts from Sudanese people both in Khartoum and in the diaspora like the one by Shahd Khidir quickly gained mass traction. For weeks, blue became the colour of the internet and story reposts illuminated ways that people across the web could help.
Sudan proved, again, that there is real currency in virality. The crisis showed that the online community can quickly mobilize itself over an issue on which it has consensus. It also showed that Gen-Z’s are a generation most inclined to use the internet to champion causes that they are passionate about. The generation that literally grew up on the internet is the generation most primed to use it to create change. However, there are gaps. Politics and media are still not written with an intent to be accessible Gen-Z’s outside of electoral timeframes, imbuing them with most of the same stereotypes that float around about millennials and using their youth as a point to disengage with them rather than rope them into political conversation meaningfully.
South African Gen-Z’s have been at the intersection of political unrest and social media before. Events like #FeesMustFall and the Pretoria High School for Girls Hair protests engaged the youth in conversation about the political state of their country. Both these movements used social media as a vessel through which to disseminate information. It’s at the intersection of social media and protest that ‘The Orange Movement’ and #JusticefortheCapeFlats has positioned itself. The ‘Orange Movement’ takes its cues directly from the events of the Sudan crisis, employing people to declare their individual profiles in support of a cause, using tactics that are both visual and rhetoric. However, the response has not been quite the same. Information is not disseminating quite as quickly as it did with Sudan. While many have taken up the cause and changed their online profiles, it has not been the same overwhelming outpouring of support that Sudan received. Possibly because coloured South Africans aren’t living under a formalized military dictatorship exacerbated by a media blackout. But more probably because we’ve become comfortable with the idea of coloured people living on the edge of violence and poverty.
Communities in the Cape Flats have been living in varying degrees of warfare for decades now. The deployment of armies to The Flats is only a temporary solution: heightened police presence only works to further criminalize people. It is also a temporary solution because the root of the issue does not lie with gang members. Without long term plans to de-criminalize coloured people, eradicate poverty and provide access to care, the Flats will continue to be a hotbed for gang activity. Politicians have always been focused on their public image, but the rise of social media platforms have made them ultra-aware of what the public thinks of them. Now, more than ever, the internet provides a place for people to demand change and action from elected officials. Virality is one of the best weapons the people have. The Orange Movement and #JusticefortheCapeFlats is utilizing social media to draw attention to a people and a place that this country often overlooks unless it’s for a laugh at their expense. If we can take it upon ourselves to act for people in Northeast Africa, we should just as hastily heed the call to act for those in our own home.