Security in Cape Town

Arianna Lyons '16 BBA Marketing

Arianna Lyons ’16 (R)
BBA Marketing

Security in Cape Town

by Arianna Lyons



A research project conducted using the consideration of spatial mapping to investigate what continuities and discontinuities regarding issues of security in the city of Cape Town exist between the era of Apartheid and the present day (to what extent have things changed or remained the same), and the general perceptions Cape Town citizens hold of security and safety in their various communities today and in the past through their memories of Apartheid.




In January of 2013, using murder statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, a young journalist by the name of Gunnar Garfors compared the total numbers of murders per country to the number of murders per 100,000 people in each country within the last year in order to rank the most dangerous countries in the world (Garfors). Mexico, Venezuela, Tanzania, and Honduras were named among the top 10 most dangerous (Garfors). In his conclusion, the Ivory Coast was named number one, followed by its close second: South Africa (Garfors).

Today, South Africa stands in a league of its own. It is home to rich natural resources, a bustling tourist economy, leading and progressive African Universities, world-renowned sports teams, and one of, if not the most, progressive democratic constitutions in the world. Nevertheless, notwithstanding these many encouraging factors, South Africa still faces the greatest income inequality in the world (Hodgson). This devastating imbalance has been fueling the flames that make up a disconcerting amount of crime –violent, property, sexual, etc– plaguing the nation since the days of its racial segregation known as Apartheid.

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa. Although a popular tourist destination, “Cape Town has some of the highest rates of violent, property, and commercial crime in the country” (Vanderwert p. 3). I used my time there to research “security,” a term that encompasses crime, safety, and perceptions of crime-related activity and safety in Cape Town. Before arriving in South Africa, and during my time there, I developed two research questions to work from: What are the continuities and discontinuities regarding issues of security in the city of Cape Town between the eras of Apartheid and today (i.e., to what extent have things changed or remained the same)? And what general perceptions of security and safety do Cape Town citizens have of their various communities today and of the past through their memories of Apartheid? In order to fully answer these questions, I set out to interview citizens within a broad range of economic class, location (within Cape Town), and education. After gathering these basic fieldwork materials, I researched supplemental information to complement or contrast any information that I acquired on my own. After reviewing the mass of information I gathered while in Cape Town, I found it easiest to separate my findings into two basic categories: Crime and Location, and the Police. My findings led me to several hypotheses that I used to create two central theses, one for each of my research questions.  In response to my question concerning continuities, my thesis is this: Issues of security have changed radically from what Cape Town faced during the early days of Apartheid in comparison to now because of the power of a cultural transmission regarding how crime is viewed and considered. My second thesis referring to my question of Cape Town perceptions is that Cape Town citizens understand the poor conditions of security under which they live today; however, when reflecting upon their memory of Apartheid, they are so proud of the positive changes that have arisen since the end of segregation that they will defend and justify their current conditions, believing that the state of security in Cape Town is not as bad as it is portrayed.

Part I: Crime and Location

If ever there were an overarching theme to describe the foundation, construction, establishment, and maintenance (although at times very poor) of South Africa, it would be inequality. Slavery in the 17th century set a tune to which a song of unbalanced class structure would continue to play by for centuries to come. Many link this radical inequality to the many problems that South Africa faces today, crime included. In her honors project for the economics department of Macalester College, Kira L. Vanderwert analyzes “Spatial Patterns of Crime in Cape Town.” In her project she asserts that “extreme inequality is arguably linked to crime because such disparities situate the underprivileged in close proximity to the wealth of the upper classes” (Vanderwert p. 3). To explore her hypothesis of spatial proximity, Vanderwert created “an economic model of crime where individuals weigh the expected costs of committing a crime against the expected benefits” (Vanderwert p. 1). Based on her findings when interpreting criminal cost vs. benefit analysis, accompanied by crime statistics released by the South African Police Services (SAPS), it appears that economic inequality plays the most crucial role in being the cause, source, and primary motivator for crime in Cape Town (Vanderwert p. 11-16).

During my time researching in South Africa, I found that crime in Cape Town is best described as opportunistic. Social unrest and change often create windows of opportunity for criminals worldwide to prey on an area undergoing transformations; South Africa was no exception during its most recent period of change in the early 1990’s (Crime Stats South Africa). Every individual I interviewed perceived an increase in crime and threat during the years leading to the fall of Apartheid. By the time the new democracy and constitution were established in 1996, the damage had already been done. A culture of constant crime and a general lack of security is now the norm in modern South Africa as a product of something called cultural transmission. Vanderwert defines cultural transmission in South Africa by describing the “weak social control” during the period leading up to the fall of Apartheid that produced the “violent and property crime [that] emerg[ed] as a new system of rule with criminal traditions being passed onto fellow members of the community” (Vanderwert p.15). Just as Vanderwert suggests, local Observatory resident Annemarie Kriel describes crime in Cape Town today as a product of gross inequality – after Apartheid was abolished and the new democracy emerged, equality didn’t spring from the ground as many may have imagined or hoped. Theft and material assault (like of that on property) is a direct result of such frustrations and desperation.

The assertion that crime in Cape Town is largely a result of attempted equality through illegal means is shown in André-Michel Guerry’s statistical evaluation of criminology proving that high-income areas are more prone to frequent property crime, whereas low-income areas experience greater amounts of violent crime (Vanderwert p. 9). The information I gathered in interviews strongly reflects Guerry’s theory of crime based on economic status within an area; therefore it is clear that crime exists in all areas of Cape Town, but different areas experience different types of crime based largely on economic conditions. Thus, it is possible to map crime in Cape Town based on degree of violence or cost of material damage in regards to socioeconomic class localities, the townships being the most dangerous in terms of physical crime, and the suburbs being the most dangerous in terms of property crime – all forms of crime, however, can be described as violent to an extent. Identity of space plays a crucial role in perceptions towards an area and behavioral reactions both within and outside of a place (Bank, Minkley). The townships are so dangerous because they are accepted as violent, unsafe places, while the suburbs are targets of property crime because those are the neighborhoods that are believed to contain desired possessions. The cyclical pattern of believing a space to be a certain way and then behaving towards it accordingly engenders innate convictions. An example: “His house was broken into last night, but what did he expect? He lives in Rondebosch.”

The gap between the comfortable and the impoverished in Cape Town is so deeply entrenched even the notion of excessive handouts would barely scrape the surface of the poverty and inequality that needs to be addressed. Theft and the illegal trade of drugs and weapons have risen immensely in attempts to combat this inequality and bridge the gap that Ms. Kriel  believes may never be completely filled (Crime Stats South Africa).

While in Cape Town, I was fortunate enough to interview a range of South African citizens including those who grew up (on both sides) with Apartheid, and those who are young enough to have very few memories of segregation. Additionally, the individuals I spoke to were from all over Cape Town: townships such as Langa and Kensington, in addition to suburb areas near the University of Cape Town like Observatory.  Even still, regardless of his or her personal Cape Town experiences, each person I spoke to – both of low and high economic status – feels that the media misrepresents South Africa as an incredibly unsafe and dangerous place. At first, this came as a surprise to me as I considered the state of security in South Africa as clearly distressing. Yet every single individual I spoke to began his or her narrative detailing his/her perception of crime with an admission, “yes, there is a lot of crime here,” followed by mitigating statements like, “but there is crime all over the world.” Given that 100% of the people I spoke to (despite the small sample size) used the exact same defensive justification, I believe that the cultural transmission of crime and security in Cape Town has been so effective that the unacceptable state of security is now accepted as the norm: a near socio-cultural, nationalist identity of sorts (Anderson).

Each individual I interviewed mentioned property crime targeted towards tourists and visitors in every area – which I attribute largely to the fact that I, the interviewer, was a visitor myself – before alluding to the city’s more serious and dangerous crime located primarily within the townships. They described the more serious crime as largely terrible and natural, rather than appalling and completely out of the ordinary: “It happens; I’ve never experienced anything too severe in my time here, but if you’re not careful it can happen.”

Safety seems largely based on familiarity. Each person I interviewed feels that his or her area of residency is safer than the next. One individual in Langa says she feels Gugulethu is the most dangerous place in Cape Town, while a Kensington resident says he feels Mannenberg is most dangerous, etc.  Knowing people within an area seems to be the best way to stay safe in Cape Town. A Langa resident described it to me as a community network that works with and for each other, creating responsibilities and interdependence. In some ways then, some Township residents are safer than suburb residents because their community network protects them from physical and violent crime while they are simultaneously overlooked as targets of less personal, more property-related crime (for obvious, economic reasons). The reason as to why Cape Town residents must rely on one another to ensure security, as opposed to turning to legal authorities and protective services, leads me to my second research question: how do the police contribute to this situation?

Part II: The Police

On the 26th of March, 2013, the SAPS (South African Police Service) was forced to release statistics (which are suspected to be deflated for political reasons) during a Parliamentary review of police activity within the past year (Fokazi, Sapa). Some of the statistics read as follows: “Cases of police brutality [have increased] by more than 300 percent in the past decade,” “of the 720 deaths reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate in 2011/2012, one in five involved police criminality,” “only one out of every 50 people who experienced or witnessed police abuse reported it,” and “thirty-five percent of citizens interviewed last year were scared of the police and about 41 percent did not trust the police” (Fokazi, Sapa). Twenty years ago, South Africans dreamed of a diverse police force working for, not against them. What went wrong?

A brief history: in the 1970s, political violence against armed resistance to/armed struggle against Apartheid began to increase, leading to formally established riot squads by the 1980s (Handmaker, Berkhout p. 105). During the turning points of the late 1980s to early 1990s, the state constructed the Internal Stability Division (ISD) in a desperate attempt to curve the anti-Apartheid political trends (Handmaker, Berkhout p. 105). The ISD was given discretionary powers to do whatever was deemed necessary to control crowds and suppress dissent. After Apartheid fell, a new approach to policing was encouraged as the former force was named a “service,” “crowd control” became “crowd management,” “riots” were referred to as “protests,” and the ISD riot control units merged with the newly formed police divisions (Handmaker, Berkhout p. 106). The birth of the current police “service” in South Africa was well intentioned, but it failed to address the problems it faced at the time (increased opportunistic crime), while allowing for new issues (primarily gangs) to emerge faster than its own development (Crime Stats South Africa). Perhaps because of the government’s attempt to rapidly diversify the police force while simultaneously creating more jobs, the ‘police,’ as a collective group today are completely inefficient, unprofessional and generally poorly trained, and incapable -both in terms of skills and resources- to successfully maintain order. Not only are the people suffering from a lack of security-related structure, but so are the officials themselves. South African Police are identified as having the highest suicide rate of any police force in the world (African Crisis).

There were glaring issues with police during the Apartheid era, but today things are not entirely different or remarkably better. The memory of the police during Apartheid seems to be of an incredibly efficient, clean-cut, and orderly outfit of white men who were hired by the government to keep order and maintain an oppressive state over the majority of the nation. It would seem that they did their jobs well.  Sabu Siyaka, a resident of the Langa Township and relative of formerly imprisoned political activists, describes the evolution of the police from the days of Apartheid till now as a change from brutality as a result of legislation, to brutality as a result of corruption.

Harassment and abuse towards racially distinct groups and the use of excessive force were permitted through legislation during Apartheid; now the police are acting unacceptably due to insufficient management and a lack of enforcement of professional standards (Handmaker, Berkhout p.107).

Based on my interviews, it seems that the corruption within the South African and Cape Town police is indisputable. Issues regarding the allocation of resources or even the incredibly low standards and expectations set by officials spark controversy beyond the realm of suspicion into what is considered as blatant fact. The SAPS claim that the South African average for police coverage in the Western Cape is one police officer per every 245 citizens (Williams). In the Khayelitsha Township, however, the ratio is one police officer per every 1,675, and in Mitchell’s Plain (another township), the ratio is one police officer per every 3,239 citizens (Williams). Some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Cape Town have the fewest police officers (Williams). It almost seems as though the SAPS has given up in those areas, and is no longer interested in risking more of its officers’ lives. One police officer cannot possibly service 500, let alone 3,000 people at one time. The lack of resources both fiscally and physically is astounding, and yet crime is one of the greatest challenges that South Africa faces today.

Police brutality also remains a major issue: “R209 million – that is what the South African Police Service has paid in civil claims in the past financial year, for wrongful arrests and a range of crimes, including rape, attempted rape, grievous bodily harm, corruption, and assault committed by police officers” (African Institute for Security Studies).  However the police are not nearly as feared as they were during the days of Apartheid. During an interview with a Kensington Township resident, I was told, “the police today are not well groomed. I don’t feel they are properly screened before being hired either. During Apartheid, the police were efficient. Things are different today. Back then, criminals only had knives but today they have guns. They can fight equally with the police, and so now the police are afraid. They are afraid for their lives.” One police officer versus three armed criminals makes the job of ensuring security extremely difficult; one can only imagine one police officer versus 100 armed individuals, or perhaps even 1,000. As a result, it is easy to comprehend the rise of corruption within the SAPS as officers attempt to ensure their own safety. Nonetheless, the perception I received while interviewing citizens is that an afraid, undertrained, and perhaps even corrupt officer with few resources and support today, is better than a clean-cut, efficient Apartheid police officer because the officer of today works for a service whose ultimate goal is to defend the democratic constitution. Thus, although citizens admit to the corruption and inefficiency, they maintain their assertion that the state of security in Cape Town is better than it is believed to be by outsiders such as myself.


It is my understanding that the issues of security in Cape Town today result directly from the fall of Apartheid. With the end of Apartheid came the abolition of racial segregation and legislative inequalities, juxtaposed with an era of instability and change that opened a transforming nation’s doors to a culture of crime. As a result, the positive is closely related to the negative, as it is difficult to achieve radical and favorable change without provoking disadvantageous reactions simultaneously. The people of Cape Town accept their fate as a society plagued by crime that can be mapped based on socioeconomic locations because that was one of the costs associated with abolishing Apartheid. Inequality has ingrained itself into the culture that defines South Africa, producing culture-related crime that crosses unevenly distributed, socioeconomic classes. The inefficiency, barbarism, and corruption within the South African police feed off of this culture of crime. The unacceptable state of the law enforcement is defended by memories of the cruel and unforgiving Apartheid police forces. Thus, cultural transmission combined with a defensive stance supporting attempts by the police, futile as they may be, to promote the democratic and inclusive society envisioned by the anti-Apartheid struggle, culminates in perceptions that the crime Capetonians face today is not so bad, or at least, better than what was experienced – different as it was in both nature and its origination – during Apartheid.


Research was obtained in Cape Town through interviews of several citizens from all over the city. Below, I have listed their names and brief biographies for each.

Siyabuela Siyaka

Mr. Siyaka is a resident of the Langa Township. He has lived in Langa his entire life and now operates and owns a township touring company, “Ubizo Events and Tours.”

Sisanda Ntshinga

Ms. Ntshinga is a Langa Township resident who has spent most of her life in Langa, apart from spending time in the United States. She is the founder and editor of a South African youth magazine, “Zazi Media,” which was created to positively inspire youth primarily through the arts and creative expression.

Nomande Siyaka

Mrs. Siyaka, mother of Siyabuela Siyaka, is a Langa Township resident who has also spent her entire life in Langa. Mrs. Siyaka lived through the era of Apartheid during which her husband, whom she knew only as an acquaintence at the time, was arrested as a member of the anti-Apartheid movement. Mrs. Siyaka now owns a restaurant with her husband in Langa that services tourists and locals.

Mike Zuma

Mr. Zuma works in the township tourist industry as a tour guide of his home, Langa. In addition to giving tours, Mr. Zuma is an active member of the community and participates in a community policing forum that serves to better security and act as a liaison between the police and community citizens.

A Kensington Resident (who prefers to remain anonymous)

This Kensington Township resident has lived in Kensington his entire life. He now works with a University of Cape Town organization that services Cape Town and its underprivileged communities largely through the promotion of education and health.

Annemarie Kriel

Ms. Kriel is a resident of the suburb, Observatory. Originally from the northern suburbs, Ms. Kriel moved to Observatory within the last 15 years where she works as a physiotherapist and landlord. As a student, Ms. Kriel traveled abroad to the United Kingdom and the United States.


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