Cape Town, with its breathtaking beauty, is consistently voted one of the world’s favourite holiday destinations, but when the sun goes down, its underbelly is laid bare, as a Saturday night experience in Long Street revealed.
As a journalist who cut his teeth during the violent days of apartheid and worked for many years as a crime reporter on the mean streets of Johannesburg, I consider myself battle-hardened and street-wise.
But I was to learn a hard lesson when I took some friends from the US for dinner last weekend. I found myself becoming yet another statistic in a crime wave that has the centre of Cape Town by the throat.
We dined at an Ethiopian restaurant on Long Street in Cape Town’s CBD, well away from the nighttime party section of the road where every second business seems to be a club, pub or restaurant.
It was the first time in a long time I had been in the centre of Cape Town on a Saturday night and I was pleasantly surprised to see how busy and buzzy it was.
As we were saying our goodbyes a fight broke out between two men next to us on the pavement. I felt a bump from behind and realised that my phone, which I had put into my back pocket to hug goodbyes, had been pickpocketed. The fight had been a diversion.
The man who had stolen my phone walked into the middle of a group of people and then a woman broke away from them at a fast walk.
Realising she had my phone, I went after her, but found myself surrounded by three menacing men. In the brief time it took to push past them, she had disappeared.
Speaking to a car guard and other bystanders afterwards I learned that this gang hangs around the area to rob people, seemingly with impunity.
The following day, the restaurant owner told me people were frequently robbed in the area. Appeals to the authorities to do something about this had fallen on deaf ears, she claimed. In light of this, I am surprised the restaurant does not warn its guests – and told her so.
The most recent police crime statistics reveal that the CBD of Cape Town is the number one hot spot for reported crimes in the Western Cape.
And, on investigating over the last few days, I learned that mugging, pickpocketing, drug dealing, breaking into vehicles and other crimes are rife in the centre of Cape Town.
It is centred mainly around Long Street, but has also crept into nearby Bree Street, another nighttime restaurant and party area. Muggings and robberies are not uncommon after dark in the narrow cobbled streets of nearby Bo-Kaap.
There is a darker underbelly the partygoers don’t see, a world of violence and gangsters running protection rackets, graphically exposed in a new book by investigative journalist Caryn Dolley.
Councillor JP Smith, Cape Town’s head of safety and security, paints a bleak picture of crime in the heart of the Mother City:
“We are fighting for the survival of the CBD,” he says.
Much of the crime, he claims, is the work of hardened gangsters who have been released on bail back on to the streets because prisons are overcrowded. Prisoners are “disgorged on to the streets all the time” when occupancy in a prison “reaches 200%”, he says.
“We have a crisis on our streets.”
Many of the released prisoners were homeless and surviving by committing crime. “We have a new type of violent and dangerous homeless person living on the streets,” Smith says in response to an outcry over the targeting of homeless people by the City of Cape Town.
What is happening now reminds me of the days more than 20 years back when the violent Hard Livings gang, protection racket thugs and their Moroccan enforcers ruled the streets and Cape Town’s CBD clubs.
At the centre of it was Cyril Beeka, who ran a lucrative protection racket in Cape Town’s clubland before being gunned down in a hit in 2011.
Today the protection racket thugs and the criminals are back in business and street gangs like the one that robbed me have staked out their turf on the city’s streets.
Cruising down Long Street afterwards, I looked for a police or security presence. But all I saw was a single police van double-parked on Long Street with two policemen sitting inside.
When I went to Cape Town Central Police Station to report the crime the following day, the charge office waiting room was filled with people reporting crimes that had occurred in the area the night before.
They included a British man who had more than $1,000 cleaned out of his account after his card was switched at an ATM and a young woman whose car had been broken into. Many, like me, held out little hope that the police would solve their crimes, but were there to get a case number for insurance purposes.
Two policewomen painstakingly wrote down statements as more people arrived to report crimes. One assured me that my statement and other information would be captured electronically later. She never asked for the type or model of my phone, reinforcing my belief that the chances of it being recovered were remote.
When I asked why statements were not captured on computer at the time of a crime being reported, I was told this had been tried and then abandoned “because the computers kept breaking”. My attempt the next day to get a case number for an insurance claim was delayed because “the system is down”.
After I posted about the incident on Facebook as a warning to others, it became clear from the comments that I was far from the first recent victim of crime in the area.
A friend reported how his son had been pepper-sprayed and robbed on Long Street on the same night as I was. Another person wrote that he had arrived at his car to find someone breaking into it while a man wearing a Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID) uniform kept watch. Both ran off when he confronted them. Many said they avoided Long Street and the centre of Cape Town at night.
I found myself in the middle of a blame game: Smith said it was “the SAPS job” to police the area, although the City had committed some of its “limited” metro police resources to the area.
“The SAPS in Cape Town has more police officers stationed at Cape Town Central Police station than the metro police have for the whole of Cape Town.”
Muneeb Hendricks, CCID safety and security manager, said they had limited powers of arrest, and were only “mandated to offer a top-up service to our primary partners and law enforcement agencies, SAPS and the City of Cape Town. We are not there to replace the role of the SAPS.”
Questions to the police, via the SAPS communications department, are yet to be answered.
“Kindly be advised that your enquiry has being processed, this office will revert to you once response is received from the relevant station,” Captain FC van Wyk told me in an email.
A severe shortage of police in the Western Cape is another reason why crime is increasing. This is exacerbated by scarce resources being diverted to the Cape Flats after renewed outbreaks of gang warfare over the past few months. Affected areas include Bonteheuwel where the death toll has risen to 44, and Hanover Park where residents are threatening to “take back the streets”.
Factionalism and infighting within the ranks of the SAPS in the Western Cape have also taken their toll, amid accusations that some police officers are colluding with gangsters.
Which all makes what happened to me pale into insignificance. Fortunately, I had insurance, my phone was fingerprint-password protected and all my data was backed up and encrypted. But the incident has left me embarrassed by what my guests, journalist Jeff Kelly-Lowenstein and his wife, Dunreith, witnessed. “I’m sad to see that crime is alive and well on the streets of the CBD and that the police are either not doing nearly enough or are powerless to stop it,” said Lowenstein.
“Incidents like these, which can and do happen everywhere, indicate both the need for more active policing and the distance Cape Town and the rest of the country have to go before fulfilling the lofty promises enshrined in SA’s remarkable Constitution.” -DM