CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa will shortly deploy a battalion of soldiers to help police quell a surge in violence in gang-infested parts of Cape Town, a step normally only taken over the Christmas and New Year period when crime spikes in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
Recent bloodshed in mainly poor black and colored mixed-race areas was likened to a “war zone” by a provincial official this week, with some 2,000 people killed since January.
Communities in those districts often bear the brunt of violence in a vast area called the Cape Flats, where high rates of unemployment and drug abuse have fueled gang activity.
“The South African National Defense Force will deploy a battalion with support elements during Operation PROSPER,” the defense ministry said in a statement on Friday.
The deployment of several hundred soldiers to unidentified crime hotspots will happen from July to October. It follows a visit by Police Minister Bheki Cele to the Philippi shanty town on the Cape Flats after several murders last week.
In a crime last Friday which made national headlines, six women between the ages of 18 and 26 were murdered when unknown gunmen entered a home and opened fire.
The next day another five men, aged 18 to 39, were shot dead and one was injured in two separate shooting incidents in Philippi, said Albert Fritz, a Western Cape provincial official tasked with ensuring community safety.
“In the Western Cape, 1,875 people were murdered in the past six months alone. This means that many of our most vulnerable residents in the province are living in a war zone,” Fritz said after more than a dozen murders over one weekend last month.
Known mainly for its stunning tourist attractions, including Robben Island and Table Mountain, Cape Town also has some of the country’s highest murder rates.
Similar to Los Angeles, there is an entrenched gang culture with thousands of young men belonging to street gangs with names like “Hard Living” and “Young Americans”.
In places like Philippi or Khayelitsha, the largest black shantytown about 30 km (18 miles) from the city center, tens of thousands of people live cheek by jowl in a squalid sea of shacks — unnumbered homes on nameless streets that are perfect for criminals and a nightmare for police.
But, deploying the army, which occurs regularly over the festive season when crime spikes and soldiers back up normal policing activities, is not a lasting solution, analysts said.
Gareth Newham at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said: “It is a short-term, unsustainable response to a crisis.”
Reporting by Wendell Roelf, Editing by William Maclean