Cape Town – beautiful but deadly

The Western Cape is renowned for its beautiful scenery and vineyards, diverse people as well as its reputation as one of South Africa’s more prosperous and well-run provinces. But it’s also one of the most dangerous – a report compiled by the Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice ranks Cape Town as the 11th most dangerous city in the world. Gerbrandt van Heerden, writing for The Daily Friend, unpacks some of the reasons: from the gang violence which contributed to over 91% of gang related murders in the country, as well as the inefficiencies of the South African Police Service, operating largely on a national rather than provincial level, which has tarnished the relationship between the public and the police. Calls have been made for the devolution of some policing powers to local government level, but whether those calls are answered remains to be seen. Sadly, for the moment the Mother City’s beauty remains overshadowed by its violence. – Asime Nyide 

Violent crime wreaks havoc in Western Cape

By Gerbrandt van Heerden*

Cape Town has raked in a number of international awards in the last few years, including being named as Africa’s Leading City Destination for 2021 in the annual World Travel Awards.

However, Cape Town has also made headlines recently for more unflattering reasons. A 2022 report compiled by the Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice has ranked the Mother City as the 11th most dangerous city in the world.

Cape Town and the Western Cape currently have some of the highest murder rates in South Africa. 

In 2020/21, the Western Cape had around 55 murders per 100 000 people. This towers above the national average rate of 33 murders per 100 000. According to Community Safety MEC Reagen Allen, about 1 600 people in the Western Cape lost their lives to 400 mass shootings between June 2019 and December 2021.

Based on these murder trends, the Western Cape – despite being one of South Africa’s more prosperous and well-run provinces – continues to be one of the most dangerous regions in the world.  A number of factors contribute to this situation.

First, a significant proportion of the province’s crime is gang-related. According to crime statistics for the first quarter of 2022, 161 murders committed between April and June in the Western Cape were gang-related.

This is far more than in the Eastern Cape (which has the second highest number of gang-related murders). The Eastern Cape had only 7 murders due to gang violence.

Apparently, 91% of all gang-related murders in South Africa took place in the Western Cape. Gang violence is therefore a very serious problem in the province.


International and local studies suggest that young unemployed people are particularly susceptible to joining gangs.

According to research by the University of the Western Cape, young people are prone to joining gangs due to low self-esteem, peer pressure, poverty and lack of economic resources, and a breakdown in the family structure (child-headed households, domestic violence). Indeed, South Africa has a major problem with youth unemployment. The latest Quarterly Labour Force statistics show that 3.7 million people aged 15-24 can be classified as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training). 

Furthermore, based on the expanded definition, more than 70% of all people aged 15-24 years, and 51% of those aged 25-34, are unemployed. Around 460 000 children in the Western Cape live in households without an employed adult. Though the Western Cape has the lowest unemployment rate compared to other provinces, other social factors increase the likelihood of young South Africans joining gangs.

Young people who grow up in broken households often resort to drugs as a means of escape. Cape Town is awash with drugs, from cocaine and heroin to crystal meth and nyaope, a low-grade heroin cut with anything from rat poison to chlorine.

In the 2020/21 financial year, there were 44 600 drug-related crimes in the Western Cape. Drug-related crime was second highest in Gauteng, although with a far lower tally (28 000). Also, for the first quarter of 2022, nine of the 10 police stations in the country receiving the most drug-related crime reports were in the Western Cape. 

These stations served areas including Mitchells Plain, Kraaifontein, Lentegeur, Atlantis, Delft, Manenberg, Bishop Lavis, Strand, and Kleinvlei.

Gang-involvement may also become a means of survival for homeless youth. Here, the Western Cape once again stands out. According to the response by the Minister of Social Development to a recent parliamentary query, the Western Cape has by far the highest number of people living on the streets and accessing night shelters.


Lastly, the Western Cape’s ability to fight crime is hamstrung by the fact that the South African Police Service (SAPS) remains largely a national rather than a provincial responsibility. Many have lost faith in the police due to ongoing cases of criminality and corruption that have tarnished its reputation. 

Data from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) shows that 6 112 reports against the police were made over the 2020/21 period. Most of these related to torture and assault. The SAPS, according to the Global Corruption Barometer (2019) and Corruption Watch’s Youth Perceptions Survey (2020), is the most corrupt institution in South Africa. 

As a result, household trust in the police is at an all-time low. In fact, in 2021, only 27% of those surveyed by the Human Sciences Research Council stated that they still trusted the police. This represents a historic low since 1998. Public trust in the police was just 22% in the Western Cape specifically – a decline of 40% since 2011. 

No wonder the City of Cape Town, buckling under high rates of violence, has been advocating for the devolution of policing powers to local government level.

The City has recently officially requested more policing powers in a bid to create its own fully fledged police service.

As Western Cape Premier Alan Winde previously stated in an interview, decentralising the police service was a crucial step in decisively tackling the high crime rate in the region.

‘The SAPS, under the national government, is not winning the war on crime,’ he said. ‘This is very clear. By taking over the policing authority, the Western Cape government will increase the budget for the police service and ensure the money is spent on recruiting more officers. This would include re-enlisting former police officials – in good standing – who left the service.’

‘A lot of noise’

So far, not much progress has been made in this regard. Police Minister Bheki Cele has dismissed the City of Cape Town’s request as ‘a lot of noise’, and has made it clear that he is against the devolution of power. This is not surprising. 

As my colleague Marius Roodt wrote recently, a move to establish a provincial police unit would be viewed as a form of federalism which ‘goes against the ANC’s centralising instinct’. Nevertheless, if the Western Cape cannot get greater control of its local police force, the province’s overall ability to fight crime will continue to be constrained. 

In addition, the socio-economic problems that drive many young people to seek refuge in gangs should be urgently addressed. This can only be done through sensible economic policies that encourage employment and entrepreneurship, improve the quality of education, attract skills and investment, and boost economic growth.

Unless this is done, South Africa, including the Western Cape, will suffer from high levels of violence. And until then, Cape Town will remain a beautiful but deadly city. 

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  • Gerbrandt van Heerden is an analyst at the Centre For Risk Analysis (CRA), a think tank specialising in political risk, economic policy and scenario planning.

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