Gangs in South Africa call a truce as coronavirus lockdown limits drug trade

 ·20 Apr 2020

Gangs in South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, have agreed to a cease-fire during a nationwide lockdown that’s caused a slump in narcotics supply and demand – with an unprecedented drop in murders as a result.

A network of gang leaders across the country’s nine provinces, known as the Council, have made funds available to members of the groups until June so they can feed their families during the shutdown, which aims to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, said Welcome Witbooi, a former gang member who mediates between gangs, local communities and the police in the Western Cape province.

“When our government announced the lockdown regulations, everyone started panicking about health but also about business prospects,” Witbooi said in an interview. “We had a meeting with the Council and with them we decided to put out a national call to all gangs to cease fire.”

Some gangs are even trying to “rebuild the relationship with the community” and are handing out food parcels to residents, he said.

South Africa’s lockdown, which started March 27 and is due to last until the end of April, is among the strictest in the world. Dog-walking as well as alcohol and cigarette sales are prohibited, planes are grounded and most land and seaports have closed.

That’s not only slashed demand for drugs but all but halted business with the Serbian, Chinese and Nigerian criminal networks that South African gangs usually work with, according to Witbooi.

Heroin Trafficking

Cape Town, the main city in the Western Cape province, is South Africa’s epicenter of gang activity and a key conduit for heroin trafficking, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Gangs are also involved in human trafficking, protection rackets and trade in other drugs including crystal meth. The heroin trade alone is estimated to be worth at least $260 million a year.

South Africa has Africa’s highest murder rate, with an average of more than 50 people killed each day, and has consistently ranked among the 10 most violent countries in the world.

Gangs were blamed for many of the 3,974 murders recorded in the Western Cape province in the 12 months through March last year and the army was deployed to curb a surge in killings.

In normal times, the province’s murder rate is about 58 per 100,000 people, compared with a national average of 36, according to police data.

Today, the national homicide rate has dropped dramatically. Murders declined 71% in the week after the restrictions were imposed, to 94 from 326 in the same period last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele said 5 April.

Cases of assault with intention to inflict grievous bodily harm plunged 83%, to 456 from 2,673 last year. Cele has credited the liquor ban with bringing crime down and says he would like to extend it.

While it’s positive that there are fewer killings, criminal networks have almost certainly switched to a thriving black-market trade in cigarettes and alcohol, according to Andrew Whitfield, the opposition Democratic Alliance party’s shadow police minister.

“There’s a lot of money to be made for the gangs during the lockdown,” said Whitfield, whose party governs the Western Cape province.

“It’s a lot easier for gangs or organized crime to bolster their coffers from the illicit trade than it is to go out and shoot at each other — just because there is a big police and army presence in the streets.”

‘Ton of Bricks’

“There is a general consensus that crime has come down, this includes gang violence,” Police spokesman Vish Naidoo said.

“We cannot say that this is because of a truce or a ceasefire, as they are saying – we are confident that the precautions that has been put in place to stay indoors have heavily contributed to the reduction in crime, and as a consequence gang violence.”

Witbooi said its due to the instructions from the gang bosses.

“No one will pick up a firearm now and shoot a rival gang member because they know that the Council is very strict when they impose something like this and will come down on you like a ton of bricks,” he said, adding that the truce may not hold beyond June.

“So it’s like one day you are helping the community and the next day you are killing the community.”

Read: Here’s how the coronavirus lockdown has hit house prices in South Africa

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