Volatile Sovereignty: Governing Crime through the Community in Khayelitsha

Published date01 June 2016
Date01 June 2016
Volatile Sovereignty: Governing Crime through the
Community in Khayelitsha
Gail Super
This paper asks what crime prevention looks like for residents in informal set-
tlements in Khayelitsha, a black township on the outskirts of Cape Town. It
engages with the idea of vigilantism and hybrid policing formations, analyzing
the overlaps and intersections between legal community-based crime preven-
tion initiatives, and local ‘punitive practices’. The focus is not on the intensely
violent spectacle of ‘mob justice’, where suspects are killed, but on the more
ubiquitous, hybrid formations that also fall on the vigilantism continuum.
These include coercive practices such as banishment, corporal punishment,
retrieval of stolen goods by local policing formations and, trials conducted by
street committees. The core argument I make is that, at times, particularly in
poor areas where the state is absent and encourages citizens to take responsi-
bility for their own crime prevention, the boundary between legality and coer-
cive illegality collapses in on itself. Thus, the notion of voluntarism, that is so
important to official discourse on crime, is particularly problematic when
applied in poor communities with high rates of unemployment and high
crime rates. As such, the state’s encouraging of citizens to take responsibility
for their own safety, alongside a punitive state discourse on crime and crimi-
nality, creates the space for illegal vigilante style actions to emerge in the
shadow of legal crime prevention initiatives.
We chased the witchdoctor away from Khayelitsha. We went
in his house, saw lots of medicine, snakes. He lived in E
block. We told him: you can’t stay in Khayelitsha so he left.
The incident described in the quotation above occurred at
the start of 2013. It was related to me by a taxi driver who, at the
time, was the head of a local anti-gang initiative. In Khayelitsha
the words “gangster” or “gangs” refer to young people, boys.
This initiative involved a group of taxi drivers who, at the request
This work is based on research that was partly supported by the South African National
Research Foundation and the Safety and Violence Initiative, University of Cape Town.
The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and Dr. SJ Cooper-Knock for
their insightful comments.
Please direct all correspondence to Gail Super, e-mail: gjs220@nyu.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 2 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
of teachers and community members, broke up fights between
rival gangs. In this instance, the children were armed with both
and amulets, the latter having been allegedly provided by
the “witchdoctor.” The taxi drivers, armed with sjamboks,
the children, confiscated their weapons and warned them not to
fight again. After that 50 taxi drivers, in five mini bus taxis, drove
to the witchdoctor’s house. They forced him to leave the area.
Khayelitsha, meaning “new home” in Xhosa, is situated
approximately 30 km from Cape Town’s city centre. Established
in 1983, it was the last area of the city to be formally reserved for
black people, prior to the repeal of the 1945 Native Urban Areas
Act. This legislation required urban authorities to establish sepa-
rate residential locations (townships) for “natives” and to exercise
control over “native immigration” into urban areas. Its peripheral
location was characteristic of apartheid planning and it was devel-
oped as a “dormitory suburb,” consisting of low-income people
who commuted to Cape Town for work. At the time of its estab-
lishment a tin hut was erected for each family, along with a
bucket toilet, one tap per four plots, high-mast street lighting
and, a refuse removal service (O’Regan and Pikoli 2014: 30–33).
Khayelitsha is ethnically and linguistically homogenous with
98.7 percent of the population being black and speaking isiX-
hosa. Youth unemployment is more than 50 percent and most
residents have not completed grade 12 (ibid.). Almost half of
Khayelitsha’s households live below the food poverty line and
there is a significant difference between income distribution
within Khayelitsha vis a vis the Cape Town population.
people in Khayelitsha live in shacks than in formal dwellings
(O’Regan and Pikoli 2014: 37) and it is more crowded than other
townships (Frith 2013).
Informal settlements, many of which are
situated in low-lying flood prone land, exist alongside established
suburbs (Affordable Land and Housing Data Centre, undated:
91). Residents live in tin shacks, with many accessing electricity
illegally, sharing communal water taps and relying on inadequate
sanitation arrangements (such as outside portable toilets).
A panga is similar to a machete.
A club-like weapon.
In 2011, the annual median household income was about R20 000 (less than 2000$)
whereas in Cape Townas a whole it was R40 000 (Seekings 2013: 14).
The Western Cape, along with Gauteng experienced the highest inflow of people
during the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 censuses (Census 2011: 27).
Super 451
The air in Khayelitsha is punctuated by the pungent aroma of
meat cooking on outside fires, coupled with the stench of blocked
drains and overflow pipes. Thin dogs, seeking out food-scraps, roam
the pedestrian crowded streets. Minibus taxis, spaza shops, shebeens
and other small businesses (offering services such as tyre repair, hair
braiding and fruit vending) add to the sense of hustle and bustle. The
infamous porterloos and outside toilets that line the perimeters of the
informal settlements, together with mounds of uncollected garbage,
contribute to a general sense of vibrant decay, what the Western Cape
provincial government refers to as a “zone of poverty and
unemployment” (Department of Community Safety 2009: 20).
The three police stations in Greater Khayelitsha—Lingelethu
West, Harare and Site B—have far less than the average 283 police
personnel per 100,000 residents. At 111.32, Harare has the lowest
number of police personnel to population in the Western Cape.
Camps Bay and Wynberg, both predominantly white middle to
upper class suburbs, have a police to population ratio of 959.51
and 852.57 per 100,000, respectively (Redpath, cited in O’Regan
and Pikoli 2014: 315). In 2012–2013, there were 354 murders in
“Greater Khayelitsha”
—the highest numbers of murders for any
township in South Africa. The combined figures for attempted
murders, sexual offences, assault with intent to do grievous bodily
harm and robbery with aggravating circumstances also topped the
charts (De Kock, cited in O’Regan and Pikoli 2014: 44).
Research Question and Core Argument
This article asks what crime prevention looks like for resi-
dents in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements. It engages with the
idea of vigilantism and hybrid policing formations, analyzing the
overlaps and intersections between legal community-based crime
prevention initiatives, such as officially sanctioned neighborhood
watches, and local “punitive practices” (Gray 2013: 518) when
residents break the law, or overstep the bounds of legality.
The literature on legal pluralism has engaged extensively with
the idea of legality and legal consciousness (de Sousa Santos, 1987;
Ewick and Silbey 1992; Merry 1988). I use the term “legal” to refer
to technologies that are sanctioned by official (state) law. The core
argument I make is that, at times, particularly in poor areas where
the state
is absent and encourages citizens to take responsibility for
Illicit alcohol outlets.
The combined figures from the three police stations in Khayelitsha.
I use the term “state” loosely, to include its national, provincial, and local
452 VolatileSovereignty

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