OPINION: From Cape to Rio, we need political solutions, not military ones

Benjamin Fogel

Both the Twitter-addicted premier of the Western Cape, and our selfie-obsessed minister of police have, in recent days, advocated military intervention in Cape Town’s most violent neighbourhoods as a solution to rising levels of violent crime.

Premier Helen Zille has explicitly cited Rio de Janeiro’s much vaunted pacification programme as a potential model for Cape Town. Minister Fikile Mbalula probably would too if he showed more interest in doing research than tweeting selfies while visiting violent townships, and calling it work.

In essence, by promoting the model of military pacification as a solution to violent crime, they are promoting a military solution to a socioeconomic crisis. This is cheap political posturing at best, and quasi-fascist at worst.

Brazil and South Africa both have shared histories of racism and inequality, and Rio and Cape Town are both beautiful international tourists destinations that face serious structural problems of violent crime and drug trafficking: with this in mind it is worth interrogating the lessons Rio has to offer Cape Town, and which Brazil has to offer South Africa more generally.

A few years ago, Rio’s pacification programme was heralded as a miracle. Nowadays it is almost universally acknowledged as a failure.

Already this year, more than 4 000 people have been killed in Rio, including more than 1 000 murdered by the police alone. More than 100 police have also been killed.

The military has had to be recalled into the city as social order breaks down, even supposed success stories like the "pacification" of Rocinha – Rio’s largest favela (township) – have descended into a nightmarish morass of violence.

Friends of mine in the city use an app that tracks shootings, so they can plan their commutes to work. On my leafy middle class block in the upscale neighbourhood of Ipanema, a doorman was killed by a grenade at 10am, while I was working in my apartment.

Rio is bankrupt, it can no longer pay its civil servants, its universities are shutting down, its previous governor is in prison and its current governor is nearly as unpopular as the corrupt and despised unelected president Michel Temer. Sounds familiar, right?

Calls for military intervention during times of political instability and social crisis, which harken back to the worst days of Brazil’s military dictatorship or the apartheid state of emergencies, will only hasten increasing levels of authoritarianism and repression in already fragile democracies.

Brazil’s police are by far the most murderous in the world, killing more than 5 000 people a year. Police massacres are a regular occurrence in Brazil, and police are almost never held accountable for the thousands of bodies they leave behind every year.

Pacification programme a ‘temporary solution’

Rio’s pacification programme was, in essence, a break with a pattern of policing established in the 1980s, where police would intermittently raid favelas controlled by gangs, killing or roughing up a few people, than going back to their stations. The Brazilian state and its police have had little or no interest in the safety and wellbeing of favela residents. In this environment, gangs morphed into quasi-governments, providing law and order, as well as social services, in the favelas they controlled.

The logic of the pacification programme was that if you permanently occupied a favela with officers trained in community policing – after killing or driving out the leaders of the gangs – you could establish stability. Once you had established order, the state could provide social services and rebuild a working relationship with the community.

Police bonuses became tied to reducing the number of homicides, breaking with a previous policy that had rewarded cops for killing "suspected criminals" – code for anyone poor (mostly black) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initially, the programme saw homicide rates fall dramatically, but it was always a temporary, rather than a permanent, solution.

As of 2017, virtually all the favelas once considered pacified have been ceded back to the gangs, and Rio’s violent crime levels are through the roof.

But what went wrong?

For one the drug gangs never left. Their leaders may have relocated to areas far north and far west of the city, which have been almost entirely abandoned by the state, while the favelas neighbouring the glamorous neighbours of the south – such as Leblon and Ipanema – were prioritised. It was as easy as ever for middle class cariocas (residents of Rio) and tourists to get their fix – indeed many drug organisations formed pacts with the police and agreed not to confront each other.

Moreover, the social services never arrived and, by 2014, the city was flat broke, the pacification programme ended up being funded by a corrupt billionaire, Eike Batista, who lost almost all his money as Brazil’s economy nosedived.

The police treated the favelas like an occupying army, regularly harassing, torturing - and frequently killing - young (mostly black) men. The police never established intelligence networks, preferring symbolic rather than actual victories. Once Rio cut its security budget and police began to feel the pinch of Brazil’s economic crisis, they withdrew demoralized, or were forced out by drug gangs looking to openly reclaim their territory.

‘Temporary relocation areas that resemble concentration camps’

Often clashes between Rio’s gangs and the police resemble an open war, like Syria, rather than a policing action. In response to the militarisation of Brazil’s police, Rio’s infamous drug gangs increased their firepower, arming themselves with machine guns and rocket launchers – even shooting down police helicopters.

I suspect the DA’s call for military intervention is an attempt to hide the awful truth of their so-called Western Cape model – the solidification of spatial apartheid, the protection of elite privilege, and the transformation of the city into a haven for real estate and actual mafias.

The DA always blames the national government for crime in Cape Town – violent crime has been rising rapidly since 2012, but it has never been a serious political issue.

The DA has elected to deal with poverty and spatial inequality by forcibly removing poor Capetonians from neighbourhoods considered attractive to real estate developers, and then dumping them on the outskirts of the city in temporary relocation areas that resemble concentration camps, far removed from employment opportunities or even public transport.

Hell, people in Hout Bay are still waiting for signs of progress after their homes burnt down, but the city continues to treats them as criminals, not victims. The glitzier neighbourhoods of Cape Town, like Seapoint, are as criminally inclined as the townships – local and international mafias control much of Cape Town’s nightlife and valuable real estate, rich DA voters enjoy cocaine and ecstasy as much as working class Capetonians maybe indulge in heroin or tik, but this not considered a social crisis by Zille and her fellow moralists, who often blame poverty, unemployment and crime on alcohol or drug abuse.

As for the national government, considering the widespread corruption and incompetence of our police and military, the last thing we should do is empower them further. Mbalula is looking for good PR selfie opportunities, wearing camo next to a tank in Delft. He should rather stick to what he does best – berating Bafana Bafana.

Military solution cannot solve a social problem

This year there have been a myriad of stories indicating that much of the weaponry utilised in the Cape Town gang wars was sold to criminals by the police and military. There have been serious accusations that crime intelligence is partially responsible for the murderous underworld war that is rippling across the country right now, and that it is backing a particular mafia to take over the drug trade and nightlife industry.

The top layers of power are controlled by an authoritarian corrupt cabal. I, for one, don’t think that handing over more power to Zuma and co in a state of emergency-type situation, given our current political situation, is a good idea. Jirre, they tried sending the military in during Operation Fiela, but that was always about blaming foreigners, rather than solving our very real issues with violent crime. And the same places in Cape Town where the military was deployed are more dangerous than ever.

The moral of the story is that a military solution cannot solve a social problem, indeed, considering the widespread corruption and incompetence of our police and military, the last thing we should do is empower them further.

Have our politicians learned nothing from Marikana, where militarised police were sent to resolved a social problem – a strike – or is it that they learned a rather more disturbing lesson that they could get away with mass slaughter?

The social and economic crisis affecting South Africa is worsening, youth unemployment is hovering around 70%, our state-owned enterprises are being looted, our state is being sold off on the cheap, and manufacturing is fast disappearing.

We need political, not military, solutions. A truly democratic Cape Town would be based on efficient public transport, redistribution of wealth, mixed-income and high-density housing, not fortified housing estates, precarious service jobs and rents that only millionaires can afford.

By following the Brazilian model, South Africa would be escalating the levels of gang and police violence in South Africa. Thankfully the gangs are not shooting down helicopters yet, but by militarising the police, we might soon be facing such a reality.

- Benjamin Fogel is currently doing a PhD in Latin American History at New York University on the history of Brazilian corruption. He previously edited Amandla magazine, and is currently a contributing editor with Africa is a Country and contributor to Jacobin Magazine.

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