By the third week of the national lockdown people in Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain were getting desperate. Those who had temporary jobs cut short by the closure of businesses, social grant recipients and the unemployed were running short on food and basic provisions.
Government food relief was slow to materialise, but community soup kitchens and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) were providing a daily meal to hundreds of people.
A week later saw widespread, and at times organised, attacks on and lootings of delivery trucks and stores. In the preceding weeks, liquor stores were the targets of looters thirsty for alcohol.
The most recent targets have been on trucks delivering essential items. In one incident, a truck carrying food parcels was hijacked and looted.
Shops in Manenberg, Elsies River and Mitchells Plain’s Tafelsig area have also been in looters’ cross-hairs.
The police and community-led organisations say most of these incidents have been less driven by hunger, and more by criminals taking advantage of people’s desperation.
“It was criminally charged,” said Mitchells Plain community worker Joanie Fredericks. “And the gangsters and criminals used these flare-ups to benefit.
“But,” Fredericks added, “ever since community organisations and government have been feeding people regularly, the unrest has come down. Ever since we started getting food on a regular basis and people started trusting that we will be dishing up every day the community started believing there is no need to go looting.
Since the lockdown, there’s been a restriction of movement, as well as bans on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. Level 4 lockdown begins on May 1, but restrictions on liquor remain in force, while tobacco products will become available in stores — which means alcohol, especially that sold by illegal “merchants”, will be in short supply.
The clampdown on movement and transport means the movement and sale of drugs has slowed down. And this means a loss of income for gangs.
Fredericks said: “Gangsters are desperate. Even your ordinary gangster working for a big boss needs to survive by stealing, robbing or selling drugs. And they are locked in with the rest of us, meaning their movements are also curbed.
“They’re not making an income so they’re behind the looting to get their hands on some of the bigger selling items. They could even steal food and sell it right back to the community.”
Cape Town metro’s mayoral committee member for safety, JP Smith, said the fear of looting and raids on stores has dissipated.
Last week groups of people tried barricading freeways in an attempt to stop delivery trucks.
Public order police and the City of Cape Town’s metro police were called in to disperse crowds.
Smith confirmed they had received information that criminal gangs had been stoking flames among residents and encouraging them to attack stores. “We’ve made a bunch of arrests. Several of the instigators of these attacks are not going to be able to do more instigating in the time being.
“It is going to remain a hotspot. But many of those guys who were behind the last incidents were outed by their community. The community has been letting us know who is behind all this, identifying them for us quite clearly,” Smith said.
Delivery and logistics companies have been asked to inform the police of their movements and when they will be making deliveries to stores so that police can be present.
“We haven’t seen any incidents since last week and the debacle on the R300 freeway,” Smit said. “Some are still trying to launch new attacks on the R300 freeway. They’re rolling stones in the road. But we’re getting lots of help from people in houses that look out onto this space. The gangsters are not getting much done.”
Even though government aid programmes have now hit their stride and plans to increase the social grant safety net kick in, albeit, for six months, community organisations say there are still too many people falling through the cracks and are going hungry.
Meanwhile, organisations on the Cape Flats have called on local ward councillors and community leaders to call for calm.
In an open letter to residents across the Cape, the Grassy Park Community Policing Forum has urged for restraint when waiting for food assistance.
“These people who are doing this looting thing are inviting a state of emergency. And under a state of emergency, it is not going to be as comfortable [as] the lockdown. So we’re calling on people to stop the vandalism. The lasting impact is children witnessing the chaos of looting and stealing,” said the forum’s Philip Bam.