Coronavirus: Gang kingpins in South Africa call truce to help community during pandemic

·3-min read
Gang members in Cape Town distribute food parcels during the coronavirus lockdown: BBC News
Gang members in Cape Town distribute food parcels during the coronavirus lockdown: BBC News

South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown has unexpectedly brought warring gangs together to deliver food parcels to those struggling to make ends meet.

The nation is in the fourth week of one of the toughest lockdowns in the world, with citizens banned from leaving their homes even for exercise and all alcohol and cigarette sales prohibited.

Many of those already mired in poverty have been tipped over the edge by the pandemic, forcing one pastor in Cape Town to come up with an unusual community solution.

Andie Steel-Smith, a pastor with the evangelical megachurch Hillsong, has nudged different gang members who would normally be trying to kill each other into collaborating to distribute food and other supplies like soap to people in their neighbourhood.

“The day the lockdown started I got a phone call from two gang leaders, both saying ‘Andie, I’ve never asked you for anything but we are starving’,” Mr Steel-Smith told BBC News.

“And I just thought if these guys are starving, they are at the top of the food-chain, the rest of the community is going to be in serious, serious strife.”

Across South Africa normally has some of the highest rates of violent crime in the whole continent but since the lockdown began has seen the numbers of murders, assaults and robberies collapse.

Some claim this is because gang leaders on the Council, a network of kingpins across South Africa, have collectively agreed to a ceasefire. Others, including the country’s police minister Bheki Cele are credited the ban on liquor as well as a slump in demand for drugs which fuels gang activity.

Mr Steel-Smith, an Australian former banker who moved to South Africa five years ago, said watching members of rival gangs in Cape Town work together was a “miracle”.

“What we are seeing happening here is literally a miracle. It’s absolutely incredible. These guys are the kingpins respectively of their local gangs and they’re working together to feed the community.”

The former drug dealers were already the “best distributors” in the country, he joked to CBS News, only now they were using their knowledge of the community to distribute food rather than “other white powders”.

“This is insane – you guys didn’t think this would happen in your lifetimes, am I right,” he asked a group of gangster volunteers during one of his food parcel distributions. “I’m proud of you guys. Literally, if I died today and went to heaven I would die a happy man.”

When asked by journalists if the coronavirus truce would hold once South Africa’s lockdown was lifted, the gang members were unsure.

“If it can stay like this then there will be no gang fight and every gang will agree with us,” Sansi Hassan, from the ‘Clever Kids’ gang, told CBS News. “Maybe the fighting will start again, but I trust in God,” another remarked.

The South African government has imposed a particularly severe lockdown in an attempt to minimise the spread of Covid-19 (AP)
The South African government has imposed a particularly severe lockdown in an attempt to minimise the spread of Covid-19 (AP)

Others are less enthused about the developments, however. JP Smith, a local councillor in Cape Town, told the BBC he was not ready to forget the misery the gangs had imposed on his community for years.

“I don’t suddenly become forgiving when a person who has held a community hostage, shot other people up, engaged in extortion rackets and tormented mayhem on the community suddenly does something good and now we must all be forgiving and accommodating.”

And Andrew Whitfield, the opposition Democratic Alliance party’s shadow police minister, has warned the gangs were still making plenty of money dealing in black-market alcohol and tobacco during the pandemic, even if they were no longer killing each other quite as much over the drug trade,

“It’s a lot easier for gangs or organised 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.”

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