Drug related crime in Cape Town is growing exponentially, with substance abuse reaching pandemic levels.

The unexpected sight of a group of five notorious young men, known for the wrong reasons, queuing to get tested for HIV in a foreign aid sponsored initiative in Manenberg, Cape Town. Unexpected not because of the scorching weather making their long wait decidedly uncomfortable, but because they are gang members, addicted to drugs. The co-ordinator of a local NGO, himself a community member, highlights the story behind the story. R5 mobile phone vouchers are offered as an incentive for local residents to get tested (and therefore, no doubt, help fulfill funder-driven objectives in the number of HIV/AIDS tests carried out). The five friends in line know what they are doing – grouping together, receiving their airtime vouchers and immediately selling each one for R4. The half hour wait is well worth it, earning them R20 (GBP1.50) to buy a small packet of heroin. And so everyone is happy – the drug addicts smoking their next fix, and the anti-HIV funder ticking its boxes.

A futile picture on so many levels. Yet it is only compounded when one looks at statistics for drug related crime on the South African Police Service (SAPS) website. Whilst the level of crime in South Africa is generally improving, drug related crime in Cape Town is rising considerably. In Manenberg and Mitchells Plain (admittedly two of the most gang-ridden areas – though it’s not about the number of drug related cases but the percentage by which they have risen), official police statistics show a 600% increase since 2004.

However interesting it might be to focus on the factors contributing to this situation (and it’s no coincidence that the communities with the most widespread gang and drug problems were originally established to be apartheid ‘dumping grounds’), much more generative is the question of how it can be addressed – especially if one agrees with the assertion that there is a dynamic interrelationship between communities’ problems and the general social scene.

South Africa is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, and one can well understand the ‘have nots’ resenting the Land Rovers and swimming pools of the ‘haves’. Increasing levels of substance abuse among those living in poverty, added to deep resentment (historical and present), combine to create a deeply divided society.

Substance abuse and fear of ‘the other’ are undermining Cape Town’s part in democratic South Africa. Cross-cultural dialogue and restorative justice, initiated by locals, need to replace electric fences and over-crowded jails in the next chapter of the Mother City’s development, otherwise well-meaning aid will continue to perpetuate the social ills that are continually reaching new highs.

(For a wonderful example of a local NGO working towards the shalom of the city, visit www.warehouse.org.za)

(‘Fusion’ is restorative community based in Manenberg, working with young ‘high risk’ people marginalized by every level of society. See www.fusionmanenberg.org.za)

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