Author: Silvia Natalia Cortés, Alexandre Marcou, and Maxine Rubin

Title: State violence in urban areas. Experiences from Cape Town and Across the Globe


“State violence in urban areas. Experiences from Cape Town and Across the Globe”
By Silvia Natalia Cortés, Alexandre Marcou, and Maxine Rubin


CSVR’s primary goal has been to improve its understanding of violence in order to inform prevention strategies and build embedded peace. To this end, on 7 May 2018, CSVR organised a roundtable to discuss trends, consequences and solutions on state and non-state violence in Cape Town and globally. Four panellists shared their insights into local, national, and international urban violence prevention as practitioners into the sector.

Two community-based responses to violence prevention in Johannesburg and Cape Town were discussed by Selby Xinwa and Craven Engel respectively. Xinwa works as a community researcher on CSVR’s Urban Violence Prevention (UVP) project, which works with the communities in Tembisa, Orange Farm, Ivory Park, and Erasmus. He highlighted the significant role that civil society organisations could play as conduits between State services and institutions and community partners by examining the partnership the UVP project has with the State’s public employment initiative, the Community Works Programme (CWP). Xinwa also explored the challenges of overcoming the stigmas attached to the CWP work. Participation in the programme has been highly gendered – predominated by women. This would be a seemingly great result in a country that has high unemployment levels that disproportionately affects women negatively. However, Xinwa explained that a key reason that women are the main participants has been because of the stigma attached to the CWP work among young men. The work has been considered undignified and too poorly paid. This has indirectly pressured some women in families to take these jobs to ensure that their households have an income stream. The search for higher paying work that is considered more dignified is not inherently problematic. However, the relative privilege that the men in the communities have to reject the CWP opportunities compared to their female counterparts needs to be recognised and addressed.

Engel is the Director of the First Community Resource Centre (FCRC), which operates in Hanover Park in Cape Town. His address focused upon their CeaseFire Hanover Park programme, which aims to reduce crime and violence in the community through developing exit plans to facilitate people’s withdrawal from gangs. Engel emphasised the importance of developing context-responsive interventions that deliberately tailor for the needs of the community in which it operates. Two of the approaches used within the CeaseFire project illustrated the context-responsive paradigm: (1) the use of an epidemiological model for analysing the violence in the area; and (2) the use of a continuous trauma model to enable community members to manage their trauma given the levels of violence in their community. However, Engel noted that the success their programme has experienced with these approaches does not mean it should be replicated. Rather, the replicability lies with the emphasis on context-responsiveness to address violence.

The discussion shifted to a national-level with Andrew Faull’s address. He explained that violence is highly predictable, using murder as a proxy for violence. Murders predictably occur between 6pm and 3am on weekends in less planned urban spaces, like informal settlements. He argued that there is a disjuncture between this knowledge and how police resources are allocated. One would expect that more police officers would be deployed to the areas where the murder/violence rates are concentrated, as predicted by statistical evidence. Yet, it seems that areas in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, where citizens with disproportionately louder voices (and deeper pockets) reside, instead receive the police’s attention. This is demonstrative of the need for equitable approaches to policy-making, whereby the needs of communities are the key determinants of resource distribution.

Steffen Jansen moved the level of analysis to the international arena. He noted that there is a discernible increase in global attention toward urban violence. The tendency has been to split violence into two categories: (1) state violence; and (2) urban violence. State violence has been treated as a matter of human rights violations, whereas urban violence has been treated as a symptom of developmental needs. This distinction falsely separates physical violations of human rights from socioeconomic violations of human rights. Furthermore, it fails to recognise the state’s complicity in perpetrating the latter. Jansen argued that it is easier to embrace a more holistic understanding of urban violence at a local level because international actors are confined by the norms enshrined in international conventions that uphold these distinctions. He proposed that it is important to engage with the idea of ‘violent social networks’. This reveals how different forms of violence are used by a variety of social actors (including gangs, politicians, residents, and police) for different objectives. The fact that communities may organise themselves through violence must be understood as a response, product, and component of social relations. The tension that arises between this local reality and international interventions is that human rights frameworks typically do not facilitate this type of social relations engagement.

The robust discussion that followed the presentations synthesised the themes that the panellists surfaced. The discussion enabled insight into the multiplicity of actors that operate within the urban violence space, and how they are interconnected through social networks. The need for holistic, context-specific interventions was a clear standard of best practice that emerged from the roundtable discussion. Furthermore, the need to ensuring that attitudinal, behavioural, gendered, and structural factors are incorporated into context-specific interventions was apparent, but also a challenge for practitioners seeking to reduce urban violence to bear in mind.

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