It’s 3:30am in Philippi East. It’s cold and the road is wet from the light showers that fell an hour earlier. It’s also very dark, pitch black in some corners because of the sparse street lighting. One of the tall masts used to light up the township is completely dead. It’s quiet and calm. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say it’s peaceful. And then the banging starts. “Police! Open the door!”
In this early morning crime prevention operation, it looks like hundreds of police officers are patrolling Philippi East in search of criminals. Western Cape SAPS described it as a “lock-down search and seizure operation” in a tweet.
Officers carrying assault rifles and torches are split into groups spread throughout the township. Much banging accompanies the officer’s shouting for doors to be opened. Dogs belonging to the residents begin barking in unison. (There are police dogs too.) It sometimes takes a while for residents to open up. An officer can be heard assuring a resident that they really are the police.
Last weekend, 11 people were murdered in this township: six women and five men were found shot dead. Minister of Police Bheki Cele has since visited, promising action. In meetings with him residents have demanded more policing.
Philippi East is one of many areas in Cape Town dealing with a serious gangster problem. Since November 2018, over 2,300 people have been murdered in the Western Cape. On Thursday, Cele announced that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will be deployed to Western Cape crime hotspots. The SANDF was not present on Thursday night’s operation though; it is expected to be deployed on Friday at 2pm (just after this article is published). News24 has listed areas where the SANDF will be used.
As the night moved on, police searched residents in pyjamas and underwear. Some residents stood outside their homes with their hands tightly around their waists, shivering from the cold.
“How many are you?” an officer asks insistently, while another searches a different home lifting mattresses, opening cupboards and pots. Closets and shoes are rummaged through. Some of the homes searched belong to backyarders living in one-bedroom shacks. A woman lies in bed while police question her partner. One officer lifts a roof of a shack to peek through while another tries to kick a door open.
“We’re so scared because we know how dangerous this place is,” says a women whose house was searched. She asked not to be named. She said that she is a security guard and only gets home at 1am. Her daughter and husband are now also awake at 4:17am. When she first heard the knocking, she thought it was gangsters.
She is okay with police raiding her home, but she says that they should knock nicely. “It’s for our safety,” she says while a police officer stands close by listening to our conversation.
As morning approached, vehicles started to make their way onto the streets, still in the dark. Taxis were now being searched. One driver and about six of his passengers were asked to step out and put their hands on the vehicle. They were all searched and released.
Because of the large area covered by the operation it is unclear if any arrests were made. (SAPS had not responded to our questions by time of publication.)
“The current situation is unprecedented, and we need to be taking unprecedented steps to ensure that people are safe,” said Alan Winde, Premier of the Western Cape. In a statement, Winde welcomed the deployment of the SANDF. “Last weekend alone, 55 deaths by gunshot or stabbing” were recorded in the province, he said.
Winde said that the “SANDF has been authorised to observe, cordon off and search, conduct vehicle and foot patrols, and provide air support which will also help to identify drug manufacturing labs”.
Will all this help reduce the violence on the Cape Flats? Or will it dissipate with time, with little to show for it?
Attempts to speak to two other residents were unsuccessful. They didn’t want to speak to a journalist.
It’s unclear if the police had warrants or another form of legal authority to conduct the raids.