Cape Town turns to tech to fight off tide of violence

Ex-gangster backs R860m surveillance cameras rollout

City of Cape Town is investing close to a billion rand in high tech surveillance equipment to fight crime.
City of Cape Town is investing close to a billion rand in high tech surveillance equipment to fight crime.
Image: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Former gang member Sammy Andries spent years dodging security cameras watching over Cape Town.

Now he is an unlikely supporter of the city's plan to check an epidemic of violence by pouring millions into surveillance technology.

The proposals have divided residents in poor gang-ridden neighbourhoods‚ with many saying their areas also need community engagement‚ investment and jobs to help people turn away from a life of crime.

“The rich people have cameras‚ they know who shoot at them. What about us? How can we also feel safe,” asked Andries‚ adding he would have been less likely to fire a gun in the past in areas covered by cameras.

Around the world‚ governments are rolling out surveillance strategies‚ from drones to gun detection technology‚ in an attempt to prevent crime and enable arrests.

In March‚ the city council announced it planned to spend R860m over three years on anti-crime tech‚ ranging from bodycams and licence plate recognition to aerial surveillance.

It is part of a record R5.8bn safety budget for 2023-2024 that also includes cash to expand a police college and hire more officers.

The tech funding is a step up from its crime-fighting tech budget of about R200m a year.

But many residents said officials also need to look at the drivers of crime and violence in a country marked by high levels of inequality‚ poverty and unemployment.

“Tech won't fix the wound in our society‚” said Cecil‚ 37‚ another former gang member living in Scottsdene‚ a neighbourhood about 30km east of the city centre‚ who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

“Gangsters will just adapt. We have to fight crime with jobs‚ safe spaces‚ cricket fields and role models to set good examples – we need to fight crime with opportunities.”

Cape Town's city council did not immediately respond to criticism that the strategy was too tech-focused.

The city's growing arsenal of tech will allow it to “anticipate problems”‚ said safety and security MMC JP Smith.

The surveillance rollout aims to tackle some of the most pressing criminal activities‚ including murder‚ sexual assault and street crimes such as muggings.

The city will add to its 6‚500 CCTV cameras and is trialling drones‚ aircraft surveillance and control rooms that filter through the reams of footage‚ Smith said. .

He said the city is mining and analysing “massive amounts of data every day” to anticipate problems such as land occupations‚ gang operations and illegal gun use.

Officials are creating jobs in communities by hiring unemployed members of neighbourhood security groups to monitor camera footage.

Though surveillance tech can help tackle crime‚ it can also limit individuals' right to privacy and freedom of movement‚ said the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (Apcof)‚ an NPO focused on police accountability.

People may decide against attending political‚ social or religious gatherings‚ for example‚ if their attendance is picked up through facial recognition technology‚ said Apcof.

Another concern about the surveillance rollout is the lack of privacy regulation‚ said Louise Edwards‚ a director at Apcof.

“Guidelines on the collection‚ processing and storage of personal information by surveillance operators do not‚ to our knowledge‚ exist‚” she said.

Smith said city officials are writing a CCTV bylaw to ensure cameras conform to a minimum set of accountability and privacy standards‚ including not invading people's right to privacy in their properties.

The data can only be accessed by authorised users who have identified themselves through fingerprint scans‚ he said.

In Scottsdene and Hanover Park‚ two gang-ridden Cape Town neighbourhoods‚ locals largely welcomed the idea of surveillance — but with caveats.

Flip Botha‚ a security guard who takes in youth in need of shelter and support‚ said cameras could help gather evidence in areas where people are afraid to be witnesses for fear of reprisals. “But the cameras have to be maintained and the footage kept safe. We have a few here already but they are not working‚” he said.

Studies show CCTV cameras' effectiveness depends on factors including the quality of footage and whether police can respond quickly to incidents‚ according to Safer Spaces‚ a platform run by South African safety researchers.

Tech without jobs and reform programmes will not work‚ said Gayle‚ a nurse at a disability care home in Hanover Park. She has witnessed shoot-outs and cared for victims of bullets.

“This tech will help‚ it will bring evidence forward‚ but then what? Criminals become more extreme in prison‚” said Gayle.

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