Cape Town turns to surveillance tech to stop a tide of violence
Four young children pose for a photo as they sit on a plastic crate in the parking lot of apartment blocks in the Scottsdene neighbourhood in Cape Town, South Africa, March 9, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg
What’s the context?
City leaders hope an array of new tech will help deter criminals - but residents warn it's not a simple fix
- Cape Town has one of world's highest murder rates
- City invests in surveillance tech from cameras to drones
- Locals say jobs, investment also needed to tackle crime
CAPE TOWN - Former gang member Sammy Andries spent years dodging security cameras watching over Cape Town. Now, he is an unlikely supporter of the South African 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 shot at them. What about us? How can we also feel safe?", said 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.
Cape Town has the tenth highest murder rate of any city in the world, according to data site Statista.
In March, the city council announced it planned to spend 860 million rand ($46.84 million) over three years on anti-crime tech ranging from bodycams and licence-plate recognition to aerial surveillance.
It is part of a record 5.8 billion rand safety budget for 2023-24 that also includes cash to expand a police college and hire more officers.
The tech funding is a step up from its current crime-fighting tech budget of about 200 million rand per year.
But many residents said officials also needed 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 30 km 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 crime strategy was too tech-focused. The city runs a development programme for youth and has launched initiatives to boost employment and business investment.
Tech strategy to fight crime
Cape Town's growing arsenal of tech will allow the city to "anticipate problems", said JP Smith, the city's lead on safety and security.
The surveillance rollout aims to tackle some of the city's most pressing criminal activities including murder, sexual assault and street crimes like muggings, said Smith.
The city will be adding to its 6,500 CCTV cameras, and is trialling drones, aircraft surveillance and control rooms that filter through the reams of footage, Smith told Context in a video interview.
Smith 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, he said.
Although 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), a non-profit 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 around 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 own properties.
The data can only be accessed by authorised users who have identified themselves through fingerprint scans, he said.
People 'need alternatives' to gangs
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, sitting in his home as two young girls did their homework on a table nearby.
Studies show CCTV cameras' effectiveness depends on factors including the quality of their 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 shootouts, and cared for victims of bullets too.
South Africa has about a 33% unemployment rate, and this is expected to rise to 35.6% this year, making it the country with the highest unemployment rate in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.
"This tech will help, it will bring evidence forward, but then what? Criminals become more extreme in prison," said Gayle, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
Some of the cash spent on prisons and surveillance could be shifted to training and job creation schemes to help prevent people from turning to crime to survive, said Karien de Waal, a musician and the founder of non-profit Join Bands Not Gangs.
Her organisation uses music to deter people from gangs in at-risk neighbourhoods. It also helps get former gang members into rehabilitation centres and pays gangsters to plant vegetable gardens.
"No one wants to be a gangster, they just need alternatives," said de Waal.
"Without job creation, a security plan won't work."
($1 = 18.2817 rand)
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Sonia Elks.)
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