The Western Cape’s new top cop, Yolisa Matakata, is under no illusion about the task ahead of her.
She has been appointed to oversee crime-fighting in what has been described by national police commissioner Khehla Sitole as one of the most “complex” provinces to police.
At the press conference to announce Matakata’s appointment, Sitole said that the fight against crime in the province was hampered by a mix of economic and societal inequality, together with dangerous and violent criminality.
The 2018-2019 provincial crime statistics indicated that the province experienced its bloodiest year in a decade.
Cape Town was described as South Africa’s murder capital: seven of the 10 police stations reporting the highest levels of murders nationally are based in the city.
In the province as a whole, 3 974 people were murdered, 3 860 people had attempts made on their life and 24 488 cases of grievous bodily harm were reported.
Many of these cases link directly to the ongoing gang violence in Cape Town’s under-served townships. That situation became so untenable that in July last year President Cyril Ramaphosa approved the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to stabilise parts of the city caught in the grips of gangsterism. The deployment has since been extended to this March.
Matakata, a career police officer of more than 20 years was most recently the acting head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks).
She tells the Mail & Guardian it is time to take a step back and look at the root of gang violence.
“When we talk organised crime we talk about sophistication and how it’s being perpetuated by criminals gangs. We can never see transnational and organised crime happening in isolation. There’s a core link in how it is manifesting itself [in gangsterism].”
Matakata believes tackling gangs and organised crime is not the responsibility of only one unit of the police, or even the sole responsibility of the security cluster. Instead, it is part of a multidisciplinary approach of active police work, as well as socioeconomic interventions such as greater welfare assistance, education and job creation.
“We have the anti-gang unit, we have the Hawks in the province, we have the capacity in the detective service, but we need to pool our resources together and have a focused approach in how we deal with organised crime,” she says.
On an operational level at the province’s 150 police stations, Matakata will have to get to grips with what the high court in Cape Town ruled as the inequitable allocation of policing resources based on race and poverty.
In 2018, the activist group Social Justice Coalition brought an application to declare that police were distributing resources in favour of mainly white and higher-income areas.
The court agreed and ordered the police to rectify the situation.
Matakata says: “It is a fact that there is a skewed distribution of resources in the province. That will have to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. It must happen as soon as possible.”
Poorer communities in the province have long harboured a deep mistrust of the police.
The 2015 Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into Policing, appointed by former premier Helen Zille, found that serious inefficiencies in policing had led to a broken relationship between the community and law enforcement.
The commission found this breakdown of trust contributed to a spike in vigilante attacks, not only in Khayelitsha but other parts of the city as well.
The commission also found that the City of Cape Town metropolitan municipality had contributed to inadequate policing by not effectively investing in infrastructure such as public lighting.
Matakata says she feels that scepticism towards the police “is warranted” as a result.
“We are informed by crime statistics whether or not there has been any improvement, but I would want feedback from communities whether they feel safe or not. We should measure that more than the crime statistics,” she says. “I want to know whether the communities of the provinces have confidence in the police.”
Matakata adds that she understands the fear and trauma experienced by citizens.
“I also have children, and I always worry about their safety. So that is what makes me get up every day and serve the country … I, like every other person, including police officers, have been affected by crime. So that should give us the vigour to fight crime, understanding the [effect] crime is having on our citizens.”
On what happens after the SANDF deployment in March, Matakata says police are ready to take up their role as the primary law enforcement unit when it comes to keeping a lid on gang activity.
The military was expected to help stabilise the province while police continue their crime investigation work to root out gang bosses.
“We are not waiting for after March. We already have plans for normalisation and sustaining policing at identified stations in hotspots. We have an indication in which stations we need interventions. We’ve already deployed 1 000 trainees. We will be able to sustain policing,” Matakata says.
“I don’t want to preempt what will happen when the operation comes to an end. But we will give the community feedback on … the impact of this operation,” she says.