CAPE TOWN, South Africa — It was like a scene from the apartheid days: a military unit with armored trucks and assault rifles patrolling the streets of a South African township.
But as soldiers arrived in Mitchells Plain, an impoverished suburb outside Cape Town, people did not hide inside or erupt in protest, as many would have decades ago when the army was a symbol of white minority rule.
Instead, residents rushed from their homes to welcome the troops, who were sent in in July to quell an extraordinarily bloody spate of gang violence and have remained in the area ever since.
“This is what we need,” said Nasser Myburgh, a radio technician, watching soldiers and police search a house on his street for drugs. “The people are shooting here every night.”
Cape Town, widely known as a tourist destination for its historical sites and natural beauty, has become one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Police recorded more than 2,800 killings in 2018, and its homicide rate — about 66 killings per 100,000 people — is surpassed by only the most violent cities in Latin America, according to the Citizens’ Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a nongovernmental group in Mexico.
The violence largely stems from escalating turf battles between gangs that traffic in drugs, weapons, and illicit goods like abalone, a shellfish prized by poachers.
Trying to stanch the bloodshed, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the military intervention July 12, despite experts’ warnings that soldiers can do little about the underlying issues, like worsening corruption and rising unemployment, that have allowed gangs to reign over the townships for decades.
The area of Mitchells Plain where Myburgh lives is on the Cape Flats, an expanse fringing the city where black and mixed-race people were forcibly moved from central parts of the city during apartheid. His neighborhood has been divided by a warring array of gangs: the Hustlers, Rude Boys, Ghetto Kids, Spoilt Brats, Hard Livings, and Americans, whose symbols include dollar signs and the US flag. Gang graffiti marks the walls of the small, crowded houses, many with backyard shanties to compensate for a lack of housing.
The first weekend of military patrols saw killings drop on the Cape Flats, according to provincial health authorities. Over the following weekend, 46 people were killed.
A few weeks into the deployment, the bloodshed had not paused in some places. In Mitchells Plain, less than 48 hours after a military patrol withdrew back to its base, a man named Ashley Cupido was killed.
“You hear gunshots and hope it’s not your child,” said his mother, Barbara Cupido, several days after the killing. Ashley Cupido’s body was still at the city mortuary, where the surge in violence has caused a backlog.
Cupido lived in an area controlled by the Hard Livings gang. His girlfriend and 5-year-old son lived on Americans’ turf. He was shot walking between the two homes, his mother said.
The police precinct with the highest number of killings in South Africa last year, Nyanga, also in the Cape Flats, had 308 killings — one fewer than Baltimore, a city with 10 times as many people. Mitchells Plain had 140 killings, while central Cape Town — home to upmarket restaurants, galleries and hotels — had just eight.
This year, intensifying gang rivalries have driven the violence to crisis levels. The murder rate was “about twice as bad as what we’ve seen before,” said Jean-Pierre Smith, the city’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.
Officials like Smith say that the military deployment, called Operation Prosper, will help stabilize Cape Town’s 10 most dangerous neighborhoods and allow important social programs to resume working — schools and ambulances, for example, cannot operate in many areas. But critics warn that bringing in the army may only dampen the violence.
“It’s like throwing a blanket over a giant dumpster fire, but all the things that caused the fire are still present,” said John Stupart, a military analyst and editor of the African Defence Review, a research organization.
“As soon as the army leaves, a lot of these gangs are going to uncover their weapons and drugs and go back to business as usual,” Stupart said.
Every evening, Myburgh, the radio technician, locks his family indoors and switches on the television. “Walk outside,” he said, “you’re probably going to get shot.”
The night before the military arrived, just a few blocks from Myburgh’s home, a young man named David Hermanus was gunned down. In retaliation, gangsters sprayed a nearby house with bullets, injuring a man and his 18-year-old niece. Another man, Garth Adams, was killed the next afternoon, about an hour before the patrols began.
“This is how we’re living,” Myburgh said. “For us, this is normal.”