by Charles Goredema, Khalil Goga

Politics and crime

Cape Town’s balancing act between political power and organised crime

Dan Plato
Dan Plato.JPG

The violence that erupted on the Cape Flats and has escalated, leaving more than 23 people dead in just over five months, has also brought into sharp focus the difficult intersection between the state, communities and organised crime groups, writes researchers of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS). 

In March 2012, Dan Plato, MEC for community safety in the Western Cape, was at the centre of a political storm after alleging that the upper echelons of the ANC leadership (including President Jacob Zuma and Western Cape leader Marius Fransman) had had talks with gang bosses in the Western Cape in order to destabilise the region for political gain. The evidence, according to Plato and as reported by Warda Meyer for Independent Newspapers, was documented in a dossier given to him by former ANC supporter Jeff Franciscus, a controversial businessman and convicted fraudster. 

He also said that he had received information from some well-known gangsters in the region. Notwithstanding his explanation that he was exploring all means of brokering peace, Plato was lambasted by the ruling party for meeting with gangsters.

In a parliamentary committee meeting held in August 2012, Police Secretariat Director of Policy Development Mark Rogers indirectly condemned Plato, arguing that he was negotiating with the wrong people who did not have significant ‘street cred’. 

According to Sapa, on 21 August he stated, ‘We’re having peace talks with people that should be arrested. The negotiations are flawed. The perception is also (being) created that the gangs would also then expect peace from the SA Police Service.’

Beyond the political posturing of the ruling party and the opposition, lies the important ethical and moral dilemma of accepting and engaging with criminal elements in order to achieve stability. It is imperative that the state limits violence and destruction and as such it may have to engage with actors perceived to be morally reprehensible in order to confront challenges facing communities. 

However, a meeting with a powerful gangster could be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the state and an acceptance of a ‘parallel’ form of governance. The state’s strength is assessed according to its capacity to manage the welfare of its citizenry, and the legitimacy that citizens accord it. 

Should the state lose this capacity and depend on a non-state actor, it might appear to lose a degree of legitimacy and part of its sovereignty (see ISS Today, 23 February 2011). In any event, the distinction between the so-called upper world and underworld has often proved to be illusory. These two realms continually intersect and overlap.

South Africa not an exception

South Africa is not exceptional in engaging with these issues. While parallel forms of control are more visible in conflict-ridden societies, where warlords or resistance fighters control both territory and institutions outside of the state, more subtle forms of parallel control also exist even where there is no overt conflict.

The recent court proceedings between two wealthy Russians, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, in the English courts catapulted the relationship between business, organised crime and the state in Russia into the public eye. The case showed that organised criminal groups and power brokers, or ‘fixers’, had become significant actors in Russia. 

During the trial, particular mention was made of the perverse nature of doing business in Russia, whereby businessmen need to pay heavy fees in krysha (often hundreds of millions of dollars) to secure protection from criminals and conduct business. They also need the ‘assistance’ of criminal groups to link up with political and bureaucratic figures. This form of protection and brokerage has become so widespread and entrenched as to be an accepted part of business. It may be argued that this protection-based criminality has been legitimised in Russia, and that, as a result, the business-crime-political power nexus has been consolidated.


The legitimisation of organised crime is not limited to weakened states or those in transition. The traditional organised crime syndicates known as Yakuza in Japan have long been a mainstay of Japanese business while controlling large portions of Japan’s underworld. They are also highly visible in public and have significant legitimate real estate and corporate interests. 

Yakuza displays and membership are openly exhibited. At the same time the Yakuza are often involved in white-collar crime and high-level corruption. Their influence in both illicit and licit realms has become engrained and will continue to be difficult to remove from Japanese society (although it should be noted that the Japanese government has taken significant anti-organised crime measures to reduce their power). 

Cape Town

On the Cape Flats, criminal elements have been seen as both a parasitic external threat to the state and a symptomatic social problem, as highlighted by André Standing in Organised Crime: A Study from the Cape Flats. Standing, however, is critical of the parasitic model and argues for a more nuanced approach.

At an individual level, that is with organised criminals and organised crime groups, there is a need to limit and manage engagement with and reliance on them.

 The state must carefully balance the short-term goal of violence reduction with that of suppressing the legitimacy of criminality and criminal groups in the region. At the same time, sight must not be lost of the multiple variables and socio-economic problems that facilitate the continuity of gangsterism in Cape Flats society. 

The ultimate goal is to ensure that organised criminals do not become embedded in the system.

Charles Goredema is a Senior Research Fellow at Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Cape Town

Khalil Goga, is an intern in the Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Cape Town 

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