It is one of Africa’s most stately hotels, a pink-walled picture of calm in the midst of South Africa’s second city, with a prize view of Table Mountain.
But just before midnight last Tuesday, the Mount Nelson hotel in Cape Town was the site of an audacious armed robbery, one of the most shocking examples yet of the surge in violent crime in a city long known for an easygoing lifestyle and stunning natural attractions that draw in thousands of tourists every year.
More than a dozen masked men held up security at gunpoint, then looted the foyer and robbed staff and guests before fleeing in getaway vehicles.
No one was harmed, but the attack on “The Nellie”, a Cape Town fixture since 1899 that is now operated by LVMH-owned Belmond, stunned many. Some expressed fears that the attack could hit tourism, a big source of jobs and investment in the city. “This is the first time that it’s crossed the Rubicon,” said one frequent business visitor to the Nelson of Cape Town’s high crime levels, usually hidden away in poorer areas.
The high-profile attack is just the latest to hit the city. Last weekend, 43 people were murdered in separate incidents in the Cape Flats, townships on the city’s outskirts, as already high levels of violence exploded in a gang war. The murder rate in the province of the Western Cape rose by nearly 12 per cent between 2017 and 2018, much faster than the national average. Nine hundred people have been killed in gang violence this year, according to mortuary statistics.
In a sign of the growing anxiety over crime levels, this week the army was sent in to back local police, a temporary deployment that president Cyril Ramaphosa said he has authorised to “save lives”.
The army deployment has sparked a fierce debate on the capacity of the South African state, battered by corruption under Jacob Zuma, Mr Ramaphosa’s predecessor, to provide basic security and tackle the root economic causes of gang violence.
It has a political tinge. Cape Town and its province, the Western Cape, are run by the main opposition Democratic Alliance. It has complained that Mr Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress has failed to provide sufficient policing resources.
Nationwide, there is one police officer for every 369 people on average, but in the Western Cape it is 509 and even worse in Cape Town, said Dan Plato, then a provincial minister for safety and now mayor of the metropolis, last year.
Shanty towns and settlements of the Cape Flats also have some of the highest rates of inequality and unemployment in post-apartheid South Africa. Jobless young people are often forced to join street gangs that are typically cogs in wider organised-crime networks centred on drugs and illegal weapons, analysts say.
Mr Ramaphosa’s government has talked tough. “As far as we are concerned, the kind of criminality which has been going on here, the fact that we are being ruled by gangs in the Western Cape, points to a fact that there is serious undermining of the authority of the state,” said Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the defence minister, this week.
But there have been doubts whether the military is the right instrument to restore law and order, especially given the country’s history of repression under apartheid, when soldiers targeted township youths.
When military deployments in the Cape Flats were first broached last year, General Solly Shoke, the head of the armed forces, said his soldiers had been trained for “skop and donner,” or shock and awe, not urban crime-fighting.
“It’s incredibly short-sighted and it feels reactionary,” said Ziyanda Stuurman, a Brandeis University graduate student in security and development who hails from Gugulethu, a Cape Flats township, of this week’s deployment.
“The gangs are so deeply embedded that a short-term deployment simply isn’t enough,” she added. Policing in the Cape Flats has suffered “a decade of neglect” and higher police numbers, as well as better pay and funding for crime intelligence, would have greater impact, she said.
Violence might subside simply because the army’s presence would limit outlets for police corruption “and what we know is a working relationship between officers and gangsters,” she said. Police weapons have found their way into gang hands, she said.
Despite the crime, for now, Cape Town’s tourist economy is thriving. It shrugged off last year’s “Day Zero” water crisis when the taps nearly went dry from a severe drought. This December will bring the first nonstop US flights to the city, when United Airlines launches services from Newark.
While the raid on the Mount Nelson and surging gang violence on the Cape Flats might occur in different worlds, they both underline a sense of impunity among criminals, Ms Stuurman said. “When you have such a large spike in gang activity, it’s more than likely to bleed out into other areas of the city.”