Developing Local Solutions: Urban Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa

In our fourth edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, Judd Devermont discusses urban violence and security challenges with Rachel Locke, director of Impact:Peace, and Eric Apelgren, a municipal official in Durban, South Africa. Rachel and Eric are pressing for new approaches to how urban stakeholders address violence and insecurity—enhancing the capacity of municipal actors to prevent violence and ensuring all actors are “in the room” to tackle shared issues. Rachel warns that municipalities too often address violence on an incident-by-incident basis. She calls for a more holistic approach that balances responding to individual cases of violence with addressing the root causes and history of urban violence.

The conversation also covers the impacts of Covid-19 on urban violence—including gender-based violence—as well as advantages and disadvantages of smart city technology. Last, Rachel recommends opportunities for the United States to more effectively engage in urban security efforts in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Rachel Locke is director of Impact:Peace at the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego.
  • Eric Apelgren is head of the International and Governance Relations Department at eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa.

The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JD: According to your research, urban violence is as complex as violence in conflict zones, but the responses are comparatively simplistic. Why do you think that is? Can you describe how urban security landscapes are different—or similar—from conflict zones?

RL: It’s important to lay out some quick data points. The vast majority of lethal violence—around 84 percent—takes place outside of conflict zones. As we know, violence often stems from inequality, which is increasing in many urban areas; roughly 75 percent of the world’s cities today have higher levels of income inequality than two decades ago. So we’re seeing trends of lethal violence taking place outside of conflict zones and in an increasingly urbanized, unequal world.

The literature on urban violence is highly fractured. Urban violence is studied on a location-by-location basis. In other words, the literature has not been sufficiently pulled together across time and space to the same extent as the literature on violence in conflict zones. There is an imbalance, with the most robust, evidence-based literature coming mainly from the United States and Europe, with huge gaps for much of the rest of the world. Therefore, when each locality is seeking to address high levels of violence—or increases in violence—there are fewer resources and research to draw on that might have been tested elsewhere. In addition, there are new factors and new phenomena that are altering dynamics of violence, such as social media, and of course, Covid-19. These dynamics are not well understood when thinking about violence, particularly in cities.

EA: You might have heard the phrase “A community at war with itself.” I grew up in that environment. There are numerous issues in my city, Durban. People scapegoat refugees as criminals. There are high levels of gender-based violence and rape, by family members, neighbors, and policemen. We also have “service delivery protests”—legitimate protests over a lack of water, electricity, and housing—which are often met with heavy-handed security response.

At the city level, our security agencies, police, and intelligence services have been compromised and corrupted. They are unable to cope or deal with the growing criminality. The resources that are given to urban security agencies are never enough compared to the resources provided to the air and naval forces fighting national conflicts.

JD: We’ve also seen how bans and lockdowns during Covid-19 have created new opportunities for crime and instability in urban areas. What is happening?

RL: In terms of Covid-19, we’re seeing examples of highly opportunistic groups carrying out violence. These include groups that are external to the government and those that are in some way connected to the government, including those engaged in corrupt practices. There are opportunities inherent in the Covid-19 crisis, whether that is around spreading disinformation that helps individuals consolidate power or around coping strategies that people are adopting to replace income loss. We’re seeing major increases in trafficking of individuals, increases in child marriages, for example. That said, broad trends are hard to capture. Opportunistic behavior varies from place to place, with armed groups taking on “positive” roles in some cities—distributing soap and masks, for example. The one consistent trend that’s been observed is the increase violence within the home.

JD: You both are working on a paradigm shift for how we think about urban security. Can you give us a couple key points to help us reimagine how to address insecurity in cities? Are there key structural reforms, financial reforms, or police reforms, for example?

EA: I’ll speak in the context of Durban. We are building a network called Peace in our Cities, with partners like the African Forum on Safety, UN-Habitat, and Global Parliament of Mayors. We have found ways to decrease reliance on national governments and develop local solutions. In addition, we are rethinking the way we govern and structure our city systems to ensure that civil society, police, justice system, and security operators can sit in the same room and tackle shared issues, like gender-based violence.

In many cases, our police are poorly trained in addressing interpersonal violence within a family or community. And then the community turns against the police, especially when they perceive the police to be protecting criminals rather than victims. That is a huge challenge. It is why we need stronger participation of civil society and alternative systems of policing. During Covid-19 we have seen incidents in which soldiers were not adequately trained to deal with the public and communities. The police struggled to peacefully enforce public health measures. There was one incident in which a soldier killed a civilian while enforcing a Covid-19 regulation. This turned the community against the police and the army, and the president had to make a strong effort to “fix” the issue.

At the end of last year, South Africa introduced something called the District Development Model. The model brings together actors across government, civil society, and the private sector to work together for the sake of one city, one plan, one budget. For example, with crime statistics, we ask all parties: “Where are the crime hotspots? Where do we begin to concentrate resources? Where do we put our CCTV, our face recognition? Where do we put justice officials, particularly to deal with gender-based violence? We’ve identified the gender-based violence hotspots, we’ve identified the carjacking hotspots.” We take the lead in creating the platform for all these agencies to work together, because we cannot do it alone.

JD: So cities are fostering greater self-reliance to address challenges that are uniquely urban. Rachel, do you have any recommendations to add?

RL: I think the crucial thing to realize is that violence always takes place in a larger context. But urban violence is often dealt with incident by incident, and not within the broader context of a city ecosystem, in which there are populations that have been marginalized and excluded. These are the same population groups among which violence tends to concentrate. If we continue to address each incident of violence in isolation from the broader context, we’ll stay on this hamster wheel. We won’t be able to address the structural conditions or root causes. It doesn't mean that we don't invest in good policing and ensuring each incident is fairly and judiciously responded to, but it does mean that we think about instances of violence within that broader context.

Some people might think that’s just an ethical or moral preference. But it’s backed by data. Heavy-handed force used to address violence has not proven to be effective, and holistic methods of addressing violence that take into account the needs of the individuals and the complex social system are much more effective.

We need practices, policies, and interventions that are fundamentally grounded in human rights. When a city degrades its legitimacy due to responses to violence that are repressive and punitive, this degrades the social contract, undermining residents’ likelihood of cooperating with law enforcement. This in turn makes cases of violence harder to investigate and increases impunity, which increases violence. It’s a vicious cycle. You see justice taking place at the hands of individuals.

JD: What are implications of smart city technologies in this context? Can smart cities address security challenges?

EA: The question that we must embrace is, how does technology help us improve the safety of our citizens without giving up human rights? How do we avoid giving citizens’ personal information to the private sector? The use of CCTV is a big part of Durban’s safety plan. And there’s a lot of talk about facial recognition, car registration, and number plate recognition to stop the theft of motor vehicles, the movement of stolen vehicles, and the movement of criminals around the city. But understandably, many people dislike providing access to their personal information in the chance that it is used against them.

In my neighborhood, we use WhatsApp groups to monitor suspicious activity. We essentially built a community policing forum, and these quick messaging systems work well. But some people have also abused the technology, particularly men. I’ve seen instances where men recruit desperate women to offer them employment and then sexually assault them.

Technology can make your city smarter, improve service delivery, and increase safety. But it can also compromise people’s sense of safety, particularly around freedom of expression and right to privacy. And, it can be used to manipulate and endanger people.

JD: Rachel, how can the U.S. government better engage with urban security challenges?

RL: Traditionally, the United States has directed much of its financial aid for international law enforcement through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Much of this support has gone to standard train and equip efforts and has not sufficiently addressed urban violence issues in terms of legitimacy and community-based policing measures. It is crucial that U.S. foreign assistance build capacity in a way that acknowledges and is responsive to the history of policing, wherever the assistance is being directed. That may include a recognition of past harm, or potentially current harm that’s being done by the police. And this is playing out right now in Nigeria. We’ve seen examples of this in the United States, where police departments acknowledge past harm that they have done to communities.

Foreign assistance needs to be structured in a way that reflects this fundamental shift in the nature of policing—recognizing that while in many places policing was created to protect the state and its agents, this must shift to police fundamentally existing to provide support and safety for communities and residents.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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