South Africa

Nearly a year after the Khayelitsha Commission, the township is no safer

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 9 July 2015

On Thursday, Osi’s Tavern in Khayelitsha temporarily lost its liquor licence after a stampede on 28 June left eight young women dead. Six of the women died at the scene and two lost their lives in a deadly crash on the way to the hospital. The youngest was 15. But is cracking down on one of the handful of legal taverns in Khayelitsha really solving anything? By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Osi’s Tavern has brought the flouting of liquor regulations in Khayelitsha under the spotlight in recent weeks. On Monday, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) led a 300-strong march to the Harare SAPS to deliver a memorandum demanding that the police and local and provincial governments ensure justice and compliance with legislation and building and health and safety standards.

Meanwhile, the Western Cape Liquor Authority (WCLA) brought an urgent application to have the tavern’s licence suspended due to allegations that the owner was selling alcohol to under-18s. But as it turned out, the owner’s lawyer agreed to the interim suspension – which will remain in effect until a full hearing into the allegations has been carried out.

Community members have been calling for the tavern to be shut down permanently, while the SJC has been campaigning for police to be more actively involved in enforcing safety measures in local shebeens.

On 28 June, eight young women aged between 15 and 23 died during a stampede when patrons were desperately trying to leave the tavern. According to witnesses, chaos broke out when a gunshot went off inside in the early hours of the morning, although the SAPS’s Colonel Tembinkosi Kinana told Daily Maverick he could not confirm that, as the investigation was still ongoing.

According to a statement by the SJC, however, community members reiterated that there had been a gunshot.

Osi’s has a single first-storey entrance, which created a crush. “Given the sheer numbers trying to leave the tavern and the bottleneck created by the single entrance, staircase and a wall and fencing on the ground level, the arm railing of the staircase gave way, resulting in patrons falling off the stairs and on to each other. A combination of the impact of the fall and being crushed by the other patrons is what led to the tragic deaths and numerous injuries,” SJC’s Joel Bregman said via email.

The SJC led around 300 people in the march on Monday, with a memorandum demanding that, among other things, the SAPS should work co-operatively with the Western Cape Liquor Authority to avoid similar tragedies in future; SAPS should investigate the gun allegations and try to find the perpetrator; the WCLA should permanently revoke Osi’s liquor licence for allegedly selling to minors and for operating outside legal hours as well as operating in an unsafe building; and that the SAPS should help realise the Khayelitsha Commission’s recommendations for a safer Khayelitsha, with fewer incidents of alcohol-fuelled violence.

Among the marchers were protestors carrying placards saying ‘Education First’, ‘No underage youth in taverns’ and ‘Ethics before profit’. A number of teenagers were also present, who spoke of the incident as a lesson not to go drinking. There was talk of drinking to let off steam after the stress of exams. One mentioned drinking at Osi’s.

We have had no official response as yet from SAPS,” SJC’s Chumile Sali, from Makhaza branch, told Daily Maverick on Wednesday. “For now we will wait until the hearing and take it from there. But we did speak to the police and they have made a commitment to work with us in the community.”

Illegal shebeens are widespread in Khayelitsha. It is estimated that every fifth house in the township is a shebeen. There are only 34 legal shebeens – of which Osi’s is one – and an estimated 1,400 illegal ones. Alcohol abuse has long been linked to crime, not just in South Africa but all over the world; violent crimes and murders spike over the weekends, when people have been drinking. The Khayelitsha Commission’s report – which is 580-odd pages long – found that residents report feeling significantly unsafe around shebeens; the least safe of any place in the township.

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However, it is also significant that residents feel almost as unsafe in other recreational or public areas, which suggests that the safety issue applies throughout the township. Crime and safety researcher Adam Armstrong, who reported extensively on the Khayelitsha Commission at the time, agrees. He believes shebeens are unduly demonised. “Shebeens don’t cause violence,” he says. “They are gathering spaces in a violent community. They are simply where people gather in the evenings. If people were gathering at chess clubs there would still be violence. There is alcohol, but these are primarily places to gather. They have been falsely painted as dens of iniquity.”

Armstrong believes it is necessary to take a more nuanced view of the role of shebeens in township communities. “Shebeens have been politicised and made into the ‘bad guy’,” says Armstrong. “I think this is less about underaged drinking – which happens in middle class spaces as well as the townships – and more about gun control and high levels of violence and fear in township spaces. Clamping down solely on Osi’s is short-sighted and reactionary.”

The SJC agrees that there needs to be a broader solution. “We are not saying ‘shut down all the shebeens’,” says Sali, in response to a question from Daily Maverick regarding what would happen to income generation, should there be a general crackdown on shebeens in the area.

We are advocating an ethical approach. There is a high unemployment rate. We support entrepreneurship, for people to be in business, but that comes with responsibility. You should not compromise principles. Those who are running illegal shebeens, we encourage them to apply for liquor licences, so that they adhere to regulations. We are not calling for shutdown. We are calling for them to comply with regulations, and safety guidelines.”

However, Sali differs from Armstrong in his evaluation of underage drinking in Khayelitsha. “It has become normal,” he says. “For young kids to go into taverns and drink – and they are allowed by tavern owners. Unfortunately there are no recreational facilities for young people. Tavern owners are more concerned about profit. They do not even know what the regulations are. It is very serious. You will find 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds drinking.”

While this also occurs in more affluent areas, Sali says a key difference is that there are numerous child-headed households in townships, and Khayelitsha is no exception. (In South Africa, one in five children live in a child-headed household, and there are around 7,000 orphans in Khayelitsha.) There are also many children whose parents are doing shift work in low-income jobs, which means parental supervision is a challenge, says Sali.

Some parents are able to control their children, but some are not,” he says. “If you look at the economy of Khayelitsha, most are earning around very little.* At night, many parents are at work. Or they have two jobs so they are never around. These young kids are the ones who are head of their household.”

Both Sali and Armstrong agree, however, that the biggest problem threatening the wellbeing of youth and adults alike in Khayelitsha is not the shebeens but the lack of safety in the area.

At the Khayelitsha Commission community law researcher Jean Redpath found that at least 380 additional officers were needed to help boost policing in Khayelitsha.

If all the recommendations of the Khayelitsha Commission were to be implemented, most of the problems of Khayelitsha would be dissolved,” says Sali. “We are calling on the national commissioner to come on board. We have not yet heard anything from his office. We want to know the view of the police on the Commission report. Six months have passed. Six months is too much.”

In September 2014, Western Cape minister of community safety Dan Plato said in a statement that he had “full faith” in the national minister. He added that “[m]ost of the recommendations are specific to the South African Police Service (SAPS), which the SAPS are expected to manage”.

The residents of Khayelitsha are facing delays, however. Speaking to Daily Maverick, Plato described the current situation as “a bit of a deadlock” but said the obstacles were not insurmountable. “To be frank with you we have started with the implementations,” he said. “There are over 20 recommendations, and the shebeen and alcohol recommendations are among them.”

According to Plato, during the hearing processes it was recommended that a memorandum of understanding should be structured delegating various tasks and duties of oversight to the entities involved, including the department of community safety and the police. This MOU has not yet been finalised and negotiations are at a sensitive stage, says Plato.

Additionally, engaging national police commissioner Riah Phiyega was crucial but this had not yet been concluded.

However, other partners such as the SJC were fully engaged. “Can we move forward? I am of the opinion yes,” said Plato.

My view is that the [police] minister is not prioritising Khayelitsha,” says Sali. “There are more police officers in affluent areas. Yet this (townships) is where the crime is. Most murders occur here. Khayelitsha is in the top ten areas of murders in the country. Yet we are not seeing a response from the minister of police. He is not prioritising black communities.”

Very little improvement has been seen in the township since the Commission, says Sali. “The only aspect that has improved is communication between the police and community structures. We have not seen any real commitment from the police side. Thus far we have written many communications to the minister, and he has not committed himself or the department to the recommendations. There is still so much crime.”

When Daily Maverick attempted to contact the SAPS for comment, we were initially told that the gunshots at Osi’s could not be confirmed as the investigation was ongoing. Thereafter, we were asked to SMS our questions regarding policing in Khayelitsha, following the Commission, for written response. Despite repeated prompts, no response was forthcoming.

Armstrong believes there is no legal incentive to improve policing in Khayelitsha. “The Khayelitsha Commission made the national government look bad and the cops look bad. But there is no legal compulsion for the national commissioner to follow the recommendations. Now there’s a new minister, and he’ll get the new document, but he can just ignore it. Some of the things that came out of the commission were great, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Meanwhile, says Sali, the residents of Khayelitsha continue to live in danger. “The only place people can go is taverns,” he says. “There are playgrounds for small kids, but no recreational facilities. There is also poor sanitation. People get attacked while going to relieve themselves. Some people are travelling 400 metres to a toilet.”

It does not help that Khayelitsha is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing settlements. According to Census 2011 two-thirds of the adult population was unemployed and only a third had completed Grade 12. Shebeens are a crucial form of income for many.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is laughing all the way to the bank. Taverns and shebeens are increasingly being recognised as a market where high-end brands – not just beer – can be marketed. Some even incentivise taverners (albeit legal ones) to punt their products. The shebeen market is growing, not shrinking. So it’s in the interests of government and law enforcement to help make it sustainable.

The Sustainable Living Foundation is doing just that through the SafeShebeens project. Led by Dr Andrew Charman, SafeShebeens uses an array of research methods to engage with diverse stakeholders – community members (drinkers and non-drinkers), community leaders and shebeen owners. In March, it began investigating what shebeen owners do to maintain safety and order, so as to identify best practices and potential intervention points.

Through a number of workshops, they identified how drinkers and non-drinkers experienced safe and unsafe spaces, and mapped places where community members felt most and least safe. Ultimately, they emerged with a clear set of “appropriate and inappropriate social behaviours”, according to their website. They then set up a system of shebeen rules with corresponding symbols, used by participating shebeens as part of a bigger safety toolkit. According to their statement, “SLF… sought to recast shebeens as lively, multifaceted spaces that are not only of economic importance for many marginalised settlements, but also as key gathering spaces for recreation and community building although recognising their contradictory position within communities.”

The solution may not lie in demonising shebeens but in making them – and their surroundings – safer. “One of the chief reasons the police are there is to see that the bylaws are upheld,” says Sali. “People must adhere to the regulations. We hope this incident will be a lesson to tavern owners not to prioritise profit, and also to SAPS, the law enforcement and inspectors – to ensure compliance with safety standards. To tavern owners, the minute you allow a crowd, you are creating an environment for a stampede. It is not only Osi’s. There is very little crowd control and no weapon control. People go into taverns without being searched. There are no bouncers. Whoever has money can come in. And when police raid, they come in and then go out.”

Armstrong believes raids, in any case, are not the solution. “Shebeens are massively open to exploitation [by police] because they have liquor and because they are cash businesses,” he says. “When there are raids, it’s kicking down doors, it’s done in a very violent, paramilitary fashion. And we call this victory. It is an immature way to respond – it is government wanting to score easy wins.

If I were going to do something to reduce crime, I would not use police. I would prefer a community conversation, restorative justice with people who are engaged in violence with each other. I realise this sounds soft and fluffy. But there is a misconception that violence occurs between people who do not know each other. It occurs between people who do know one another. We have years of trauma and violence in this country. You don’t want police to grind their feet in the dirt, raid and re-raid. That’s the opposite of what I would want to do.

I hope that this tragedy at Osi’s forms part of a larger, more important conversation around the role of shebeens.” DM

Update: Subsequent to publication, Colonel Kinana made contact with Daily Maverick. He wrote: “Yes, [underage drinking] is a concern and a common practice as police frequently observe underage drinking in public. It is more prevalent during the festive season, public and school  holidays. [A] substantial number of partnerships have been established in the broader Khayelitsha area which have [had] a positive impact on the safety of residents in Khayelitsha. Most contact crimes specifically domestic violence cases as well as murder cases are alcohol related. The SAPS does have operational plans in dealing with liquor outlets, however [it] is not alone responsible for the policing of the licensed liquor outlets as in the case of Osi’s Tavern. Khayelitsha is seen as a free alcohol trading area which results in more illegal and legal liquor outlets. The crime patterns and statistics show a constant decrease in crime… The [SJC] forms part of the Khayelitsha joint forum and has always expressed their satisfaction with the difference in policing in Khayelitsha.”

* 2011 Census data listed the average monthly income as R3,200 per month. According to the Khayelitsha Commission Report of 2014 the median household income in Khayelitsha is half that of the median household income for the City of Cape Town. In the Report, the median monthly income is given as R2,116 for employed men and R1,526 for employed women.

Photo: Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town’s crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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