On Sunday, the Bishop Lavis Action Community (BLAC) held memorials at four of the sites where lives were cut short in what it called “the bloodiest three weeks in the area’s history”. This was the first of a series of attempts to reclaim the streets and heal the community, the organisation says. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
It’s still too hard for family members to speak, the wounds are too raw.
These were the opening words at Disa Court in Bishop Lavis, Cape Town, on Sunday, at the first of four memorials held for those lost to gang violence in the area in recent weeks. Memorials were held At Disa Court, Vygie Way, Keurberg Road and the Vaal Flats.
“Today we are just gathering with the community to sing and cry together,” said Pastor Jerome Bailey, leading approximately 50 community members in prayer. “We are simply here to say we feel that grief. But we are also here to say enough is enough.”
Residents laid a simple wreath in a small garden outside a tyre shop on Myrtle Road. Over prayers, the strains of We are the world could be heard.
The list of recent casualties makes for grim reading.
In June, a triple murder made headlines. On 20 July, a boy was gunned down on Myrtle Road, near the police training academy, as he walked home from the Bishop Lavis Magistrate’s court. At the time, EWN reported he was allegedly due to testify against a gang member.
On 21 July, two petrol attendants were killed and a third person was injured in a shootout at a petrol station in Lenton Drive. That night, another shooting took place on Keurberg road.
On 31 July, another three people were killed in a Vygie Road shooting, bringing the total number of killings over those two weeks to nine.
On 14 August, youth leader Chrissandra Opperman was shot dead while returning from a church youth outing.
In total, BLAC said in a statement over the weekend, 15 people were killed in just three weeks. Shortly after they issued their statement, a man was arrested in Bishop Lavis for possession of firearms, explosives and ammunition.
Community Policing Forum (CPF) chairperson Graham Lindhorst said the spate of deaths had strained the community, but praised the strong police presence. News24 had recently reported that Bishop Lavis would receive additional police resources to deal with the high levels of gang violence.
Cape Town ranks among the most violent cities in the world. Much of its crime is localised in specific areas, and many murders are gang-related. Gang structures are entrenched and pervasive, with an estimated 100,000 gang members across around 130 gangs in the Western Cape. A sophisticated and complex gang economy is in operation, with the Cape Town Metro Police Gang and Drug Task Team eventually being formed to step in where previous units failed.
But at the moment, the war is far from won. August saw Cape Flats mothers marching in protest against the crippling losses they faced; one mother told GroundUp she had lost three of her children to gang violence. In Bishop Lavis and Elsies River, the situation is particularly volatile. In recent weeks, shootings have skyrocketed, with rumours of infighting within the vast 28s gang. If these reports are correct, the spike in violence is probably not over.
In July, Lindhorst also warned that more violence could be on the way. “We are expecting retaliation; it might be in Bishop Lavis or anywhere else, because these people are scattered everywhere,” he said.
BLAC spokesperson Charl Davids told Daily Maverick the organisation – which is in its first month of rallying community members together – was on Sunday primarily focusing on reclaiming the streets and giving residents a space voice their anger and grief.
Some spoke of the unimaginable pain of losing loved ones. Others spoke of practical, daily struggles: comforting a child too fearful to walk to the tuck shop.
BLAC’s purpose is manifold, but one goal is simply to help residents cope. “We started off slowly with the first event,” explains Davids. “Each [of the four sites] we got to, more people started coming out of their houses. In recent times, because of the shootings, you didn’t see anyone around. That’s why we went there to say: ‘Let’s reclaim our space.’ After the proceedings ended, people stayed outside and the music was still playing. For the first time in a long time, people were out and feeling freer. That’s part of the trauma work.” By evening, says Davids, the group had grown to around 150.
The next step will be a photography initiative in participating schools, he adds.
The organisation is named, in part, as a nod to the Bishop Lavis Action Committee, which was active in the 1980s. “We kept the name similar because some of the older people remember,” said Davids. “Essentially we are a rights-based organisation. Safety and security is a fundamental human right.”
But tied to that, says Davids, a registered psychologist, is recognition of the deep trauma suffered by community members who have suffered enormous loss and violence. “We are saying: people can’t just come together when there is dying, and get on the bandwagon, but without sustainability to any of those programmes,” he told Daily Maverick. BLAC has liaised with school principals, the CPF, religious leaders and residents, hearing what kinds of issues they faced. A recurring theme was trauma, so Davids is spearheading a programme to train volunteer trauma counsellors within the police force, religious organisations, schools and among psychology graduate students. On Sunday, contact was made with those who lost loved ones in recent weeks.
Everyone in BLAC hails from Bishop Lavis, and several professions and networks are represented on the steering committee. This will help in other areas of need, says Davids. For example: Bishop Lavis largely relies on Elsies River for social development services, another issue activists wish to tackle.
Following the recent violence, Provincial Minister for Community Safety Dan Plato visited Bishop Lavis. Earlier in 2017, Plato urged police to “get to the high-flyers”, vowing never to give up the war on gangsterism. But more recently, speaking in Paarl East, he pointed the finger of blame at parents, questioning why young children were being recruited into gangs or using alcohol and drugs.
“I cannot understand why a mother and a father cannot take charge of the lives of their children,” he said.
“Why must the police come and police your own kids?” he added. “You cannot leave the responsibility of bringing up kids to the police.” He did, however, hint that Premier Helen Zille was considering a commission of inquiry into the killings of children in the province, some of which have been gang-related.
Davids is not placing overmuch faith in local government intervention. “We must hold our MECs and our councillors accountable, but we cannot wait for government,” he says.
Bishop Lavis locals want to know how budgets are being allocated and whether sustainable projects are being run. In that sense, BLAC wants to be an additional element of community representation in the quest for accountability. But multifaceted solutions are paramount, he believes – and fast.
On Sunday, however, residents appeared to be moving forward on faith. BLAC’s next major event is on 10 September, when several of the area’s churches, as well as some of its mosques and even members of the Rastafarian community, will come together, this time for an interfaith ceremony. Davids’ explanation is simple: “With unity we can do things.”
But there’s something poignant that rings in the ear long after Pastor Jerome’s prayer has ended. “Today we say we are only the community,” he offers. “Protect our police, protect our communities.
“Thank you, Lord, that you are still in control. Thank you, Lord, that the streets of Bishop Lavis will one day be safe and walkable again!” Amid a group of heartbroken, resolute faces, holding up a poster that reads: We will not be paralysed by fear. DM
Main photo by Marelise van der Merwe.
- Police on scene of fatal shooting in Bishop Lavis, on EWN