South Africa


Anti-gang unit strives to bring peace to Hanover Park

Anti-gang unit strives to bring peace to Hanover Park
A police vehicle patrols Hanover Park. Cape Town, South Africa, 13 April 2006. Clarens Muller/Gallo

The Anti-Gang Intervention Unit has been deployed by Police Minister Bheki Cele in crime-ridden communities across the Cape Flats, including Lavender Hill and Hanover Park. Although the team will be formally launched only on 1 November, teams have been operational for the past week, patrolling and making arrests in a bid to curb gang-related violence. But while some Hanover Park residents have welcomed an increased police presence, others are claiming that myriad social ills have created a situation more complex than a single police unit can fix.

The school bell rings at Mount View High School in Hanover Park and two neatly dressed pupils walk into the school library. Keenan Weitz is a softly spoken 17-year-old; he wears large round glasses and a thick silver chain hangs over his school shirt. Talia Petersen is just 16 years old, also in Grade 11; she has big brown eyes and a husky voice, her hair is pulled back into a tight bun and she speaks openly about the levels of violence she’s already experienced at such a young age.

We live in constant fear. It’s difficult for us to get to school because we’re afraid to walk and we don’t know whether we’ll arrive at school safely,” says Talia, who lives with her aunt a mere five-minute walk from school.

Keenan lives with his parents and two brothers in a wendy house built in his grandmother’s back yard. The family lives between two rival gangs and he hears gunshots most evenings. Hours before talking to Daily Maverick, as Keenan finished his morning prayers, shots rang out in the vicinity.

Talia Petersen (16), Peace Ambassadors at Mount View High School, Hanover Park, 16 October 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

There was nothing I could do so I just tried to go back to sleep,” he says.

Because of the constant exchange of gunfire, going about normal life is practically impossible for the residents of Hanover Park. Children are often forced to miss school and cannot freely enjoy a weekend game of soccer. Adults are often prevented from going to work, the clinic, places of worship, the store.

Hanover Park is a 20-minute drive from Cape Town’s city centre and according to the 2011 national census the average annual household income is R30,000 (that’s R2,500 per month). Unemployment is as high as 70%. Only 18% of the population have completed matric and a little more than half the population have completed Grade 9. Just a year from completing school, Talia and Keenan are trying to rise above the limitations of their environment and have become Peace Ambassadors in their community.

The Peace Ambassadors Programme, initiated by Hanover Park city councillor Antonio van der Rheede and run by Professor Brian Williams, who works at the University of the Sacred Heart in Gulu, Uganda, focuses on training young people to help establish peace in their Cape Flats communities, which Williams describes as a “vortex of violence”.

Williams has worked in northern Uganda and war-torn South Sudan and has brought lessons on how to promote peace in areas of conflict to communities in Cape Town ravaged by violence.

The culture of Hanover Park has become one of violence. Violence is so widespread, and the Peace Ambassadors are saying violence is a choice but it shouldn’t be your first choice,” says Williams.

Keenan Weitz (17) , Peace Ambassadors at Mount View High School, Hanover Park, 16 October 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

The Peace Ambassadors Programme brings together teenagers from three high schools in Hanover Park to promote the idea of peace in their community. The programme began at the beginning of the year with Williams holding training courses that encouraged the youngsters to be active participants in the search for peace by organising demonstrations and speaking out against gangsterism and substance abuse.

Last month residents across the Cape Flats came out to protest against gangsterism, poverty and crime. Some in neighbouring communities were met with rubber bullets and tear gas, and 13 people were arrested for public violence after the anti-crime demonstration in Bonteheuwel.

A handful of residents in Hanover Park blocked Turfhall Road, brandishing placards that read: “Where is the police when kids die” and “Enough is enough” with the overwhelming cry from people being that the police have failed in their mandate to protect the innocent in gang-infested communities.

According to the most recent crime statistics, more than 80% of all gang-related murders in South Africa occurred in the Western Cape. Almost half of these were reported at police stations in the middle of gang-infested areas, including communities such as Hanover Park.

According to Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security and Social Services, Alderman JP Smith, a gunshot-detection system named ShotSpotter detected almost 200 shots in the first two weeks of October alone.

Heinrich Bowers, principal of Mount View High School, says pupils such as Talia and Keenan are astonishingly brave by being Peace Ambassadors in a community where just the word peace is taboo. He says not only does his school operate in a war zone, but the culture of violence impacts on learners on a profound level.

His Grade 11 class recently needed counselling when a learner, Keegan de Silva, was shot and killed after being caught in gang crossfire outside his home. Teachers are overloaded. With each class seating more than 40 pupils, educators simply cannot see to the psychological needs of those who walk through the school gates deeply traumatised.

Keenan Weitz (17) and Talia Petersen (16), Peace Ambassadors at Mount View High School, Hanover Park, 16 October 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

There’s a culture of violence, so we need to create a new culture of peace,” says Bower, who is not naive about the realities his students face.

Here at school we promote peace, but when you’re back in the community, it’s as though you’re forced to have double standards because if you’re just peaceful there, you won’t survive — because there are other rules that are applied out there.”

At a briefing earlier this month the Western Cape cabinet, which includes Premier Helen Zille, incoming Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato, DA Western Cape premier candidate Alan Winde and Education MEC Debbie Schäfer, resolved to send a list of urgent demands to Police Minister Bheki Cele on the crisis of police under-resourcing in the Western Cape, where the police-to-population ratio is a third lower than the rest of the country.

Where crime is the highest, police are most under-resourced,” reads the statement prepared by the cabinet. They are giving Cele until the beginning of November to meet their demands.

In the meantime, the minister has deployed members of a specialised crime-fighting unit to combat gangsterism in high risk areas including Hanover Park.

With 18 arrests already having been made in the past week, the crime-fighting body looks promising. But councillor Van der Rheede is aware that, due to the complex reality of crime, poverty and social ills, as well as separating victim and perpetrator, the solution is not always clear cut.

Gail Cupido, 50, is part of the Hanover Park community watch. She and her sister have patrolled the streets on a weekly basis for the past 15 years. She lives in a single room she shares with her husband and youngest daughter. Her two sons have caused endless heartache.

The eldest son is a tik addict. He is homeless, spending his nights under a bridge in Athlone.

Her middle son is a repeat offender. He was first sentenced in February 2013 to 15 years for attempted murder, but served only six months. In June this year he was arrested for possession of drugs and sentenced to 18 months. He served four months and is currently out on parole.

In a telephone conversation Cupido tells Daily Maverick she was shocked when the police ransacked her house two weeks ago, looking for firearms.

I don’t know why [the SAPS] came to my door. I’m serving this community for 15 years, how can you come and search my house for guns? Yes my son is connected to gangsterism, but what happened in his past happened in his past, he turned his life fully around,” she says.

Head of visible policing at Philippi police station Lieutenant Colonel Dawood Laing says that criminals cannot be treated with “kid gloves” and police officers can’t “ask whether a guy is still a gangster” before raids. His police station serves 85,000 people with 87 police staff who undertake detective work as well as patrol Hanover Park and seven informal settlements in the area.

Van der Rheede says that while the police are often seen as taking a hard line, “more police” will not fix the complex problems of Hanover Park. Children need more social activities, parents must take a stand against drugs and gangsterism, police must be provided with the necessary resources to perform adequate detective work that will secure convictions and schools must promote the idea of peace.

We as young people can reach our goals and dreams. It’s about the choices you make,” says Talia. Keenan uses the example of his older brother who dropped out of school.

My brother and I, we got the same opportunities, he started using dagga, he has a baby now, so those were the choices he made, he decided that’s the route he wants to take and so now he has to deal with the consequences… I made up my mind. I want to finish school and be successful in life,” he says.

The teens agree that nobody deserves to live in the circumstances they face daily.

To many people in Hanover Park it’s just another gunshot, but you shouldn’t get used to that. If someone gets killed it’s not just another person who dies — this shouldn’t be normal,” Talia says. DM


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