THE WORST YEAR IN THE CAPE FLATS

Army deployed as gang violence escalates to unprecedented levels and residents cry out for help

By Rebecca Davis 12 July 2019
Caption
Members of Cape Town community policing forums picketed outside Parliament before handing over a memorandum to a representative of Police Minister Bheki Cele. The crowd demanded a greater police presence in gang-ridden areas, a justice system that takes tough action on crime and an end to violence and gangsterism. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Bloodshed on the Cape Flats has reached crisis proportions. It’s being called ‘the worst year in history’ — and not by grieving communities, but by the Western Cape government itself. Mortuary statistics suggest that 900 people were murdered in gang violence between January and June 2019, figures which are almost double the previous year’s. Residents say enough is enough — while the army is being deployed in a desperate attempt to seize control.

Mary Bruce, 48, is a community activist from Hanover Park, affectionately known to all and sundry as Aunty Mary.

Aunty Mary has been a mentor to at-risk youth in Hanover Park after losing her eldest son, a gang member, in a shooting in 2014. She runs a programme called What About The Children’s Dream in honour of her son’s memory. Her small flat has become an unofficial refuge for Hanover Park children seeking solace from the turbulent conditions of their homes.

But on Sunday 7 July, Aunty Mary was caught in the crossfire herself: blasted in the leg with bullets while hanging up her family’s washing behind the Donegal Court flat block where she lives.

From right to left: Zorah Motasi, chairperson of Vroue in Aksie and members Johnne Adonia, Lydia Adonis and Beverly Damonse protest outside Parliament on Thursday 11 July 2019. Vroue in Aksie wants its concerns about gang violence in the Strand area to be heard. Members of various community policing forums attempted to hand a memorandum to police minister Bheki Cele. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Her husband Eldino Bruce sounded tired and anxious when he spoke to Daily Maverick over the phone this week.

She had the operation today,” Bruce said. “It took hours, and we’re not sure if the doctors are telling us everything.”

Aunty Mary is currently a patient of Groote Schuur Hospital, and according to Bruce, her recovery is likely to be long and complicated.

She was just one of the victims of a bloody weekend on the Cape Flats, with 13 people shot dead in the two days of 6 and 7 July 2019 alone.

The prospect of being caught in the crossfire like Aunty Mary has become the endless, unshakeable terror for many. On Thursday 11 July, Cape Talk radio devoted an hour to hear the experiences of women in areas like Lavender Hill and Bonteheuwel. The stories were chilling.

One woman had taken to eating her dinner while crouching on the floor, too afraid to lift her head to the level of the window lest a stray bullet shatter her home.

Another said that for four consecutive weeks, the feeding scheme she runs for hungry children had to be suddenly scrapped when a hail of bullets sent the children scrambling for cover and left holes in her food pot.

Among even the famously battle-hardened and resilient residents of the Cape Flats, who have been dealing with similar conditions for decades, there is a sense that this moment is a tipping point. That nobody, simply, should have to live like this.

***

Grant Smith agrees to meet in a parking lot in one of the less volatile areas of the Cape Flats. He won’t be photographed: It’s not safe, he says.

I get threatened a lot, every second day,” Smith says, matter-of-factly. “Of course they will murder me if they can. But I just hate them.”

By “them”, Smith means gangsters: the groups of violent men — and sometimes, though much more rarely, women — who have been a terrorising presence in his community since he was a boy.

Now 42 years old, Smith has children of his own.

The gangsters rob them, they rob children on their way to school,” Smith says. “And we are just spectators in this!”

His frustration at sitting by and watching the police fail to deal adequately with the situation is what drove Smith to try something.

He was handy with computers; he could code websites. What if he were to build up a kind of online network where Cape Flats residents could share information; warn each other of areas which were current no-go zones, and maybe even tip off authorities about the crime before it happened?

Smith unlocks his phone and turns the screen to face me. He has two separate WhatsApp accounts. One is for his personal life. The other, the one that never stops jumping to life with notifications, is for Gangwatch.

There are 28 WhatsApp groups and then further splinter groups,” he says, scrolling through a long list, each one named for a different Cape Flats area.

Then there are what Smith calls the “secret groups”: Ones on which he masquerades as a gang member so that he can keep his ear to the ground in terms of gang activities.

There are further Gangwatch Facebook pages and a centralised website on which Smith and a small number of admin volunteers post information about the latest gang-related crimes.

The posts often include gory photographs of dead bodies, with the faces concealed. Smith considers this an important element of his information-sharing.

I want people to see what really happened, so people start seeing what crime is like and what gangs are like,” he says.

He launched Gangwatch in 2013, seeing in the rise of social media a chance to mobilise people against crime in a safe way.

People in our communities are scared to unite physically. But I promised people that if they gave me information they could stay anonymous,” Smith says.

He says he receives between 30 and 50 pieces of information per day at the moment. Some relate to areas to avoid because of shooting, others are reports of crimes already committed, and some are tips implicating individual gangsters in criminal activity, which Smith shares with the police.

Smith shows me a photograph sent to him of a man posing with a giant assault weapon, thousands of rands fanned out before him in notes on a bed.

That was a gangster from Lavender Hill. We pimped him [exposed him to the police],” he says, with a trace of pride.

Smith confirms that things are bad at the moment. Very bad.

From yesterday till today I recorded about seven murders,” he says.

In his view, part of the problem is that police lack the ability or will to pre-empt crime by gathering adequate intelligence. But he sees the gangsterism problem as part of a much wider socioeconomic malaise on the Cape Flats. He is worried that nothing will change until youngsters have jobs and life in the gangs seems like a less enticing option.

Until then, he has given up on the idea that policing alone can deal with the crisis.

It’s only the community that can save us,” Smith says.

***

Nobody knows exactly what has caused gang violence on the Cape Flats to escalate so drastically this year, with at least 900 people murdered in the first six months of 2019 alone. (Those are the Western Cape government’s statistics, based on mortuary records; many Cape Flats residents believe the real figure is much higher.)

The City of Cape Town’s JP Smith has pointed the finger at an increase in released parolees and a failure to adequately prosecute alleged gangsters. The availability of illegal cellphones in prisons is believed to play a part, with much gang violence allegedly organised from behind bars. The continuing circulation of illegal firearms remains a constant problem.

Of major concern to many Cape Flats residents is the fact that the violence is not just escalating in terms of body count, but also spreading geographically: affecting suburbs once considered reasonably stable, and even extending to rural areas to which gangsters flee from the city when the heat is on.

Increasingly, the perception is that nowhere is safe.

Nowhere on the Cape Flats, that is.

Driving residents’ frustrations to a fever pitch is the knowledge that elsewhere in Cape Town, in the better-resourced suburbs where tourists flock, life is quite different.

Our streets are dark,” Francina Lukas told a small crowd of protesters gathered outside Parliament on Thursday 11 July. “We want [CCTV] cameras in our areas also!”

Community policing forums picket Parliament on Thursday before handing a memorandum of demands to a representative of Police Minister Bheki Cele. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Lukas, the acting chair of the Western Cape Community Policing Forum (CPF) structures, was at Parliament to hand over a memorandum of demands to a representative of Police Minister Bheki Cele.

Cele himself could not collect the memorandum, but Lukas explained to her fellow demonstrators — most of whom were drawn from Cape Flats CPFs and neighbourhood watches — that the minister had already met their leadership that morning to hear their concerns.

Among their demands: A state of emergency to be declared in gang hot spots, with the army brought in as a “force multiplier”. Mass deployment of additional police resources. Specialised courts set up to deal with gang crime, with no bail for gangsters.

And, importantly, an end to the in-fighting currently cleaving the Western Cape’s police leadership — a situation of instability which is viewed as fostering an environment in which police corruption can flourish.

This [protest] is not political,” Lucinda Evans, the CPF chair for Mitchell’s Plain, insisted. “Our mandate is the blood that is flowing through our community.”

Over the weekend of 13 and 14 July, a crime summit is being convened to urgently discuss the situation on the Cape Flats. The CPF volunteers have been promised that seven ministers will be present, with provincial MECs and the Mayor of Cape Town.

Will anything come of it? Nobody seems confident; they have seen too many crime talk-shops come and go, while the Cape Flats body-count grows.

Late on Thursday 11 July, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde released a statement announcing that President Cyril Ramaphosa had indeed “authorised the employment of the SANDF to the worst-affected crime areas in the province”.

The Western Cape government said it welcomed the announcement, but responses on the Cape Flats are likely to be more conflicted. In the past, some activists have argued that a military presence could stoke tensions and can only ever be a short-term intervention to address a much more complex set of challenges.

Opposite Parliament, Thursday’s protesters had lined up placards to be seen by passing traffic.

One read: “Mothers are tired of crying. Our tears have dried up!”

An elderly woman from Delft who had joined the demonstration nodded as she inspected the placard.

Ja,” she said emphatically. “It’s true.” DM

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