South Africa


The heartbreak of the Cape Flats

Police and soldiers during Bheki Cele’s visit for an update on the impact of the defence force deployment in crime-ridden areas on August 12, 2019 in Mitchells Plain, South Africa. (Photo: Jaco Marais/ Netwerk24 / Gallo Images)

On Tuesday 20 November 2019 Maverick Citizen began publishing a series of interviews with moms who have lost children to the gang violence in the Cape Flats. We want you to look these women in the eyes and understand their pain. Today, we are privileged to publish an essay by journalist and novelist Rehana Roussow, offering her personal close-to-home perspective on the origins and causes of the violence.

Rehana’s award winning first novel, ‘What will People Say?’ (2015), is a searing, heart-breaking fictionalised account of the life of the Fourie family, wracked by gang-violence in Hanover Park during the turbulent, changing South Africa of the late 1980s. It is a South African classic, recommended reading for anyone who cares about the marginalised people and communities of our country. Sadly though, the real-life stories we are telling today suggests that little has changed.


Anyone who thinks that gang violence on the Cape Flats is only criminal activity that can be solved by sending more men with guns on to its streets is sorely deluded. According to Western Cape mortuary figures, murder rates on the Cape Flats did not decrease in 2019 after the army was deployed, as they were in the 1980s, into already-traumatised communities.

The curtain of delusion about Cape Flats gangsters must be ripped wide open so that ancient and aching wounds can heal. Like everyone else, gangsters are humans with a history. They cannot be rehabilitated without acknowledgement of the trauma that brought them so low. Without the resources that other humans use to salve their pain, earn incomes and raise happy families, they will not easily break from their tragic past. Broken people often raise crippled children — across the world, not only on the Cape Flats.

It is absurd that so many people remain wilfully ignorant of the quantum of violence that for centuries was wrought on the inhabitants of the Cape Flats, that sparked the embers of the endemic bloodshed that burns brightly today. The settlers who arrived on the shores of the Cape in 1652 brought slaves stripped of their humanity, and perpetrated a genocide against the indigenous communities that roamed the Cape. These inhumane crimes remain unpunished, the victims received no justice and probably never will.

In 1996 I went to artist Pippa Skotnes’s exhibition titled Miscast: Negotiating Khoisan History and Material Culture at the National Gallery. My DNA mourned as I walked over glass-encased trophy skulls of my ancestor people, pierced with bullet holes. In the 17th century, whites-only churches in the Cape colony hosted shootings of Khoisan people after Sunday services. The people they regarded as “vermin” — who had no regard for fences and refused to be enslaved — were lined up in rows. An award was given to one settler who, with one bullet, killed the most Khoisan.

I am a great-great granddaughter of slaves; a great-granddaughter of survivors of slavery who lost most of their capital after the 1913 Land Act was promulgated; and I am a granddaughter and daughter of people flung out of their homes by the brutal Group Areas Act. For generations, my ancestors suffered traumatic emotional and financial damage wrought upon them for one reason alone — so that white families could prosper.

After abolition, every slave owner in South Africa received compensation for their loss. In 1835, German banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild loaned the British government £15-million, and the government added £5-million for a package to compensate slave owners for the precise loss of their human property. This represented 40% of the government’s annual income at the time, equivalent to £300-billion today. All British taxpayers repaid the loan, and their payments ended in 2015.

The British government did not pay a cent in reparation to the people they enslaved or their descendants, and until today has not uttered a word in apology. There was no compensation given to the people who had, under the force of chains and whips, built an oasis of agriculture stretching from Constantia to the Karoo.

Over the next few centuries, most black people on the Cape Flats became labour tenants on farms. Farmers could dismiss their labourers and evict them and their families from their homes with impunity. Until recently, white farmers could kill “trespassers” on their land without any fear of prosecution.

People employed on vineyards across the Cape received a daily tot of cheap wine from their employers. This form of payment began in the 17th century and was only outlawed in 2003. White farmers doled out wine to generations of pregnant female workers and some areas in the Western Cape now have the highest incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world. Babies of alcoholic mothers have low body weight, poor co-ordination, low intelligence and behavioural problems. Although farm workers are now paid in cash, many still spend their wages on alcohol, sold by farmers and illegal shebeens.

When apartheid became law after 1948, black residents on the Cape Flats were the first targets of the monstrous legislation passed by the National Party. The few thousand black people enfranchised on the basis of their land ownership were removed from the Cape voters roll. Families were split apart by race classification laws — some people managed to “pass” for white and some Ndlovus changed their surnames to Oliphant and settled in Bonteheuwel rather than Gugulethu. Hundreds of thousands of people were moved in government lorries from their homes to single-sex hostels or tiny houses and flats in arid, sand-swept townships.

When children on the Cape Flats rejected their gutter education in 1976, the region again descended again into a cauldron of violence. Police shot and killed 137 children in Elsies River, Bonteheuwel, Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu and injured many more. When the students rose up again in the 1980s, their demands included decent housing and equal salaries for all. Soldiers were sent on to the streets of the Cape Flats to join a decade-long killing spree. Not one of the policemen or soldiers responsible for killing children was prosecuted.

In the late 1970s women began flooding on to the Cape Flats from the homelands of Ciskei and Transkei with children stunted by kwashiorkor. The Western Cape was designated a “coloured labour preference area” — this prohibited the women from seeking work so they could feed, house and educate their children.

Government bulldozers moved into Crossroads and KTC to smash their flimsy shacks. Newspapers published similar photos every winter of a woman with a baby on her back sheltering under an umbrella, their meagre belongings scattered in the mud; and the debris of a shack shattered into matchsticks behind them. In the 1990s government-sponsored vigilantes, the witdoeke, shot and hacked to death people living in the shacks that sprouted like weeds. None of the people responsible for this onslaught have been prosecuted.

Our grandmothers and mothers, undereducated in a system that had never been geared for their economic progress, became domestic workers in the suburbs where they had been born and raised. In the afternoons they stood at school gates waiting for their madams’ children to escort them home. The white schools had libraries, laboratories and Olympic-sized swimming pools with diving boards.

On the Cape Flats, the domestic workers’ children walked alone after school, down violent streets, to unsupervised homes. Their schools had high drop-out rates, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction and gang violence. But against the odds the schools produced excellent teachers, writers, activists, lawyers, social workers, nurses and businessmen.

Our parents mowed the soft green lawns of whites-only municipal golf courses, cricket fields, rugby fields and bowling greens. They cooked and cleaned in the comfortable whites-only clubhouses, and served drinks at the bar. They polished the teak staircases and yellowwood floors of whites-only town halls that had stages and sound systems.

In the 17th century, the first business in the Cape was established by the VOC — a contingent of white men with slaves and guns. Today, gun-toting gangsters on the Cape Flats run huge business empires supplying addicts, slaves to drugs. The first big black businesses — shebeens and the taxi industry — were forged in violence and remain ensnared there today. Some gangsters and taxi bosses are psychopaths whose primary tool is a weapon — very similar in this regard to settlers, slave owners, land grabbers and apartheid’s policemen and soldiers. The only difference is that gangsters often go to jail.

People who believe that the Cape Flats is filled with criminals genetically predisposed to violence should pause before they tut-tut and welcome the army’s deployment to remember that the people living there are victims of all the worst crimes that can be unleashed on humanity — genocide, slavery and apartheid. They should take note that many victims of traumatic violence become perpetrators — see Israel, Bosnia, Rwanda and many more tragedies.

Mothers on the Cape Flats have since 1652 raised their children under the most punishing conditions. How do you nuture a child who is sold away from you to another slave owner? How do you love a child conceived in rape by your slave master? How do you prepare a child born in slavery for a prosperous future?

How do you cherish a baby conceived in the sin of miscegenation, condemned by the world’s most powerful churches? How do you maintain a relationship after your love across the colour bar is declared an act of immorality punishable by imprisonment? How do you build a family if the law does not allow you to live in the same area as the father of your children? How do you curb your children from taking up arms in a political struggle or when they join a gang which promises them economic power?

The Cape Flats doesn’t need more guns, its doesn’t need soldiers on its streets. What they need is huge teams of social workers going door-to-door and ticking off checklists on clipboards.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the racist UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was attacked by his conscience — or someone else’s, more likely — and asked Rothschild & Co for another loan to compensate the descendants of slaves for their suffering? The Cape Flats could do a lot with a few million pounds. We could build legitimate businesses for gangsters, golf courses, soccer stadiums, properly equipped schools, rehabilitation and healing centres and town halls with stages in every township. MC

Rossouw is the author of What Will People Say?, a novel about a family on the Cape Flats, trying against the odds to raise their children decently.


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