South Africa


Violent deaths are nothing new in Eldorado Park, but residents pray for change

Violent deaths are nothing new in Eldorado Park, but residents pray for change
Bridget Harris in her home enshrined with pictures of her son Nathaniel Julies. Nathaniel Julies 16 who had downs syndrome was shot and killed with a shotgun close to his home in Eldorado Park on Wednesday 26 August. 2 police officers have been arrested and charged with his murder. 120920. Photo: Chris Collingridge

More than seven years ago, then president Jacob Zuma promised the residents of Eldorado Park that gangsterism, crime and “lolly lounges” would be dealt with. Now, as the dust settles after the police shooting of a 16-year-old mentally challenged youngster, residents are wondering if anything will ever change in the place they call home.

Clint Smith tried to count the pea-sized holes that peppered his dead stepson’s torso. But he lost count.  

He would later be told there were 150 holes scattered across 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies’ chest, stomach and arms.

The holes were caused by shotgun pellets, allegedly fired by a SAPS officer from a distance of around 10 metres.  

Stepfather Clint Smith, two-year-old Noah and mother Bridget Harris at their Eldorado Park home. Pictures of Nathaniel Julies adorn the walls.  Nathaniel, 16, who had Down syndrome, was shot and killed allegedly by police on 26 August. Three police officers have been arrested in connection with his death. 
(Photo: Chris Collingridge)

It was during his visit to the mortuary that Nathaniel’s grandfather, James Frank Julies, collecting the teenager’s clothes, found a packet of biscuits the youngster had bought moments before being shot.

“You know that was his pastime… eating biscuits,” says Julies of his grandson, who was born with Down syndrome.

James Frank Julies, grandfather of Nathaniel Julies, next to one of the many banners erected at the site of Nathaniel’s death. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Eleven years earlier, in a different part of Johannesburg, another family stepped into a mortuary and also tried to count the bullet holes in their teenage son’s body.

In 2009, 15-year-old Alexander Thys died after being struck in the head, chest and groin with shotgun pellets fired by an Ekurhuleni metro police (EMPD) officer. Three other boys, Christopher Bosch, Ethan Erasmus and Shan Sebatie, were injured and had to undergo surgery.

At the time, the EMPD claimed they had used rubber bullets to disperse a crowd at a party in Delmore Park that was throwing stones at them.

Both Nathaniel Julies and Alexander Thys died from wounds caused by ammunition that was outlawed for use by law enforcement in 2006.  

Birdshot is a type of ammunition used by apartheid security forces when dispersing crowds. Unlike the rubber bullets generally used in crowd control today, birdshot travels at a much higher velocity. It pierces organs.

Although many years have passed since the demise of apartheid, the language used by communities to describe the police is unchanged. They are called “trigger-happy”, “gangsters”, “useless”.  

James Frank Julies, grandfather of Nathaniel Julies’ grandfather, at the site of Nathaniel’s death. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

It is nearly three weeks since Nathaniel was gunned down just metres from his home.  

Some of the anger might have dissipated, but the shooting has again highlighted a forgotten community that keeps battling the scourge of drugs, violent crime and alcohol abuse. 

It is a place where residents fear to walk the streets and policemen are only seen when they whiz past in their patrol vans. Or, say the residents, when they stop to harass the Bangladeshi shopkeepers.

“You can call the police, but they just never come,” says Leverne Nero, a resident of Hillbrow Flats, across from where Nathaniel was shot.

“You can’t walk around here after 7pm… you will be robbed.”

Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, is a predominantly coloured area that was established in 1965 under the old Group Areas Act.

Over the years it has gained a reputation for being a crime-ridden suburb, plagued by drug use and gang violence. But while poverty is seen as a driver of these problems, the suburb is reasonably well off when compared to other parts of South Africa. 

According to the 2011 Census, the average household income in Ward 18, which comprises most of Eldorado Park, was R57,300 a year. This is double that of the rest of Gauteng. Unemployment in the area, however, remains high. 

The Census estimated that 39% of residents were employed, compared to 50% for the rest of Gauteng. A more recent statistic by the City of Johannesburg put the unemployment rate for Eldorado Park at 35%.

The economic slump caused by the Covid-19 lockdown is likely to have pushed the unemployment figure even higher.  

There was a time, though, when it seemed “Eldos” was on the path to winning the war against drugs and crime, and it all had to do with the actions of one desperate mother.

Former president Jacob Zuma visited Eldorado Park on May 14, 2013, in response to a letter written to him by the mother of a drug addict. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

In 2013 Dereleen James wrote a letter to then president Jacob Zuma. She addressed the letter Dear Dad, and wrote about the difficulty of living with a son who was a drug addict.

“The purpose of this letter is to inform you of the critical and dying state our children are in. Dad, we need you to help us mothers save our children. A wave of drugs has swept over our community and has taken over our lives,” she wrote.

It was enough to get Zuma to visit Eldos.

“We won’t make promises and not act. We will act. I will drive the programme myself,” Zuma said at the time.

Zuma set up an interdepartmental steering committee that included then Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane and then police minister Nathi Mthethwa.

In a plan that bypassed the local police station, a special intervention team was set up. This included the police tactical response team, the flying squad and provincial units. They were tasked with hunting down drug dealers. There were roadblocks and raids on the “lolly lounges”, the local name for drug dens.  

Residents listen to former president Jacob Zuma during a visit to Eldorado Park seven years ago. Residents begged him to sort out the drug problem in the township. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

Five months after Zuma’s visit, Mokonyane claimed that police had made 1,400 drug arrests, 206 arrests for drinking and driving, and had recovered 26 illegal firearms.

Local government, she said, had also recruited 300 young people to help maintain the area, and had sent 45 nyaope addicts to rehabilitation.

But many felt the law enforcement effort ended too soon.    

 “It lasted just three months, then everything was removed and everybody forgot about it,” says Eldorado Park DA ward councillor Fazel Jaffer.

Since then, residents say the drug problem has become worse.

“The youth buy drugs as if they are buying bread,” sighs Nero.

To solve Eldorado Park’s problems, Jaffer feels the community itself needs to act, and not rely on the government.  

“That is why I am saying to my community, let’s start organising ourselves, let’s start equipping ourselves with information and knowledge in order to take on this government,” says Jaffer. 

“The Freedom Charter says the people shall govern, so let’s start governing. In terms of housing, crime fighting… even in terms of economic opportunities.”

But in the last couple of months, residents of Eldorado Park have caught a glimpse of how things could be if the community managed to get a handle on its drug and alcohol problem.

For the first time, born and bred Eldorado Park resident, Romain Alves, saw her township without alcohol. It was during Level 5 of the lockdown and there was the alcohol ban. “People weren’t driving around drinking… there was no drinking on the streets. It was just perfect,” she recalls.

But the drinking is back.

On a Saturday afternoon on Nikkle Crescent, near to where Nathaniel was shot, knots of young men drink from quart beer bottles. Some are already heavily drunk. Around them are reminders from when the police came in to quell the unrest sparked by Nathaniel’s death. There are the windows that were shot out in Hillbrow flats, courtesy of cops firing rubber bullets. And shotgun shells could still be spotted lying in the road.

A hawker passes the spot where teenager Nathaniel Julies was shot and killed in Eldorado Park, allegedly by police. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

The young men with the quart bottles knew Nathaniel. They would watch him dance and play and they called him Lockie. “These were his palle, (friends) – Lockie was all over,” says James Frank Julies.

Not far from Hillbrow flats, Nathaniel’s family had gathered in their yard. Three weeks on, and there are still many unanswered questions about those last moments of the teenager’s life.  

They want to know why Nathaniel had walked over to the police van.

“I think he was attracted to the flashing lights,” says his grandfather. “You have to step into his world; your world doesn’t make sense to him.”

The Hillbrow flats in Eldorado Park where teenager Nathaniel Julies spent much of his time playing with other children. He was shot and killed, allegedly by police, on 26 August. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Then there is the most tragic question of all. Why did a policeman shoot an unarmed, mentally challenged teenager who struggled to speak?

Perhaps answers will emerge in the upcoming court case, or even from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) investigation.

But there is one positive thing Nathaniel’s mother, Bridget Harris, hopes will come from the tragedy. That his death might bring about the change politicians promised back in 2013. That his death will have more of an impact than that of Alexander Thys, all those years ago.

“I just hope his death won’t be in vain,” she says. DM


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