Maverick Citizen


Flamingo Heights: A small Cape settlement with a big heart fights threat of gangsterism and drugs

Flamingo Heights: A small Cape settlement with a big heart fights threat of gangsterism and drugs
Residents say the selling of drugs has increased over the years in the Flamingo Heights informal settlement in Lansdowne, Cape Town. (Photo: Vincent Cruywagen)

Flamingo Heights in the Western Cape is different from most informal settlements. The shacks are erected in neat, straight lines. The road into the area is spacious so that emergency vehicles can easily gain access. Flamingo Heights has so much potential, according to care worker Pamela Tosh, but it’s threatened by drugs and gangsters infiltrating the area.

Flamingo Heights, lying behind the business hub in Lansdowne on the Cape Flats, was developed by the City of Cape Town 15 years ago to accommodate the homeless who slept at the Lansdowne train station.

According to ward councillor Mark Kleinschmidt, Flamingo Heights is home to about 100 families – around 400 people in all, roughly a quarter of whom are children.

Over the years the drug trade in the area has grown, with gangs like the Yakkies and the Back Streets vying for control. The Yakkies was one of the first gangs to operate in the area in 2007. Two years later, the Back Street gang set up camp in Flamingo Heights and a turf war broke out.

Kleinschmidt said criminal elements also come into Flamingo Heights from neighbouring Hanover Park.

On Tuesday, 3 August, Maverick Citizen visited the area and spoke to residents. Nobody bothered with masks or physical distancing. One of the things that separates Flamingo Heights from some settlements on the Flats is the paved road that leads into and out of the area. The corrugated iron shacks are solidly built and painted by the City of Cape Town with fire retardant paint.

By 11am the area was bustling. Music played and people basked in the sun, some drinking alcohol. Teens were spotted openly smoking weed. A lot of young children were at home due to the closure of the Early Development Centre which is being refurbished.

Prior to Maverick Citizen’s visit, a police foot patrol arrested a 19-year-old for allegedly possessing drugs. 

Stray dogs are a problem in the area, with some being used as currency in fights and to breed fighting dogs.

When Kleinschmidt took office in August 2016, he began calling for the rehabilitation of the area. “I identified substance abuse, truancy, child neglect, unemployment and anti-social behaviour as issues that needed to be addressed.”

Police spokesperson Colonel Andrè Traut says Lansdowne SAPS is aware of the drug problem in Flamingo Heights and that attention is being given to the situation.

“Search warrants were executed in many of the suspected houses and foot patrols were conducted by the Crime Prevention Unit… Flamingo residents are not willing to report these drug activities to police.”

Flamingo Heights informal settlement in Lansdowne, Cape Town, has become a second home to care worker Pamela Tosh. (Photo: Vincent Cruywagen)

Tackling the high number of children not attending school, care worker Pamela Tosh endeavours to find a way forward for the kids for next year.

“They have missed out two years already. I’ve seen teens and kids who are in the clutches of addiction being kicked to the wayside,” she said.

For the past 18 months, Tosh has focused on helping children at Flamingo Heights. Before that, she assisted the homeless community at Lansdowne train station with collecting water.

She is also trying to improve relationships between community leaders and local business owners so that resources can be mobilised to uplift the community and help them become self-sustainable.

Getting residents to speak about the growing problem of drugs and gangs is not easy because of the fear of being targeted for speaking out.

A 45-year-old man living in the area since 2004, speaking on condition of anonymity, said taking a stand and speaking out against gangsters, drug dealers and community leaders was like signing your own death warrant.

“Fighting between community leaders to control the drug trade is the biggest problem in our camp. Some mothers drink till late, while children as young as four are seen running around at 11pm.

“Drugs are brought in by gangs from Hanover Park… sellers make thousands of rands. Their customers mostly live in and around the camp, as well as people you least expect.”

He explains the movement of drugs in the area: “For example, I get 100 pills from a dealer in Hanover Park. Once I’m left with 15 tablets, I phone my dealer. He will rock up at the site with another consignment of 100 pills… I will give him his money and take my share.”

Virginia Jacobs (53) enjoys being a crèche teacher and looking after children in Flamingo Heights informal settlement in Lansdowne, Cape Town. (Photo: Vincent Cruywagen)

On the proliferation of gangs, he said the Yakkies were the first in the area. Then the Back Street gang moved in and wiped out the Yakkies. Now some of the Back Street members live in Flamingo Heights to keep an eye on their drugs and keep rival gangs out.

But there are still residents committed to ensuring that crucial services are not impeded. Helping kids to learn while the ECD centre is closed has become the responsibility of teacher Virginia Jacobs.

She is one of several women incorporated into the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), where she sweeps the streets. On her days off, she teaches children out in the open on the paved road.

Sheila Sidras goes out of her way to make sure that dogs in the Flamingo Heights informal settlements in Lansdowne, Cape Town, are taken care of. (Photo: Vincent Cruywagen)

Sheila Sidras (65) has lived in the area since 1998 and cares for stray dogs who regularly find their way to her shack for a little love and a meal.

“Dogs are not properly looked after. Owners need to be educated on how to treat their pets. Some owners go out and leave their dogs without water.

“I’m satisfied with where I’m living. There are a lot of bad things happening here, but I don’t interfere with the affairs of others,” she said.

In the past year, Kleinschmidt and the sub-council have employed people through the EPWP, in the solid waste directorate, to keep the area clean.

In addition, 20 women were upskilled in the Women for Change Programme, where they were trained in anti-bullying, anti-substance abuse, care for the elderly, financial management and first aid.

Patric Solomons, director of child rights group Molo Songololo, explains that children in Flamingo Heights, like in so many other settlements and suburbs, are victims of substance abuse and gangsterism.

“They are exposed to drug use by their parents, adults and young people around them, and have access to alcohol and drugs from an early age. Some are used to sell drugs.

“The increased job losses and loss of income due to Covid-19 have increased economic hardships and desperation. More and more adults and parents are turning to selling alcohol and drugs as a means of income.”

Children with whom Molo Songololo are working, he said, report that more and more of the people (parents, family members and neighbours) they live with abuse alcohol and drugs, and fall prey to gangsters and drug dealers.

“They report that kids as young as 12 regularly use alcohol or drugs. In some cases, together with their parents or adults they live with.

“Children also complain that they feel unsafe when people drink and take drugs. When parents sell alcohol and drugs, their children are subjected to sexual abuse by those who come to buy this stuff. They also witness violent clashes, stabbings, people being shot and killed,” he said.

Molo Songololo’s prevention and intervention programmes, he emphasised, are unable to protect children in areas like Flamingo Heights from harm, and to hold those who neglect, abuse and harm them accountable.

To address these social ills, Solomons suggests the mobilisation of ordinary community members.

In terms of substance abuse, the nearest organisations able to help are the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA) in Athlone (021 638 5116) and Sultan Bahu Hanover Park (021 691 8042). They offer community-based treatment as well as early intervention and aftercare services.

Flamingo Heights residents can also report crimes to SAPS Lansdowne on 021 700 9000 or the City’s emergency number 021 480 7700 or 107 from a landline. DM/MC


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