Gangsterism a way of life and death on the Flats

I witnessed my first killing in Hanover Park when I was not even 10 years old. It was a Saturday afternoon and we watched the gangsters “entertain” us in the way they did almost every weekend. Two gangs were chasing each other up and down the street, brandishing pangas, axes and “walking talls” (pick axe handles).

The gangsters did not really make contact with each other. It seemed like they were merely chasing each other, in one direction and then back again. One got the sense that they did not really want to fight, but were merely passing time, as we were doing by watching them.

Then one of the gang members fell and was left behind by his fellow gang members. The members of the rival gang were able to set upon him. They stabbed him, hacked at him, kicked him, hit him as hard as they could and finally left his lifeless body lying in the street.

That was the end of the gang fight, as the gang members blended quickly into the blocks of flats where they came from, no doubt with the gang who had lost a member contemplating their revenge.

We were watching from our kitchen window, like one would be watching a street soccer game. The body lay there for a few hours before an ambulance and police arrived to take it away. In that time hundreds of residents, not directly linked to the gang, had gone up to watch the body. Someone covered it and, if we had lived in the time of cell phones and selfies, pictures would probably have been uploaded to Instagram and other social media platforms within seconds.

I don’t know what happened to the killers but I’m almost convinced that they walked away scot-free, despite the fact that the killing happened in broad daylight and in front of witnesses.

I was not traumatised, because this is what we expected should happen in our township. Watching someone being killed was as natural as being mugged on your way to school in the morning or being terrorised in other ways by gangsters.

I remember once walking with a good friend past the bus terminus in Hanover Park at night. We were warned not to walk past the terminus, because it was one of those places that could be dangerous even during the day. But we were going to visit two sisters who lived on the other side of the terminus and it is difficult to keep testosterone-driven teenage boys away from girls. Even if their lives were in danger.

Suddenly we sensed that someone was behind us. We both moved out of the way and a guy who we recognised came tumbling in between us, with a knife in his hands. We quickly grabbed him and disarmed him. We asked him what he was doing and he said that his brother had been attacked earlier by the gang that lived across the road from the terminus – I think it was the Mongrels – and he was seeking revenge by attacking anyone in sight.

He pleaded with us, because we had overpowered him, to finish him off. But that was not our intention – we wanted to get to the girls as soon as possible – and we let him go, realising that he was probably not going to stop his “revenge” attacks. He would probably end up finding someone else to attack.

I am often asked how I ended up not getting involved in gangs, and I don’t know the answer, which is probably complicated. But gangsterism informed much of my young life. The people involved in gangs were our brothers, cousins and friends.

Quite often the only thing that determined which gangs you would end up joining was your geographical location. So, if you lived in Solent Court, like I did, you became a member of the Bowa Kids; if you lived in Derwent Court, you joined the Sexy Boys; and if you lived in Soetwaterhof, you ended up in the Pipekillers.

For many youngsters who felt rejected by society, gangs became family, a home where they felt they belonged and they were determined to prove their loyalty and commitment.

What I described above happened about 40 years or more ago, but the situation has not changed much in places like Hanover Park, with the only difference in most cases being that gangsters now brandish guns more than knives.

I no longer live in Hanover Park but I realised how all our lives remain intertwined when someone who lives around the corner from me in Rondebosch got arrested for allegedly supplying guns to gangsters. Without trying to pre-empt the courts, if he is found guilty, his sentence should send a warning that these kinds of activities will not be tolerated.

The gang situation on the Cape Flats is complicated as it is, and will probably never really be sorted out as long as you have people living in economic conditions which are ripe for the growth of gangs.

But people should know that if you sell guns illegally to gangsters, you will be jailed; if you buy stolen goods from gangsters, you will be jailed; if you harbour gangsters and help them to avoid the police, you will be jailed.

We might not be able to change economic conditions overnight, but we can reclaim our communities and make sure that gangsterism is curtailed, if not completely wiped out. There are many amazing people who live on the Cape Flats, but their stories and contributions to society are overshadowed by gangsters who make the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 23 July 2016)