/ 22 August 2013

Gangs in Cape Town: A daily dance with death

Schools in Manenberg were closed for two days after gang violence flared up.
Schools in Manenberg were closed for two days after gang violence flared up.

Tamia de Louw is just 16, but she knows all too well that sickening feeling that grips her when the gang shooting starts in Manenberg outside Cape Town. If she is at home, she crawls under her bed to avoid stray bullets. If she is walking to or from school, and she hears shooting, she will frantically run for cover.

Children live with fear all the time in this impoverished Cape Flats township, she said, and it is no different at Manenberg High School.

"There are a lot of emotions we go through, and we know there are a lot of gangsters at Manenberg High School," De Louw said earnestly. "Now we have three metro police vans in our school, we feel safer. But I worry while I am here about walking home. Even at school we can hear the gunshots outside."

De Louw said she throws herself into her studies to take her mind off her environment. "Manenberg has never felt like home," she said.

"It is a scary place. We are not safe here. We have to constantly watch out for stray bullets and we can't even hang out the washing. You just get caught in the crossfire."

The teenager hopes to one day  become a business lawyer, and she is working hard to get good marks. At school, she said, nobody interferes with her studies, not even the known gang members among the pupils.

"Nobody is rude to me in here. I am not scared when I am at school," she said defiantly, eyes flashing. "Respect for everybody goes a long way."

Extensive raids
Last week, 14 schools in Manenberg were closed for two days by the provincial government because of an increase in gang fighting. Premier Helen Zille has made R6-million available for security from the education budget, and three Metro police vans are expected to remain at Manenberg High School until the end of the year. "Safe corridors", which police will patrol when children and teachers walk to school and back home again, are also being created around the school.

Though Zille has called on President Jacob Zuma to send in the army to sort out the gangs, this has not happened. However, in a show of unity, members of the South African Police Service joined forces with the provincial police last weekend to conduct extensive raids on gang homes in Manenberg.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa issued a statement this week, saying there could be no instant relief from gangsterism.

"Gangsterism is a deep-seated legacy of more than 200 years, and the Western Cape as a whole has various hot-spot areas that cut across different communities and races," he said. "Our crime analysis indicates that Manenberg, through intensive and integrated operations, has been showing signs of stabilisation over the last three months."

Though none of the pupils have been known to carry guns at Manenberg High, some have been found carrying knives and other weapons. The headmaster, Thurston Brown, said he and the staff recently identified as many as 28 gang members who were pupils at the school.

The boys range in age from 13 to 18. "I recently sent them all home for a week and a half, so we could have time to talk to their parents," said Brown. "We told the children they could come and collect work after school, but not many did. They are not interested in their school work now; their focus is on gang life.

"Some of the parents are still in denial about the fact that their children are involved in gangs, but others are willing to help their children."

Unemployment and poverty
Brown has been working at the school for more than 30 years and appears to be as dedicated as they come. Around his desk are portraits of the school's marimba band and the teachers are now hoping to try to channel some of the children's energies into sport. Alongside the school is a playing field, but there are no rugby posts and the school does not own bats and cricket wickets – they will have to raise funds for these extras. Only 35% of parents pay their low school fees, so funding is scarce.

Yet, with all the problems facing teachers at the school, and the high unemployment and poverty blighting the community, it is remarkable that last year the matric class had a 68% pass rate. This year, said Brown, they are hoping to achieve a 70% pass rate.

Michaela Hearne (18) and her friends believe the government should play a greater role in protecting the pupils from gangsterism.

Hearne described the gang fighting in the dense flatland area as nothing less than "terrifying". While she is happier to have the police officers on hand at school, she is concerned that she lost two days of school work last week. As she is already in grade 11, she is desperate to catch up and be on top of her subjects when she gets to matric.

With a ring through her upper lip, Hearne looks like any other teenager making a strong statement about her individuality. She smiled broadly when she explained that she would like to train to be a chef. "It is something I have always dreamed of since I was a little girl," she said, her face lighting up. "I love to cook."

Money is scarce and her family battles to survive, said Hearne. Some of her family members are gangsters, she admitted, but she cannot even greet them or she might get shot by rival gangs. As a result of the constant dangers facing her when she walks around her neighbourhood, her family has sent her to live in nearby Heideveld.

Never-ending battle
"I now come by taxi to Manenberg High School and live with my grandmother," said Michaela. "It is safer for me there in Heideveld. We get by – my granny looks after me."

Outside during breaktime, the children huddle in the cold corridors, where there is a never-ending battle to control graffiti, said teacher Cameron Williams.

Williams pointed out the graffiti sprayed on the walls to mark the stamp of the gangs in Manenberg – The Americans, the Hard Livings, and other relatively unknown splinter groups and youth gangs. "We try and keep on top of the graffiti and get rid of it as soon as we can," he said. "But you turn around and there is more on the walls."

Last week, Williams was part of a group of teachers who decided "enough is enough". Instead of reporting for work at their respective schools in Manenberg, they reported to the education offices instead, and explained their problems.

Now they have formed a teacher's committee in Manenberg to ensure their plight is never again overlooked. "We as teachers just knew we needed to do something, and they listened to us," he said.

On Monday the school doors opened again, but during the assembly shots were heard outside Manenberg High School. It was a chilling reminder that the situation is still far from normal.