Cape Flats: On the border of war and privilege

At Lavender Hill, the evening light does little to soften the bleak surroundings, as children play in the dirt. 
(David Harrison, M&G)

At Lavender Hill, the evening light does little to soften the bleak surroundings, as children play in the dirt. (David Harrison, M&G)

It’s Friday night on the Cape Flats. The wind whips between the three-storey brick ­tenements, shaking the few lights that still work and rattling the washing lines strung along the courtyards. Shadows move between the carcasses of abandoned taxis and rubbish skips.
Here, the dogs bark unrelentingly.

The police helicopter hovers above. Its blades thump in the air, first low and heavy, then crackling as the pilot turns and comes around again.

“Sergeant, to your left, in that patch of grass.” The co-pilot guides me with a strong beam from the front spotlight. “Looks like he threw a firearm when he ran …”  

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The bright circle on the ground shakes and jerks as the chopper struggles against the southeaster. I search in its glare, kicking aside the broken bottles, lifting a broken mattress that sends black beetles scurry-ing. The gnarled leg of a dog sticks out from a pile of rubble. I can smell its sour decay when I bend down.  Dust and torn pieces of plastic swirl around me, covering me in grit. My eyes can hardly make out the ground at my feet. There is no firearm here.

The helicopter shifts overhead, leaving me momentarily in ­darkness, only to return, lower down now, bathing me in light and sand that kicks up against the sides of the vibracrete wall.

A gunshot goes off further away. The thud of choppers and the sound of gunfire: it feels like a movie, it feels like warfare.  If my son looked out of his room in the loft, he would be able to see this small aircraft hovering way in the distance, its stream of light connecting it like a cord to some unknown road, somewhere out on the Flats. I’m troubled by the thought that he might see, but not know I am there.

Two shots in rapid succession, from the other side of the nearest tenement. “They’re shooting in the field behind the flats!” a constable shouts over the radio.

The spotlight hesitates, and then with a roar the helicopter banks and is gone. I stand in the dark, wiping my face with the back of my hand, careful not to touch my skin with my fingers. My partner is standing on the corner of the block, watching for movement from the windows above.  They shoot policemen here.

I give up my search and start moving cautiously towards him. A ­curtain stirs at an upstairs window.  “Boere poes!” shouts a woman, a glimpse of pink and green curlers before she pulls her head back.

“Fok jou,” I mutter to myself, ­eyeing the windows around her.

We return to our station in the early hours of the morning. My body is slick with grime; my boots are coated in mud and excrement. A ­silver Merc SLK is parked outside the station, incongruously sandwiched between two ageing vans.

Something is wrong, I realise the moment I walk into the charge office.

An embarrassed silence descends the moment I enter, like the forced stillness of parents who have been arguing when their child barges in. The young black constables, usually jovial and loud, are looking away, playing with their cellphones, quietly engrossed in paperwork.

The warrant officer is at the ­counter: beside him stands an immaculately dressed, middle-aged white woman. Her blonde hair is set – just so – and her long legs and short fake-fur coat contrast starkly with the grubbiness that is our charge office. The counter top seems that little more scarred, the floor more scuffed than usual.

It takes me a moment to realise that she is standing on the wrong side of the counter – the accused side. On the public side, a pretty young woman is fretting. The moment is excruciating in its silent desperation. A daughter comes to bail her mother out on a charge of drunken driving.

I glance at the paperwork. Breathalyser analysis indicates she is three times over the limit. The time of arrest indicates that she is being released after only an hour, not the four hours usually required. He hasn’t put her in the cells with the others. He’s releasing her early.  But arrest has not, unfortunately, imbued her with humility. Nor has alcohol improved her innate inclination to entitlement.  

My arrival has brought but a temporary lull. The mother eyes me warily; I am aware that I don’t smell quite as fresh as I might. Then she starts to cluck, her tongue clicking with disapproval, her eyes rolling with impatience. The daughter starts to join in, a stereo of displeasure. “Why is it taking so long,” the daughter huffs. “This place is filthy,” the mother charges, glaring at the constables, who lower their heads defensively. “How can you keep someone like me … like this!”

“Why can’t you go and fight real crime?” The daughter says this as her eyes sweep accusingly over the constables. The barbarian horde. She looks across at me, all coiffed and healthy and hopeful. I am to be her ally and saviour.

“Fok jou,” I mutter in my mind as I turn away.

Advocate Andrew Brown is a police reservist

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