Media must help and not exacerbate Westbury's problems

Amid a mix of unemployment and rampant drug addiction, and in alleged complicity with police, druglords have stepped into the gap left by the gangs in Westbury. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Amid a mix of unemployment and rampant drug addiction, and in alleged complicity with police, druglords have stepped into the gap left by the gangs in Westbury. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Mudney Halim, an activist and member of the Community Care Foundation, says:

In the article Westbury languishing under reign of its druglords, Ruth Hopkins claims that “the unmarked graves of seven boys stacked on top of one another” was found in the backyard of an old woman living in Westbury. She later in the article claims that a local “druglord known as Clinch” (a pseudonym, according to Hopkins) had something to do with it, and the old woman is his grandmother.

Just this introductory section makes one wonder why an investigative journalist did not abandon the rest of the hogwash in her article, and follow up the “lead” to what is possibly the biggest cover-up in the history of Westbury. One can only conclude from what she writes that there is a cover-up by a drug dealer, in collusion with corrupt police officials, to keep the matter (of the mass grave) under wraps.

There is a contradiction, though: “The Hawks and the national crime intelligence unit apparently oversaw the raid and, according to a police source who cannot be named for reasons of security, have been investigating Sophiatown police station for several months.”

Reading this, one is not sure if “Clinch’s” home was raided and he was arrested for the seven bodies found in his grandmother’s backyard, or if he was arrested in an unrelated raid on his operations. If, in fact, she is referring to the “mass grave”, an intervention by a national agency would have been widely known. So how did the discovery of seven bodies in a backyard grave escape the local grapevine and other press?

I am certainly not coming to the defence of gangsters, drug dealers or corrupt police. There is truth in some of the report, but it is lost in her sensationalist presentation of very serious challenges in working class and poor communities.

One cannot report on these issues in a vacuum or parachute into a community to extract your story without due consideration for the context as well as the consequences your reporting may have. There are also questions of ethical conduct and a responsibility to your informants that must be upheld. These basics were flouted by Hopkins and allowed by the editor. There are attempts to address the matters she raises by organised civil society, some of which are quoted in her article, but completely out of context.

There are many organisations working in Westbury (and other areas) that could do with exposure to showcase their work and valuable contribution they try to make, sometimes with extreme difficulty. The Mail & Guardian would do well to support their campaigns to gain access to basic human rights through the application of existing legislation by the agencies responsible.

If the M&G was serious about drug dealing, corruption and its socioeconomic consequences in places such as Westbury, it would help to be more regular in your coverage and consistent in your follow-up. In this way the M&G – and the media in general – can be party to resolving, not exacerbating, the problems.

The Wits Justice Project says:

On October 31, the Mail & Guardian published part of a Wits Justice Project investigation into police-community relations concerning Westbury druglords. It said seven bodies were found in the back yard of an infamous drug lord, a claim made by a police source who had overseen the raid. Community members also reported that bodies had been discovered. The SAPS denied such a raid took place and demanded a retraction.

The Wits Justice Project has investigated further. Eyewitnesses have confirmed the raid involving several police vehicles, a forensics vehicle and approximately 20 police officers in mid-May. Another eye witness, in the house when the raid took place, confirmed that human remains – it is unclear how many individuals they belonged to – were found buried in the back yard. A decomposing body was found in the house, as well as money and drugs. Two further eyewitnesses were in touch with the Wits Justice Project, but were too afraid to speak out, because they fear for their lives. It is for this reason that all eyewitnesses have to remain anonymous.

Some members of the Westbury community met with the journalist and wrote a letter to the M&G, expressing their discontent with the article. The Wits Justice Project offers a right of reply to all claims made in our work.

Key sources were provided with copies of this story weeks before it went to print – including a prominent leader of the Westbury community. We received no complaints. We would have been happy to take the concerns on board had these been communicated to us. We apologise for any concern this has caused for the Westbury community.

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