In the ice cold dimly lit morning, an angry protester stands in front of a traffic light on Jakes Gerwel Drive outside Bonteheuwel, Cape Town, waving her arms and yelling in front of the police.
“We’re going to stand here and they can do what they’d like to do, because in ‘76 we were standing here for Bonteheuwel, so this is what is going to happen here today,” she shouted, her fist punching the air.
It was the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, and Bonteheuwel was burning in August ‘76. At the time Ashley Kriel, a Bonteheuwel-born MK activist mourned as a martyr on the Cape Flats, was just 10 years old. The first known victim to be killed by apartheid police during the student protests in Bonteheuwel was 15-year-old Christopher Truter. He had been shot in the head outside Arcadia High School, while he had been on his way to pick up school books.
Three years later, Kriel would organise his first protest march. He would help form a group called GAP where he and his two best friends, Gavin and Paul, would be the cool cats in Bonteheuwel. GAP was the teenagers’ answer to the gangsterism in the community that had begun to attract more and more youngsters to crime.
It’s been 42 years and Bonteheuwel is no longer officially classified as a “coloureds only” community. But the memories still linger and the gangsterism has gotten worse.
Nearly two weeks ago, six people were killed in Bonteheuwel in what is believed to be gang-related shootings. Here, each few streets are ruled by a different gang, peddling drugs and shooting at rival gangs in turf wars to secure power and control.
After the six killings, Bonteheuwel residents were fed up.
On Wednesday morning, in the early hours, residents rose from their warm beds to blockade the area during peak hour traffic in protest against gangsterism. The mass action was the first of its kind that residents could remember since the mass anti-apartheid demonstrations in ‘76, which had ignited young people in black and coloured townships to fight the apartheid regime.
Generally, protests are organised by certain community groups, but in this shut down of the area, ordinary residents and religious leaders joined grassroots initiatives in a show of unity.
Felicity King-Ramara has lost three family members to gangsterism. Her husband’s two sons, from a previous relationship, were both gunned down for being involved in gang activity in Bonteheuwel. One of the boys was shot while he was sleeping. Her sister’s son was also killed.
“But he was a gangster,” King-Ramara said, as she marched alongside fellow protesters on Wednesday, “He became a gangster because he was victimised. He was targeted and (they) threatened him that if he didn’t become a gangster they would kill him.”
The youngster, who was 24 when he died, had promise when he was younger. King-Ramara said he was a “brilliant sportsman” and conscientious about his academics but “felt he had no other choice but to become a gangster”.
“He was shot in a house by rival gangsters. They actually ambushed him.”
King-Ramara has been an activist in her community since the 1970s. She belonged to a women’s group called the United Women’s Congress, which was formed as a result of the ‘76 protests and as an organisation to unite women against apartheid.
In Bonteheuwel, like many gang communities, the onus has often been on women to lead protests and initiatives in order to protect their families.
“We are mothers. These are our children. I just want the community to adopt the saying that my child is your child,” she said.
The Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies, established in 2007, is respected across the community. The non-profit organisation began as a walking group for women to get fit and healthy in Bonteheuwel, but soon expanded to become a support group for the many women and mothers who struggle daily with the violence in the area.
“One day, my two daughters were almost in a crossfire. They were on their way to karate class and the sensei had to reverse because they were shooting. Just minutes after they left I heard gunshots, and I thought to myself: ‘my children just left the house’,” said Bernadette Humphries, a member of the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies.
For Margeret Wilson, Humphries’s friend and fellow activist in the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies, it has been a burden on women to be at the forefront of anti-gang activism.
“I’m a bit disappointed, because the men are sometimes saying, “hey, gaan man. You want to walk for nonsense.” But at the end of the day we’re doing it for our children,” said Wilson.
There were others in the protest who carried photographs of their sons and nephew who had died in gang violence.
During the course of the morning, all three entrances and exits to Bonteheuwel were blockaded by protesters. When two groups moved to block Jakes Gerwel Drive, an off-ramp from the N2 highway — a major arterial road linking the city centre to the airport and Cape Flats — traffic backed up and some cars hooted in support of the protesters.
But soon the police posted outside one of the protest groups started issuing warnings for them to move. The residents had been sitting on the ground, reciting prayers, when the police threw stun grenades and began firing rubber bullets. Residents threw bricks in retaliation.
By blocking the road, the residents had violated their protest permit, police said.
“They are still oppressing us,” one resident shouted at police. “They shoot at innocent people but they can’t shoot gangsters.”
The residents continued their protest determinedly until 10am when a memorandum of demands addressed to provincial police commissioner Lieutenant General Khombinkosi Jula was handed over to police. The demands included that there must be more police visibility and resources deployed to Bonteheuwel and that drug dens must be consistently raided to clamp down on drug abuse in the area.
But the community is well aware that at the root of the gangsterism in Bonteheuwel is a legacy of poverty and crime that began to take form during apartheid.
King-Ramara has spent her life trying to fight for freedom in Bonteheuwel, and in the complex web of crime and family, she knows that her neighbours are protecting gangs in their homes, even though they cause harm. They have no other breadwinners.
“Poverty will make people do anything,” she said.