Police Minister Bheki Cele has told communities in Westbury they can now “sleep peacefully” as he introduced policing units to clamp down on crime in the area.
A small crowd gathered to watch the procession of the Tactical Response Team (TRT) and the National Intervention Unit (NIU) on Thursday, which Cele had earlier promised would be deployed to the area.
Earlier this week, the minister promised to address gang-related crime and police corruption and these units are an indication of him making good on that promise.
The community began protesting the day after Heather Peterson (46) was fatally shot in the crossfire between alleged gang members on Thursday last week. A 10-year-old was also injured in the melee and remains in hospital in a critical condition.
Peterson had reportedly left her house to collect the report card of the child.
Thursday’s address opened with a prayer led by community leader Bishop Dalton Adams.
Adams said Thursday would be Westbury’s “red-letter day” and “a new beginning for our community”.
“We are asking for a fundamental change that will bring peace to our community,” he said.
On Thursday Cele made a plea to the teams deployed to Westbury saying: “Officers we are here to protect the community … We are here to arrest gangsters … But please protect the community,” he said.
Westbury residents have expressed their dissatisfaction with the local Sophiatown police station, that they say is complicit in the onslaught of gang-related crimes in recent years.
The police have also clamped down on the community since the start of the protests. On Monday, eight protesters were arrested.
Cele told the crowd that he has deployed a team of 133 officers to Westbury, though ten of those would be undercover and living amongst the community.
The minister said that the officers would not hold back in rooting out criminals. He said they had compiled a list of wanted perpetrators.
“Officers you go and knock and get us all wanted criminals … You go and knock, if not, kick in the door,” he said.
Cele pointed to the high murder rate in Westbury, saying that last year 33 people had been killed, and 36 the year before.
The minister suggested that the teams would not shy away from using force in tackling gangsterism.
“If they want to play with their toys — their guns — they must come,” he said, adding that the offers he had deployed to the area would not be using rubber bullets.
Cele called on Westbury to welcome and support the teams, asking that residents not engage in clashes with the authorities.
He said the community can now go home and “sleep peacefully”. “You made a request and your government has responded,” Cele said.
Cele’s address was met with applause and members of the crowd exclaiming: “Thank you minister”.
But members of the community are still sceptical of show put on by Cele on Thursday.
Photographer Michael Abrahams, who grew up in Westbury, told the Mail & Guardian that the proceedings were certainly a “show of force” and a “display of the minister’s commitment”. But the teams will still have to demonstrate that they have the intelligence to truly penetrate the drug dens, Abrahams said.
He said hope would play an integral part in restoring the community’s faith in government and the authorities.
Bishop Mellow Du Plessis said he is happy to see the minister has kept his word.
But he told the M&G that he is concerned that the community is ready for the specialised task teams to take over the streets of Westbury.
Du Plessis said, if the community is afraid of the police they encounter daily, “these units can be far worse”.
He added that the community needs to be educated on how to deal with the heightened police presence.
“There also needs to be consistency from the police,” he said.
The address was closed with a procession of the units on the Westbury Open Grounds. The community joined in on the fanfare, some dancing to the music played by the brass band.