Thousands of people crowded Muizenberg’s Sunrise beach this week to see the South African National Defence Force showcase its firepower. While those on the beach watched the fireworks-like display of rockets, guns and attack helicopters in awe, others were less than impressed with this year’s Armed Forces Day activities.
Residents of nearby settlements as well as the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party have criticised the event.
The beach is within walking distance of areas such as Lavender Hill, Seawinds and Vrygrond, which are affected by high rates of gang and gun violence, and activists say children suffering from trauma have had to deal with the sound of military guns and rockets.
The 2017-2018 crime statistics in the Steenberg policing district, under which Lavender Hill falls, show there were 85 murders, many of them gun-related, and 87 arrests in connection with the illegal possession of guns and ammunition.
Speaking during the event, as rocket flares and inert rounds rained down on the False Bay coastline, Lavender Hill activist Lucinda Evans said some children were visibly distressed.
“Our children have been exposed to so much gunfire and so much trauma that the backfire of a car’s exhaust pipe makes them flinch. How dare they come into our space when we are trying to raise our children in peace and harmony?”
She said the defence force and the national and municipal governments are tone-deaf to the plight of people affected by gun violence.
“Our children sometimes go to sleep with gunshots … They are going to be traumatised. What does this say about what the defence force thinks about the children on the Cape Flats?
“They can’t even protect us when we ask them to come to support the police. Now they’re shooting guns and bombs four kilometres away. It is such bad taste.”
Defence force spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi said there was sufficient consultation with surrounding communities in the build-up to the Armed Forces Day.
“It’s not the first time we are doing this demonstration. We’ve been doing this all over the country. It is part and parcel of Armed Forces Day … Our main aim is to showcase that we are capable of defending the country,” he said.
Mgobozi said the defence force has sympathy for gang-affected communities, and the intention was not to offend. “I understand the plight of the community. Not only in Cape Town, but across the whole country where we have situations of violence. But the main aim was to showcase, and not to traumatise people.”
Counsellors who deal with children affected by gang violence say the demonstration could undo the work done by schools and community workers.
Valdi van Reenen le Roux, the director of the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, said Cape Flats schools often call them to help children affected by gun violence.
“I’m feeling sorry for our teachers. In the next couple of days, we are going to have children who will have difficulty in concentrating. Because very often our children who face trauma deal with the responses through psychosomatic symptoms,” she said.
“I’m worried the sound of the military equipment will create jumpiness and raise anxiety in our children.”
She said gang and gun violence has obvious physical effects on Cape Flats residents, but there’s not enough focus on how violence affects the mental health of children.
“We have seen in the past few weeks there’s been an increase in suicide ideation. When we speak to the children, they are telling us that they can’t handle the violence any longer,” she said.
“The brain develops slower when it’s exposed to violence. So, unlike the brains of children who’ve never been exposed to violence, whose brains will develop normally. A child who has been exposed to violence won’t,” Van Reenen said. “And this has an obvious effect on the child’s ability to learn, and has knock-on effects later in life.”
Evans said it’s the parents, teachers and community workers who have to deal with traumatised children.
“When there are acts of gang violence, our children can’t come to school. So in a school of about 1 000 learners, you will have about 400 to 500 children absent from school. The anxiety level will increase. And we have no therapeutic services in our community.”