/ 20 April 2023

Westbury precarity: an urgent call for action amid rising gun deaths

South African police carry out a large-scale operation in the Westbury area of Johannesburg. File photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On 27 February, the Westbury community witnessed a repulsive occurrence where 11 people were shot and wounded and two killed within 24 hours. The motives behind these killings remain unknown.

Section 12 of the South African Constitution indicates that “everyone has the right to be free from all forms of violence from either a public or private source”. Yet, there is a  lack of government intervention to alleviate poverty, unemployment and ruthless killings in Westbury

The Johannesburg community of Westbury, traditionally a working-class coloured neighbourhood, is still experiencing apartheid-era social and economic ills, but now gun violence is an added factor. 

Urban segregation continues, with inadequate water, sanitation and energy reduction thriving. The exploitation of coloured communities is rooted in structural violence, involving multiple socio-economic challenges which negatively affect families and communities.

South Africa’s racial stratification led to social and economic exclusion, where the white minority dominated in economics and politics, and communities of colour were the vast majority of the working class in South Africa.

Black and coloured South Africans continue living in economically disadvantaged communities. These economic exploitations also contribute to intergenerational trauma. 

After nearly 30 years in power, the ANC has failed to resolve social, political and economic conditions whereby community members are isolated and dispossessed, with the unemployment rate at 25.9% in a coloured area like Westbury. There is no access to social, recreational, and entrepreneurship programmes that could enhance the skills, knowledge and expertise required for the workplace. 

One resident, Melissa Davids, said: “We want to work. I can tell you that. We want to do recreational activities, but nothing is coming to us”. 

This economic exclusion compels some residents to participate in unlawful activities to meet their daily sustenance. And in the absence of father figures, young men find solace in wielding guns as children do with toys.

Frustrated with violence and the killing of defenceless victims, a Westbury protest in 2018 was sparked by the killing of an innocent woman, Heather Petersen. Her son was also wounded in a crossfire gang-related shooting.  

One resident argued that the “South African government degrades us, they know what’s going on here, our people are dying daily and they’re doing absolutely nothing because they want to get rid of the coloured population”. 

I understand the frustration of the residents. However, instead of this being a case of a government’s genocidal intent, it is instead a classic example of how neoliberal policies contribute to racial capitalism in South Africa. Not only coloured people, but a huge share of the working class is economically more oppressed in post-apartheid South Africa than before. 

I draw this conclusion from Neville Alexander’s perspective on racial capitalism where race and capitalism are interconnected and used to racially devalue communities of colour. 

One can argue that racial capitalism increases white supremacy and reproduces poverty in coloured communities. This contributes to psychological enslavement, as seen in Westbury. This follows a long history of inequalities where the majority of the population is inadequately provided with resources. This occurs throughout South Africa. 

I wholeheartedly believe that racial capitalism continuously exploits the working class because the government failed to invest in economic goals that would benefit working-class communities.

The neglected community is exploited and dominated by various push factors including gun violence and poor service delivery. Individuals experience sequential multiple discrimination including race, gender and socio-economic status whereby young, coloured men fall prey and are lulled into street life. 

This makes you question the effectiveness of gender socialisation on how imprecise masculinity is transmitted and adapted throughout generations. 

One resident said: “We have children as young as 12, who have dropped out of school and joined gangs. Gangsters are role models to our children. Their fancy lives and money appeal to the children.” 

One can identify hegemonic masculinity in the Westbury community where young, coloured men engage in deviant behaviour to express their masculinity through criminal activities. In many cases, these crimes are committed because of absent father figures where these young men seek acknowledgement and validation from older men in the community. These circumstances are also driven by social pressures to assimilate society’s definition of “being cool”.

You know that you live in a neglected environment when coloured men are more likely to see the inside of a coffin or prison than the inside of an institution of higher learning.  

The grotesque gun violence prevents mobilisation and increases development issues with no option but to adhere to illicit circumstances. 

The combination of the conflict and violence — it can be a turf war, it can be what we call a drug war or it can be a gang war — results in there being so many innocent people who get shot. 

You are also a victim. The minute you step into Westbury, you can be a victim. “I am as fearful as ever, and so is the rest of our community,” said another resident. 

The government has failed to adequately address gang violence in coloured communities. There are no procedures or plans in place to eradicate gun violence.

Residents are living in unsafe and unbearable living conditions. This interrupts the daily lives of families and individuals. Little attention is paid to this social problem which has caused it to rapidly fester, turning what was once a “minor issue” into a “social dilemma”. 

Police minister Bheki Cele promised Westbury residents that the “South African police service Tactical Response Team (TRT) was released into the area to patrol”. These strategies are ineffective, hence gun violence continues to roar and rule the lives of innocent people. 

These ineffective strategies raise various questions.  Are coloured communities included in policy making and government interest? This demographic remains marginalised due to inattentional blindness from the South African government.

Cele said that “police are working on a broader plan to curb the gun violence in Westbury”. One community member asked: “Why should the minister and the police wait till it gets bad? Why should we wait until 20 people are killed, then you only want to come in?”

The South African government must evaluate and analyse the current social challenges in all coloured communities through the implementation of creative and innovative strategies that will alleviate violence and unemployment. This can be achieved through social policy by making provisions for all citizens. 

Subjecting citizens to despair and hopelessness is a form of violence. Westbury is trapped by a gun violence pandemic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.