Guest Column

Should we still be calling it "the Cape Flats"?

2017-02-27 10:03
(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

(Jenna Etheridge, News24)

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Sarah Crawford-Browne

Capetonian children are killed and injured in gang-related conflicts each month. 

As last year closed, six month old Zania Woodward of Ocean View was killed in crossfire while sitting in her father’s lap. Three weeks later in Hanover Park 5 year old Ashline Telmarks was paralysed when a stray bullet struck her while she was playing in a park. Last Sunday Zhakiera Jansen, who is 11 years old, was shot in the head at a local shop in Leonsdale, Elsies River. 

Less detailed reports described the stabbing of 3 pupils at Lentegeur Senior Secondary at the beginning of February, and the killing of an 18 year old boy in Khayelitsha last week. In six weeks at least 7 Capetonian children have been reported injured or killed in gang-related violence. This is not out of the ordinary, with several adults having also lost their lives. 

What is extraordinary is that gang violence in Cape Town parallels levels of violence that may be described as “intermediate armed conflict” by Wallensteen and Axel (Journal of Peace Research, 1993) where at least 25 people die a year and more than 1000 have died through the life of the conflict; or possibly as “war” where there has been 1000 deaths in a year. (On 8 February News24’s Tammy Petersen reported that “1542 people were killed in one year across 10 of the most gang and crime ravaged police precincts in the Western Cape”.)  

Yet, we have not declared this a crisis. Petersen’s sensitive report on Ashline’s recovery included the phrase: “she was shot while playing in a Cape Flats park” (News24, 16 February, 2016). Would it make a difference to the reader if the report read: “She was shot while playing in a Cape Town park?” How would this change our assumptions, reactions and response? Should we, as Capetonians, continue to use the name, “the Cape Flats” in this shorthand way? 

Of course, “the Cape Flats” is an accepted geographic description that operates alongside the northern suburbs, Atlantic seaboard and city bowl. Yet, news reports load the name with stereotypes and stigma that allows readers to imagine that these are similar neighbourhoods that are somehow outside of Cape Town, perhaps unconnected to the city’s life. 

“The Cape Flats” is a name that at once evokes our shame-filled history of the Group Areas Act, while it allows us to ignore the cumulative harm and responsibility to the many families who once lived at the heart of our city. Our language separates out the “the Cape Flats” and the townships from the suburbs, with words that divorce our social and community lives. 

The communities of the Cape Flats are diverse in atmosphere, housing, socio-economic status and organisation. The people of the Cape Flats have multiple stories and varied experiences; yet those that headline are often about violence and gangsterism. 

Gangs are powerfully active across our city, involved in both the legal and illicit economies; shaping political agendas, influencing multiple sectors and accessing tenders. Lazily we associate gang violence only with the Cape Flats, where the people with the fewest opportunities suffer the most from gang warfare. 

But most troubling, the term "the Cape Flats" allows us to accept that Capetonian children grow up with different opportunities and horizons. If young people take up this identity it is possible that they will not see themselves as Capetonians; thereby reducing their horizons, increasing alienation and contributing to the cycle of violence.

Humans have an innate need for psychological safety. This need drives us to identify factors that psychologically distance us from threat and convince us that we will not be targets of violence. 

Seeking psychological safety, we naturally blame victims for the situations that apparently led to their vulnerability, in order to reassure ourselves that we are safe. We then tend to place the responsibility for victimhood within the very people most affected. 

When listening to a victim’s story it is common for us to think that we are not threatened by similar danger because we do not draw money from that ATM at night, or we do not wear such short skirts. We distance ourselves, fearful of being contaminated by the trauma. Blaming victims is a comforting process, but it removes compassion and distracts us from what must be prioritised.

Politicians and community leaders encourage communities to stand up against gangsterism and drug abuse perhaps imagining that if only enough people could resist, report or engage, the violence would reduce. It is tempting to label communities as “infested” with immoral activities without a thought of the structural violence embedded within our society, which shapes the social dynamics and the ongoing cycles of violence. 

It is comforting to locate gang violence as only occurring on “the Cape Flats”, “over there” without recognising the connections to the violence that is occurring here. And it is reassuring to locate the danger and threat within the people living in a particular place so that we can pretend that we are not affected or infected by daily experiences of danger and harm. 

Similarly, when we are forced to become aware of the very real suffering of people who daily anticipate violence and threat as they travel to work, buy groceries or attend school, it is tempting to ease our distress through suggesting quick solutions such as calling in the army, installing CCTV or sound detection technology, or developing youth programmes. 

The forces that fuel gangsterism are complex and multi-factorial, deeply embedded in our oppressive past and entrenched in current structural inequities. Carefully researched, well-structured, multi-layered, systemic and long-term interventions are needed, rather than politically expedient quick-fixes. 

The cumulative advantages and disadvantages of communities within the city illustrates that our economic relationships are as interconnected as our joint responsibility to manage our water resources. The moral fibre of certain communities is not at issue here, but rather the integrity and compassion of each Capetonian. Zania, Ashline and Zhakiera are Capetonian children – our children. We need to take up our joint responsibility to protect them. 
[1005 words]

- Sarah Crawford-Browne is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and a clinical social worker specialised in traumatic stress.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    cape town  |  gang violence
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