Guest Column

Cape Flats Gangland: Come with me down paradise road

2019-07-16 19:12
Athburg Walk in Hanover Park where Ashtivon Gaffley was shot. (Tammy Petersen)

Athburg Walk in Hanover Park where Ashtivon Gaffley was shot. (Tammy Petersen)

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"Come with me down paradise road

This way please, I'll carry your load… 

"There are better days before us

And a burning bridge behind, fire smokin' the sky is blazing,

There's a woman waiting weeping

And a young man nearly beaten all for love.

Paradise was almost closin' down…"

Growing up on the Cape Flats, this song recorded by South African group Joy in 1979 at the height of apartheid, was a firm favourite at make-shift parties my mom would have in the separate entrance we lived in, on my grandparent's property in Lansdowne.

A "national anthem" to a degree for an oppressed people in need of hope amidst a hopeless situation and the courage to keep believing that there are in a fact "better days before us…"

As a young, girl-child growing up in the '80s, for the most part I was oblivious to the oppression. To be honest, life was more paradise than living hell. 

I do, however have vivid memories of my older brother making a birthday card for Nelson Mandela who was in prison on Robben Island and the large black graffiti letters at the top of our Penlyn Avenue, sprawled across a grey vibracrete wall in Belgravia Road that read, "Free Mandela".

Also, the strange sense of fear when seeing those yellow Casspirs slow-roll down the street with the police inside barely visible through its blue windows; the black marks left in the road by burning tyres, giving a mental picture to my brother's defiance, with his MacGyver mullet and all, in going to protest despite being kept home from school.

Some 40 years after Joy's recording, these lyrics, "There's a woman waiting weeping

And a young man nearly beaten all for love…" still resonate as I read of Martine Gaffley, just one of the many mothers who have lost their sons to gang violence across parts of the Western Cape.

Martine's son was gunned down in Hanover Park, which has for years been an epicentre of the Cape Flats gangland. Shear minutes from that separate entrance and home where my grandfather of 95 still lives today.

Now a mother myself, I think of how vastly different my life is. I grapple with whether it is too early to teach my boys to start commuting to school with the Myciti bus, while for Martine, life skills and street smarts extend to teach her surviving daughter to drop and roll when the gunshots begin (Sometimes there are as many as 25 shots a day in this gang war). 

The gut wrenching series on gang violence recently published by News24 has highlighted this scourge, ongoing for literally decades, and now once again coming to a head as the state deploys the army to the Cape Flats.

But we know that the gangland violence extends much further than just the Cape Flats – yet being coloured and coming from the "Flats" are synonymous with gangsterism.

The term coloured and having a coloured background has come to mean many things over the years. The legacy lines, like the group areas act of the apartheid era, they remain racially divided.

Coming from the Cape Flats or labelling yourself coloured, a term encapsulating the privilege that made us neither acceptably white enough during apartheid and not nearly black enough during our fledgling democracy, continues to be loaded.

For some, it's filled with negativity and shame. For others, it has developed into a sort of coloured "started at the bottom, now we're here" pride.

A snap chat around the office lunch table with mostly born-frees, indicates that it is "nothing to be ashamed of". And that similarly, being coloured is "so much more than gangsterism and the Cape Flats".

Coloured demographic fractured

But one thing's for sure, the creation of the Cape Flats has by and large kept our particular coloured demographic not only geographically fractured – but as a people, if you don't know who you are and what you stand for, it can be very difficult to envision a "better day".

Past and current failings when it comes to governance have left the door wide open for the lawless chaos that has seen 12 people gunned down in the bloodiest month of the year for the likes of Hanover Park.

It has been a systemic erosion of values.

Without a sense of purpose or identity and an inherent human need for belonging, gang culture and everything else, like drug abuse fuelling the illicit economy in SA, are the order of the day across the nommer-riddled neighbourhoods of the Western Cape.

Because let's face it, labels are powerful, much like the tjappies of these gangs themselves.

And as the skies above the Cape Flats blaze with bullets, Travel and Leisure has just named Cape Town the "best city" not only in Africa, but also the Middle East region – which undoubtedly has its own fair share of weeping mothers.

Comparing Cape Town to "Southern California on steroids", it is certainly a label to celebrate.

"A strong sense of historical and cultural identity is crucial, as is beautiful scenery. The food and shopping scenes are important, too. And the hotels, of course, must be world-class. The South African city of Cape Town has all of the above, and more," states T+L readers who voted it the best city for the 18th time.

"It is such a beautiful city," one reader is quoted as saying, "There are so many things to do and places to see and experience. The people are incredibly friendly and make you feel welcomed, and the value is wonderful."

But there is always more…

In stark contrast, I can just imagine what effect the headline "Army deployed in Cape Town to combat bloody drug war" will have on tourists or the sub-labels it will elicit.

The national anti-gang strategy meant to address gangsterism at a street level and focused on "community development, conflict mediation and changing community norms in order to reduce violence and criminality" is not working in its current form – but they must keep on keeping on.

If the illicit drug economy needs to be shut down and alternative job and economic empowerment created – tourism with tangible accreditation and upskilling programmes – buoyed by very little layout needed in terms of bricks and mortar, must also be ramped up.

Truth be told, we are the sum total of our good and bad experiences, character traits and whatever else goes into making a viable community, neighbourhood, suburb, city or tourism destination.

The sooner we can realise it, and deal with it in the right way – the sooner we can believe in Joy's better day… and perhaps paradise itself need not close down. 

- Brophy is editor of Traveller24.

Read more on:    cape flats  |  hanover park  |  gang wars
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