Life of a township child unsafe: Witness

By Drum Digital
07 February 2014

Children have had to adapt to keep themselves safe from crime and violence.

Children in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, have had to adapt to keep themselves safe from crime and violence, a local man said on Friday. Testifying at the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into alleged police inefficiency in the area, Sifiso Zitwana said there was a widely accepted belief that one was either a victim or one who defended oneself. Zitwana, 23, a Social Justice Coalition (SJC) member, said he was used to violence because he had grown up witnessing mob justice. He said children did not ask questions about what was happeningand either threw stones or helped to trip someone up when they heard shouts of "Hold him".

Police usually only arrived on the scene when residents had already assaulted a suspected criminal, and this had resulted in a loss of trust in the police. He told the commission about a road he and his friends had to use to get to school, which was unsafe because gangs of boys would lay in wait. "When going to school, these boys would take away whatever you had, but if walking in a group they would just swear at you." He did not recall ever seeing a police van patrolling the roadand the children had developed their own strategies to avoid being robbed.

The children would walk in large groups. Zitwana would hide his lunch money in his socks or make a hole in his trousers.

"In the beginning, I was scared of going to school but as time went by I started getting used to the situation.

"It was a situation we had to accept. If you didn't accept it, you had to stay at home and not go to school."

Zitwana said he had to raise his two younger brothers, Sibusiso and Thabane, and nephew Nthando, by himself. They too had to adapt to survive what was seen as a violent and unsafe community. It was not long before they joined the "Vuras" gang in Greenpoint, Khayelitsha, to gain protection from the rival "Vatos". "They joined because if you live in one area you belong to one group. They were using pangas and very big, sharp objects." Thabani Masuku, for the police, asked whether they had joined a gang specifically because they couldn't rely on police. "I'm not sure whether I can say they don't trust police but when you watch their activities you can see they don't trust police." Sibusiso was a leader in the gang. Zitwana said the rival gang arrived at their house while he was out one eveningand he got a call from Sibusiso saying he was hiding nearby and that Ntando and Thabane were hiding under the bed in the house. He rushed to the house and by that stage the gang outside had assaulted someone returning from work. The police were not yet on the scene and residents had gathered in a group. "When the police van came through, the residents were angry because they were taking their timeand these gangsters wanted to kill our children," he said.

The officers apparently got out the van, looked where the attack had taken place, and then got back into the van to chase the gang.

"The police didn't ask me questions or take a statement," Zitwana said.

The boys were eventually sent to their deceased mother's home in the Eastern Cape because it was the only way to keep them safe, even though they would be living alone.

He said the quickest way to get help in the area was not to call the police but to scream because someone would hear and help.

Thieves in the area also protected them from thieves from other areas, he said.

The commission was set up by Western Cape premier Helen Zille to probe accusations by civil society formations that police inaction was leading to an increase in "mob justice" killings in the area.

The SJC alleged police inefficiency was leading to criminals running rampant in the sprawling township, and residents being forced to take the law into their own hands.

The commission's activities were delayed for some time when Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa tried to have the inquiry scrapped.

Mthethwa lost his legal bid to stop the commission in the Constitutional Court in October last year.

-by Sapa

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