Welcome to hell: Life in crime-ridden Nyanga

Last year was particularly bad for Janet Matwa.

The 51-year-old woman saw three people shot dead at point-blank range right in front of her in broad daylight in Great Dutch Street, a short distance from Nyanga’s police station.

But then crime hit even closer home.

The grandmother of two saw a young man attacking and robbing a woman in the street. She knew him and where he lived, and confronted his mother. But the woman yelled at her, saying there was nothing wrong with what her son did because he provided for the family by robbing people.

So upset was Matwa about the reaction of the robber’s mother that she reported him to the police. But she was even more shocked when the man later broke into her home and threatened, at gunpoint, to kill her if she didn’t stop reporting him.

The young thug said the police had told him all about her, and about how she had reported his dealings to them.

“We fought for liberation from the apartheid state,” said Matwa on Thursday. “Previously we were oppressed by white people. Now we are being oppressed and killed by our own children. I can’t leave my house for fear of skollies. The government must do something.”

Matwa has lived in Nyanga’s KTC informal settlement for more than 40 years. From above, it is a maze of alleyways; shacks stacked close – nine deep – set against narrow and winding dirt roads.

The gangsters of KTC have helped Nyanga maintain its position as the country’s murder capital. But they have now diversified: Nyanga’s policing precinct also topped the list for carjacking for the first time (276 incidents), beating Johannesburg’s notorious Booysens into third place (with 198).

For house robbery, Nyanga came in third, with more house robberies (293 incidents) than wealthy Sandton (208).

“The stuff that we witness: it’s things that we normally see in action movies,” said neighbourhood watch member Nomvo Lekker (54).

“When we report the crime to the police, they do nothing about it. Instead they report the victim to the perpetrators, who come after the victim and threaten them with death.”

Lekker lives with her child and two grandchildren, aged six and eight, about 2km away from Matwa in the formal part of the township. She is a community leader and neighbourhood watch member in the township she has lived in all her life.

Lekker and other residents attribute the violence and blatant disregard for the law to the prevalence of school drop-outs, unemployment, drugs and gangsterism.

Lekker said the local amagintsa, who are role models for the township’s youth, recruit young men into gangs and get them to carry out robberies and cash heists. Young gang members between the ages of 15 and 18 rove around the townships in groups of 10, and while they commit crime at any time, their favourite hours are at 5am and 6pm, when people either leave for work or return home. “It’s not safe. It doesn’t matter where you are,” she said.

Nyanga’s criminals are so brazen that they hire bakkies to transport their loot. They use them to travel to the homes they rob and burgle and then make off with their favoured items: fridges and flat-screen TVs.

“They just force the door open and get inside. If there is a mother and child they rape the mother in full view of the child. If they know that you know them, they kill you to get rid of the evidence,” Lekker said.

Criminals prefer to attack and rob township residents because affluent suburbs were “well policed”.

Lekker cited the case of a well-known murderer in the township, a gang leader whom the police and community know well. His police friends receive free alcohol at a shebeen run by his family. Last Sunday, the gang leader killed a matric pupil who was “shot at close range at his neighbour’s house”.

“I can’t sleep at night. I am haunted by pictures of gruesome crime scenes. In Nyanga, we are living in a situation compared to animals. The perpetrators do not value human life. They just want to kill. They smoke tik and Mandrax,” Lekker said.

Nyanga Community Policing Forum (CPF) secretary Dumisani Qwebe was kidnapped and thrown out of the kidnapper’s car after a police chase three years ago. Yet he has no plans to leave.

“We have to fight the crime to make our township a better place. If we leave, who will be left to make our place safe?” he asked.

Qwebe doesn’t support calls to deploy soldiers on Nyanga’s streets, saying “soldiers are trained to eliminate the problem and not address it”.

He said police could not cope with their vast policing precinct blighted by poor infrastructure and inadequate street lighting, and where accessing the many compact informal settlements was a struggle.

But because the police keep tipping local thugs off about witnesses, the CPF is now ensuring that residents with any crime intelligence only report it to the station commander and to no one else.

A police officer at the Nyanga station said it was “traumatising” to work in a township where robbers target them for their firearms. So bad have things become that he was now considering quitting his job, just to stay alive.

“Thugs have no humanity, no respect whatsoever,” he said, adding that many false complaints were laid to lure police to where they are robbed of their weapons.

“So many informal settlements make it difficult for the police to patrol and attend to complaints because thieves hide. It is too risky for the police to walk in between shacks … we get ambushed.”


What should the police be doing to fix the crime situation in Nyanga? Do you live in a neighbourhood like this one? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword CRIME and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you agree to receive occasional marketing material

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