Vodacom Journalist of the Year on Gang Wars series: The man in the open field, opening fire

2019-11-23 11:54
Members of SANDF in Hanover Park. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Members of SANDF in Hanover Park. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

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Vodacom Journalist of the Year Tammy Petersen of News24 – storyteller of a seven-part series on Cape Flats gang violence - tells the story of the day she found refuge in between a block of flats in Hanover Park after a man started opening fire, while standing in an open field.

Petersen won the Feature/Lifestyle category on Thursday evening, and also took home the overall prize as national journalist of the year.

The Gang Wars series were features on the rampant gang violence in some areas of the Cape Flats, published in the same month that the deployment of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was eventually announced.

For years, gang violence on the Cape Flats claimed many lives, leaving families shattered.

She said the motivation for the series was due to the "progressive, forward-thinking editors in Adriaan Basson (editor-in-chief) and Paul Herman (news editor)… It was their idea to put faces to these casualties, to try and explore the repercussion of this full-on war that just didn't seem to be getting the coverage it deserved".

READ | Gang Wars series: 'When you live in Hanover Park, you know death'

Here, Petersen recalls one experience in Hanover Park, and how, while on her assignment, she heard what sounded like a car backfiring, only to realise it was gunshots.

Yes, gangs run rampant in Hanover Park. People are murdered and maimed weekly, at times daily. 

But did I tell you of the awesome people, strangers, who made me promise that I will bang on their door if I ever found myself in trouble? Who told me to be careful; who told me where not to go; who told me who to avoid; who taught me what to do if ever I found myself in gang crossfire?

That day came in the middle of the writing of the series, when I was driving and randomly asking strangers if they knew where I could find a woman who had been shot while walking in the street with her children.

I saw a man standing on an open field off Hanover Park Avenue [and] as I approached, I heard what sounded like a car backfiring. I kept driving until I realised the backfiring hadn't stopped.

Only it wasn't a car making that sound. It was that man, standing on the field, opening fire. He didn’t wear a hoodie or a scarf to hide his face. He didn't run after he fired those shots. I didn't stay long enough to see where he eventually fled to or what would happen next because I reversed all the way back to Ontario Court (not even caring about the truck that was approaching) and parked between the blocks of flats.

I was terrified, traumatised by what had happened. But I could go home after that, where the bangs I hear are usually just the backfiring of a car. The people who offered me sugar water and sweet tea as I sat, stunned, behind Ontario Court have nowhere else to go.

So, thank you to the old, frail man who offered to drive with me because he thought I would be safer with him, even if I never took you up on your offer… To everyone who shared their reality, whether off the record or on. What an honour it was to be the one you trusted to tell your stories.

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