Our kids live in gang hell

A man is laying on the floor, cuffed during the City of Cape Town’s Stabilisation Unit recent arrest operation on March 05, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. The unit conducted the operation in the wake of drugs, illegal firearms and gangsterism in the area. Eight suspects were arrested. Picture: Gallo Images / Esa Alexander
A man is laying on the floor, cuffed during the City of Cape Town’s Stabilisation Unit recent arrest operation on March 05, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. The unit conducted the operation in the wake of drugs, illegal firearms and gangsterism in the area. Eight suspects were arrested. Picture: Gallo Images / Esa Alexander

Welcome to Ocean View – a township where scores of people have been gunned down since December in gang-related violence.

Ocean View is home to 30 000 people, of whom at least 60% are unemployed, say community workers.

The latest crime statistics show there were 26 murders and 231 drug crimes reported there between April 2014 and March 2015. These stats only reflect cases reported to the police, and community organisers say the murder rate is much higher.

Community workers and residents say the violence took a turn for the worse shortly after several drug kingpins were jailed between November and January.

Ocean View is wedged between Cape Town’s picturesque and pricey southern suburbs of Kommetjie and Simonstown.

Here, five-year-olds play around a bloodied man with an axe in his skull. Seven-year-olds are unable to stand in a line, a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Others act out trauma by aggressively pretending to shoot passing taxis, hands clasped together in the shape of a gun.

Residents say it’s never been this bad, with lunchtime shootings becoming more common.

Young adults have been the hardest hit, emotionally and psychologically.

Local Grade 3 teacher and community police forum member Bridgette Truter says her pupils “are so afraid they don’t know what to do next”.

Making the transition from childhood to adulthood is complicated enough, but when you’re 12 or 13 years old and the external war zone becomes internalised, the effects are far-reaching.

Lost generation

Johann Kikillus, a counsellor at Soteria Ministries who’s been in Ocean View for six years, says: “We’re sitting with a major problem here and we are at that point where we can lose an entire generation. It’s like a war zone – your psyche’s going to get very badly affected.”

Kikillus, who has previously worked at Pollsmoor Prison and in other gang- and drug-infested areas, made some alarming discoveries in a snap poll of young adults in February.

The poll was conducted in groups and by a show of hands. Comments made by 136 Grade 7 pupils at Kleinberg Primary School and about 160 Marine Primary School pupils were also taken into account.

While 90 pupils attending Kleinberg had seen a murdered body, 63 had witnessed a shooting. Most of them had also witnessed a shooting in a park or a public space.

“I also asked them what the number one thing on their mind was. All of them said they’re afraid they’ll go home to find their parents or family shot dead,” said Kikillus.

“After some parents were shot dead earlier this year, I asked the pupils how many of them couldn’t sleep, cried without reason and couldn’t go and socialise with friends. Every single hand in the class went up.”

Yet only one pupil had sought out a counsellor to speak to. Talking about your problems is perceived as a sign of weakness in Ocean View.

Like any working-class community in South Africa, playing in the streets is a part of the culture, but many children can no longer do so. Before, parks were places to meet friends, but now Ocean View’s public spaces are overrun with drug dealers who fight each other. Getting caught up in the crossfire of “tik koppe” is par for the course.

Gunned down

Though sometimes their aim is quite deliberate.

Abdul Karriem (14) was sitting right next to his 17-year-old sister near their Aster Court flat off Leo Road when she was shot on July 18 last year. Aneeba was killed by a “friend” who had wanted to be in a relationship with her.

“Okay, you don’t want me. Now you’ll see what I’m going to do,” said the friend, Abdul recounts. Then he pulled out a gun and killed Aneeba on the spot.

Abdul relays the story unflinchingly, disconnected, unemotive.

“I’ve had two counselling sessions, but don’t want more,” he shrugs. He’s dropped out of school, has sleepless nights, has become a loner and aggressive.

Abdul’s story is not unusual. His aunt, Hajira Karriem, has a list of family shooting tragedies that surpass the norm, even by Ocean View standards. They include the death of her own son.

Shafiek Karriem was chatting to some friends in an open field near his house when he was gunned down last year. He worked as a gardener and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shafiek had celebrated his 31st birthday the day before.

Hajira’s other nephew, whom his family has asked not to be named, was also shot and killed last year. The fourth and only family member to survive a shooting – and who currently walks around with a bullet in his back – is her husband’s nephew, who lives with them. The man, who asked not to be named, was standing outside a shop drinking a cool drink when he was shot last month.

Far from broken, the 54-year-old says he is “not afraid of anyone or anything”.

This is unusual because most Ocean View adults live in fear and feel intimidated.

Hajira Karriem maintains that neither her late son, her teenage niece or her nephew were involved in either drugs or gangsterism.

Her open, chatty nature is a sharp contrast to that of her pretty 15-year-old granddaughter, Yumna Karriem, whom she constantly prompts for responses to my questions.

“Do you know how many children in your class have experienced a family member being killed by a gun?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” is the reply.

Her grandmother prompts her.

“I don’t have friends,” Yumna responds.

Every other question is met with stony silence and a vacant expression.

It’s as if I’m holding a gun to Yumna’s head myself.

Clinical psychologist Dr Nokwanda Khumalo says numbness and disconnection are ways of protecting oneself from the horror.

“Disconnecting could be a form of dissociating in this context. Cutting yourself off from others allows you to survive day to day among teenagers born into a subcontext of trauma and hearing about it regularly from your family and neighbours.”

And when a loved one is murdered in front of you?

“For teenagers experiencing that degree of trauma, you’re unable to process such a situation, immediately dissociating parts of your consciousness.

“However, triggers will keep surfacing,” says Khumalo, who sees traumatised patients daily.

A sudden loud noise, a sound, smell or even a car hooter could set off the trauma for Abdul, who also experiences symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares.

Trauma affects memory, concentration and the capacity to think.

“It affects the ability to process things and thinking gets slower or becomes stunted in some way,” says Khumalo.

The psychologist says younger children can “act out” experiences, illustrated by a group of preprimary schoolers shooting “air guns” at taxis whenever they drive by.

Kathy Cronje, chairperson of the Ocean View Community Police Forum and a trauma debriefer, has first-hand experience of this.

One notorious group of aggressive seven-year-olds fixate on their favourite movie, Child’s Play, a horror film that features the character Chucky, a notorious serial killer.

“They run around as a pack and are left to look after themselves.”

A gruesome scene illustrating Ocean View’s abnormal normal occurred late last year near Marine Primary School when a man was discovered with an axe in his head, gushing blood.

“Five- and six-year-olds were playing nearby. The children repeatedly asked if he was okay. A towel was produced, which a woman wrapped around him.

And with that, the children went straight back to playing,” said Cronje.

Spectator sport

Truter says she regularly reminds her pupils to run home when they see a dead body.

“The children run towards the body instead. It’s like a spectator sport, with some of them taking pictures of it for Facebook,” said the teacher, who also coaches volleyball at Kleinberg Primary School.

Truter is one of the first to know who’s been killed, and where and when the violence took place.

“When we see a flare going off at night or hear a car or motorbike revving very loudly, it’s someone letting the community know a shooting is happening,” she says.

During the first and second school terms of this year, three student protest marches against drugs were held, and Kleinberg Primary, Ocean View Primary, Marine Primary and Ocean View High all became involved.

Truter helped organise some of them. Whether or not they’ve had any effect on the drug lords they’re appealing to, is anyone’s guess.

But this doesn’t detract from the trauma the pupils live with daily.

Last December, one little boy on his way home from Kleinberg Primary learnt that his father had been shot dead.

The newlywed father had been gunned down with his wife and their friend in a triple shooting.

Despite all this, Kikillus has proved there are possibilities for generational healing from trauma.

“These kids need some type of government intervention to succeed.”


What should be done to fight the scourge of gang violence?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword GANG and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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