Westbury: Under siege from drug lords and police

Police fire rubber bullets into Westbury home.
Police fire rubber bullets into Westbury home.
Sumeya Gasa

Westbury, Johannesburg, where protests turned violent on Monday, is a community under siege from two sides.

On one side are the drug lords, currently fighting a bitter turf war on the street corners.

On the other are the police, which community members say have not only failed to stop the violence, but allegedly turned their rubber bullets on innocent bystanders during Monday's protests.

Community members say at the heart of the conflict is a turf war between two rival drug lords, known to some as "Finch" and "Keenan".

READ: Elderly man shot as tensions rise in Westbury - police, protesters face off

The men are said to be young - in their late 20s to early 30s - very rich, and ruthless. They grew up in Westbury, which is why everyone knows them, but their success as drug dealers has seen them relocate to the suburbs, neighbours told News24.

If you see them in the street, you don't say: "Hello."

"You pass them, and you let them pass you," one man said.

They are reportedly behind scores of murders over the past few years, and hitmen from Cape Town have reportedly been brought in to do their bidding.

The police, say community members, know exactly who they are.

READ: Rubber bullets fired to disperse Westbury protesters

A man, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the drug lords, pointed to a notorious drug corner which can be seen from his house.

He alleged that police vans regularly pass the corner, but the drug dealing continues openly. Why the police vans do not stop there to make arrests remains a somewhat rhetorical question.

As the turf war over the "drug corners" rages on, the bodies continue to pile up. Community members say a man was shot dead two Sundays ago.

Mum shot dead with son's report card in her hand

Last Thursday, Heather Peterson was walking her son home from school, as the school holidays were about to begin.

She was shot several times, at point-blank range, in the face, and died in a pool of blood not far from where Monday's protests took place.

Residents say she pushed aside a young child, possibly her son, when the shooter approached. The child suffered a bullet wound to the leg, but survived.

It is believed Peterson was accidentally shot during a shootout between two rival drug dealers. Community members say she died with the child's end-of-term report in her hand.

On Thursday night, a resident posted on a Westbury residents' Facebook group, alleging that the drug lords were behind the two killings.

Fed up with a lack of action on the part of authorities to stop the violence, residents took to the streets in protest on Friday.

By Sunday evening, another man was dead. It is believed he was shot dead at point blank range in full view of the public. A witness is believed to be in hiding after receiving death threats.

A woman who lives near the location of that shooting, but did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from drug lords, said the community knew immediately who was behind the murder.

'Why are you killing our people?'

She phoned one of the accused suspects directly and asked: "Why are you killing our people?"

"He said nothing," she said.

A WhatsApp message was broadcast to residents, and messages went out on Facebook, calling for a shutdown of Westbury on Monday morning.

The events that gave rise to the violence between protesters and police on Monday are unclear.

But News24 was told by several eyewitnesses and injured people that the police not only shot at the crowd to disperse them, but that they actively chased fleeing protesters, shooting at them as they ran.

Eyewitness accounts say protesters gathered from as early as 04:30, and that by 06:30, violence had broken out.

Protesters apparently wanted to push forward, past the intersection at the corner of Fuel Road and Oudtshoorn Street, toward the Rahima Moosa Mother & Child Hospital.

Police tried to stop them, and residents reportedly responded by throwing rocks.

Police shot teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd. Metro police were also on hand.

Shot in the head trying to mediate

Several people, part of the main group of protesters, many of whom did not want violence and who discouraged the rock throwing, were injured by rubber bullets. One man was shot thrice in the head while trying to mediate between the protesters and the police.

Outside the hospital, mothers and children looked on in fear. Lerato Phatswane, 30, is due to give birth next week, and was one of many women too afraid to leave the hospital grounds.

Elaine Kerr, 60, said the protests had rendered her housebound.

"You can't even send your child to the shop to buy a loaf of bread," she said.

It was not only protesters who were injured on Monday.

In the early hours of the morning, further on down the road, witnesses say there was another group of protesters who gathered close to the Westbury Rea Vaya bus stop. There, police and the protesters also clashed, and people scattered into the streets.

According to witnesses, police chased fleeing protesters into side streets and alleyways, shooting people with rubber bullets at close range.

Asemahle Magxaki, 25, told News24 that she was in her house on Monday morning when police fired a teargas canister into her lounge.

Choking on the smoke, she ran to a neighbour's house and hid in the lounge. Police fired a rubber bullet through the window, and she was hit in the eye. She said she was not even aware of the protests until she was shot.

Next door, Renee Levack, 49, was in the house with her two young grandchildren when police fired a rubber bullet through her front door, at a range of about 3m.

The bullet, now lying on the other side of her front door, nearly hit her. She said police were aiming for a man who jumped over her wall. They missed, and the man escaped.

She said there were two policemen at her gate when the shots were fired. Outside her gate, there are at least two rubber bullet canisters in the street. It is a small side street, far away from the main sites of protest, and barely narrow enough for a car to pass through.

A woman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said she was part of the group of fleeing protesters, chased by the police as they ran. She was one of several people carrying white pieces of cloth, indicating that they did not want violence.

Under siege from both sides

"We are under siege from both sides - from the drug lords and the police," Levack said, standing over the rubber bullet at the entrance to her house.

Across the main road, under the trees, empty boxes of rubber bullets are interspersed with small plastic bags lined with white powder.

The little white bags are everywhere in Westbury. A man concealing a plastic packet up his sleeve walked past a group of residents in the street on Monday afternoon. They asked him to hide it away so the children would not see.

Levack was among the parents and grandparents fetching their children from school on Thursday morning, walking the same route home from the school both children attended as Peterson and her son.

The only reason it was Peterson who died instead of her, she said, was because she decided to fetch her granddaughter a little earlier that day.

Outside the Rahima Moosa Mother & Child Hospital on Monday afternoon, women and children looked on curiously as a group of men wearing white t-shirts and caps walked up and down the street. A picture of a sunset, and the words, "The way to happiness…", were emblazoned on their shirts.

They looked like members of a religious order, but said they were merely a group of concerned residents, who are hoping to spread a "message of peace" in their community. A group of teenage boys played soccer with a stray rubber bullet nearby.

Outside this hospital, the men in white shirts were preaching to the choir.

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