“I hid behind a wall. When the noise stopped, we saw a man lying on the pavement. Everybody went to look, so I did too.
“There was a lot of blood coming from his head. His eyes were this big, just open and staring. Die gangsters het hom sat gemaak [the gangsters killed him] because he was stubborn and acting tough on their turf,” the now 11-year-old said.
“He was my friend’s brother. I remember his mommy cried a lot after that, but she is OK now.”
There was a lot of death where he was from, Matthew told News24.
“It’s the guns. I don’t like guns. They make me scared.
“When I see the gangsters run, holding it by their sides, I run the other way.
“I don’t want to die. I want to play soccer, finish school and get a job.”
Social worker Lee-Che Krieger has heard many similar stories from Hanover Park’s traumatised children.
“They have seen things even adults are never supposed to see. Murder, violence, all the evil that is out there, they have been privy to. This is sadly their normal.”
Krieger is the head of psycho-social support for Community Action towards a Safer Environment (CASE), which was founded in Hanover Park 18 years ago to address problems of ongoing violence and continuous trauma, mostly as a result of gangsterism.
The organisation has counsellors based at every school in the neighbourhood, providing guidance to children who call the gang-ridden area, about 17km outside the city centre, home.
Hanover Park is one of 10 areas identified as Cape Town’s gang hot spots. A turf war has resulted in gunfire being heard almost every day for the past three months. These shootings sometime claim up to two casualties at a time.
Children crowding behind the yellow police tape at a gang-related crime scene was not at all uncommon, Krieger told News24. Seeing dead neighbours before their bodies are even covered has become a fascination, a story to tell others who had not arrived at the scene quickly enough.
“It’s a reality that has become normalised. It’s seen as just another body, just another murder, because it happens all the time,” Krieger said.
“Instead of people running away, they run toward it. Children follow what they see [some of] their parents do, so little ones gawking at crime scenes is just learned behaviour.”
There have been 49 murders in Hanover Park since the start of the year.
To help the children deal with the killings that are playing out in front of them, CASE runs bereavement groups for youngsters who have lost loved ones. Pupils, some in Grade R, who show signs of trauma or who appear overly emotional are referred for group therapy sessions, where they are also encouraged to put their feelings into words by writing letters about how they feel.
“But many just simply can’t handle what is happening around them anymore. There has been an alarming amount of suicide attempts, especially among teenagers. Signs of depression and anxiety have also presented themselves in a number of children,” Krieger said.
“The reality is that we can counsel, but at the end of the session we have to send them back to where they are being traumatised. What else can we do except give them the tools to make choices that will be good for their future. If our efforts change the tomorrow of even just one or two of these youngsters, it’s reason enough to keep fighting.”
Gang violence around schools
Last week, three schools reported gang activity around their grounds, Western Cape Department of Education spokesperson Bronagh Hammond confirmed.
“There were no incidents on school premises, but obviously the activity outside was traumatic for learners and educators,” she said.
Krieger, whose base is at the centre of a cluster of schools in and around Hanover Park Avenue, said she would never forget the high pitched, terrified screams she once heard while in her office last year.
A gang shootout had taken place across the road from Morgenson Primary while the pupils were on their break.
A man had been shot dead, his body lying sprawled across the street in full view of the children.
“The little ones were trying to hide in the grass, too scared to get up. They were terrified,” she said.
Krieger had heard of families resorting to sleeping on the floor of their bathrooms, generally situated away from the entrance of their council homes, to protect themselves from stray bullets.
Others keep their fans on in winter or their TVs unreasonably loud in an attempt to block out the sound of gunshots.
Most of the area’s play parks are deserted. This as parents opt to keep their children indoors, allowing them only as far as the doorstep in case gunfire erupts.
Rabia Johnson lives on the second floor of a block of municipal flats. She has no backyard for her son, 8, to play in.
“He goes to school only when I feel it is safe. When he gets back, he stays indoors. I know he is bored, but I would rather see him grumpy and frustrated than dead,” she said.
“A gangster’s bullet doesn’t only hit skollies and grown-ups. Do you know how many times a stray one has hit an innocent?” Johnson asked.
She used the murder of Muees Calvin as a case in point.
The 2-year-old boy was shot dead in April when a gunman opened fire as Muees’ brother carried him on his shoulders while they walked home with their mother.
A stray bullet hit him in the head.
Johnson shook her head in horror.
“I would never forgive myself if my child was murdered, maimed or even grazed in a shootout. So until the peace is restored in Hanover Park, he must be content playing indoors. Finish and klaar.”
It was difficult raising children, especially a son, in Hanover Park, she said.
“I speak to my boy every day. I tell him that he should never want to be one of these terrorists who hold us hostage while they run around, shooting people. So many of our youngsters look up to these rubbish gangsters, wanting the notoriety and money that comes with this dirty business. But not my son. He calls them what they are: Skollies.”
Children, especially those who were neglected or from extremely poor homes, were most at risk of becoming runners for gangs, community worker Gadija Richards, or Aunty Gigi as she is known, said.
Aunty Gigi of Community Workers for the People feeds dozens of children a cooked meal every week. Little ones line up on the stairs leading to her third-floor council flat, excited to see what awaits in her 100 litre pot after school.
Poverty was rife in Hanover Park, Richards said. People did what they had to do to ensure that there is something to eat every night.
The organisation feeds children, and adults if there is food left over, to ensure that their hunger does not lead them to doing favours for gangs for quick cash or branded clothing.
The NGO’s Erica Kessie said rampant neglect also played a role in children seeking attention and approval from those with ill intentions.
“It starts with a simple favour for a small reward and ends up with that child becoming a shooter or the person who is sent to check if the target has been finished off. And all it takes is making that deserted, lonely youngster feel like they matter,” she said.
“Our children are idle. We have community facilities that are locked and not in use. White elephants, while our children are craving activity, development and something productive to do. Why is no one investing in them?”
Kessie runs sports programmes to teach children teamwork, responsibility and social skills.
“They are given a chance to get out of Hanover Park, even if it’s just a little while for an away game. It’s important to show them there is a world outside the one they know. This isn’t all there is to life.
“It saddens me that often when I meet children and ask them what they want to be one day, I get a blank stare. It’s like our children don’t dream anymore and are just resigned to this. This is not OK. Our children need investment, or tomorrow the problem will just have a new face.”
*A name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.
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