Another child killed by callous police action

Video footage shows that members of the Western Cape police’s public order unit fired blithely at the homes of protesters in Laingville, resulting in the death of nine-year-old Leo Williams.

Remnants of burnt tyres mark the entrance to the municipal housing settlement of Laingville in St Helena Bay, about two hours north from Cape Town on the West Coast. The eponymously named main road into the small township begins at this entrance, which is a focal point for protests, and continues in a straight line for 2km before reaching the settlement’s eastern end. 

According to local resident Thyrone Williams, the Laingville community handed over a memorandum to the Saldanha Bay Local Municipality in 2018 to demand 150 serviced plots. These plots were to be allocated to residents in need of housing who do not qualify for RDP homes, because they do not meet the criteria of being over 35 years of age and earning less than R3 500 a month. Many of them currently live in shacks in backyards and have to pay rent to their landlords.

As nothing had happened since 2018, the community staged a protest on 31 July this year. The protest began at 4am when residents blocked the entrance to Laingville, preventing all vehicles from entering or leaving the area. Shortly after 6am, the local police arrived on the scene, stationing themselves between the protesting community and the adjoining St Helena Bay Road.

18 September 2020: Although Laingville is on the coast, there is no recreational infrastructure in the housing settlement.

Belinda Klaase, a resident, told the police that the protesters wanted to speak to the mayor about the 2018 memorandum and hand over a new one. The officers in charge told the protesters that they would not be able to see the mayor, but offered to have the municipal manager address them instead. The community agreed, but when he could not address their concerns they continued blocking the road, insisting on speaking to the mayor. 

Close to 11am, the police called on the public order policing unit to take charge of the situation and open the road. Up to that point, there had been no conflict with the police. After arriving, the officer in charge of the unit informed Klaase that the protesters needed to nominate 10 residents who would receive a police escort to see the mayor. Klaase and nine others agreed to go along on the understanding that the road would remain blocked until they returned and delivered feedback to the community.

18 September 2020: Laingville resident Belinda Klaase says they ‘are fighting this issue of the land together. Because we see the needs of our people in our community and no one listens to us. That’s why we started the protests.’

The public order police instructed the 10 nominees to get into vehicles that would transport them to the mayor. However, after the third person crossed the police line to get to the vehicles, the officer in charge gave the command to fire and the unit’s officers began shooting rubber bullets at the protesters.

“After that, the police chased our people into the township… The police were shooting our people and the people were throwing them with stones,” said Williams. According to him and Klaase, the public order officers entered the township shooting at anyone in sight, trying to force people into their homes. The volatile situation lasted into the early evening.

A boy under fire

Four hundred metres down Main Road, next to a large, vacant piece of municipal land, are the first residential houses in Laingville. Angus Thomas’ shack is just 100m further. A cross bearing the name Leo stands in front of the shack; three bullet holes around the name are immediately visible.  

Cathy Thomas, the nine-year-old Leo’s grandmother, fostered him, his brother and sister since he was three years old. Thomas, who has been a small-scale fishing rights activist for many years, is active in the community; she also works with the governing body of the primary school Leo attended.

18 September 2020: Cathy Thomas is Leo Williams’ grandmother. She fostered Leo and his siblings from the time he was three years old.

Thomas had joined the protest in the morning but left to attend a school meeting before the public order policing unit arrived. When she returned to Laingville at about 4pm, she went directly to the home of her son, Leo’s uncle Angus, to check on the boy. “I was always worried about him,” she said. “He could be a little naughty. That was just a part of his life.” 

At the time, things had quietened down and Leo was watching cartoons on his uncle’s television. Thomas stayed for a while and went home to cook tamatiesmoor (tomato gravy) for supper. As she was leaving, Leo asked her to fetch him when the food was ready. In the evening, between 6pm and 7pm, when Leo was still at his uncle’s home, the shooting began again. 

18 September 2020: Photographs of Leo Williams in the kitchen of Cathy Thomas’ home in Laingville.

Video footage recorded by a Laingville resident shows four police officers walking down Main Road close to Angus’ home, stopping periodically to lift their guns and fire in the direction of the houses on the other side of the street. Women can be heard speaking in concerned voices about the police shooting in the direction of a home where there are many children; another woman tells someone, possibly on the phone, that she is fine and gives details of the house where she is; another suggests they bring the dog inside to protect it. Williams points out that it is clear in the video that no stones were being thrown at the police officers walking down the road. 

Said Angus: “We heard the sound of gunshots, but they were getting louder and louder, like they were coming closer to us.” Nine people were in the shack at the time, including his daughter and Leo. When Leo wanted to go out to see what was going on, Thomas’ girlfriend shouted for them to duck behind the bed in the room where they had been watching television. Eight bullets penetrated the walls of the shack, and Leo was found lying on the ground less than 2m from everyone else. He had been shot in the head. 

18 September 2020: Leo Williams was found lying on the floor in front of the refrigerator in Angus Thomas’ shack after being shot on 31 July.

Leo was rushed to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, where he was in the intensive care unit until the family made the decision to take him off life support on 17 August. 

It’s not clear whether the police officers in the video were responsible for shooting Leo. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate is still investigating the matter. 

Leo’s premonition

On the evening of the shooting, Leo’s grandmother was calm. “I didn’t panic,” Thomas said. She remained calm until a month after Leo had drawn his last breath. “At 2am this morning I broke down. I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said on 18 September. It was the first time she cried for Leo. Later on, visiting his grave at the Laingville Cemetery, she broke down again. 

18 September 2020: Cathy Thomas at Leo Williams’ grave in the Laingville cemetery.

Even so, Thomas expresses a sense of peace regarding the boy’s death. “He was prepared for his death but he did not know how it was going to happen,” she said, alluding to what Leo had told his teacher and principal, Felecia Lottering, on his last day at EJ Malgarte Primary School before the Covid-19 lockdown.

“You know, Miss, I’m not coming back again,” are the words he said to Lottering on 16 March. She explained that the lockdown would end and that everyone would return to school, but Leo was adamant that he would not be returning.

Leo had been at her school for three years, but in the first three months of 2020 he was also in her class. Lottering says Leo had never missed a day’s school, but he was always full of mischief, so she seated him right next to her. His enthusiasm for life and strong will led her to develop a fondness for him, which is reflected by the tenderness in her voice when she speaks about him. “The fact that Leo isn’t coming back to school drains me emotionally every day,” said Lottering.

18 September 2020: The desk Leo Williams used to sit at in school.

On the first day back at school, only nine of Leo’s classmates were present. “The others just didn’t want to come to school because Leo was not going to be there,” said Lottering. “When they eventually came, they asked me when Leo was going to return. And then I first had to let my tears flow. Afterwards I needed to [explain over and over again] that Leo isn’t coming back again, Leo is there by the angels, Leo is busy playing rugby, Leo is busy playing athletics, Leo is busy writing with the Lord. 

“Then at the end of the day they asked me, ‘Ma’am, are you sure Leo isn’t coming back?’ and I said yes, I’m very, very sure.” One of the children then asked if they could say a prayer for Leo and Lottering agreed. In the days that followed, other children would ask to say a prayer as well. It was always the same words: “Liewe Jesus, ons mis vir Leo. Kyk agter Leo [Dear Jesus. We miss Leo. Look after Leo].”

18 September 2020: Leo Williams’ brother Luciano Williams at school. Leo attended the same school.

Continuing protests

Since Leo’s death, the community and municipality have remained in deadlock, with the residents demanding that their need for housing be addressed through the provision of the 150 serviced plots and the municipality saying that it doesn’t have the means to provide more than 10. 

The municipal manager, Heinrich Mettler, says there is only enough bulk infrastructure to provide 114 serviced plots in the entire Saldanha Bay municipality. Before any more serviced plots can be delivered, the construction of a new reservoir to provide water to any new plots has to be completed. 

The community has continued to protest.

18 September 2020: The municipality has finished building roads for 309 RDP houses in Laingville. Municipal manager Heinrich Mettler says it has budgeted to start building the first 50 top structures this financial year, but residents feel the project is moving much too slowly.
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