In the months before a bullet brought an end to his life, Alcardo Andrews, 27, would take food from his mother’s fridge and offer it to a hungry neighbour or a stranger. It was more than an occasional gesture. In Hanover Park, Cape Town, he would encounter someone in desperate need and more often than not, Alcardo would find a way to help, even if someone knocked on the door late at night.
Alcardo’s mother, Avril Andrews, 60, often speaks about her son, a victim of a gang-related murder in the Cape. It would be difficult not to when her life’s mission since the day he died has been to honour his memory and be a lifeline to the community he loved.
“Alcardo said, mommy, you don’t understand how the underworld works, and how the gangsters work. If you are not a benefit to them, they will make sure they get you out of the community,” Andrews says. “He loved people. Before he died, Alcardo would always take from my kitchen and share with others. At the time I didn’t understand that the problem was so huge. He always used to tell me, you do not understand, you have no idea what people are struggling with.”
Mother and son founded a fatherhood programme for young men and a kitchen to feed the hungry in March 2015. But by October, Alcardo was dead. He was not a gangster himself, but you don’t need to be one to feel its deadly grip. Alcardo was murdered for rejecting a demand from local gang members to take part in a crime being planned. Even in resisting gangsterism, it is a dice between life and death.
Gang violence in impoverished and working-class communities in Cape Town is not new, and neither is it going anywhere. People outside these communities seem numb to the realities of residents who remain constantly vulnerable. Authorities flip flop between being unable and unwilling to curb the scourge. Though gangs have destroyed families and lives, the residents of Hanover Park insist gangsterism does not define their existence.
“When [the murder] happened I had to make certain decisions. Do I move out of the community? I asked God, what was the purpose of all of this? Why did this happen to me and why is it happening to my family? But we decided to stay,” Andrews says. “When the guys interfered with Alcardo, he approached them for a ceasefire. He spoke to several people. Our family said, Alcardo, maybe it’s best if you go live somewhere else. He refused. He said, if I run, how many Alcardos must run? There are already too many who are running. Honestly, I didn’t know it was so serious. He said, if anything should happen to me, mommy, you need to speak up about what I’m saying to you.”
With Alcardo’s words weighing on her conscience, Avril made a commitment to Hanover Park, a struggle-hardened, multi-faith community that has produced academics, musicians, sports stars and activists, and grapples with about 60% unemployment and high crime rates. She founded the Alcardo Andrews Foundation.
“Our children are not safe. Families are living on top of each other, especially the backyard dwellers. We dream of a safer community, and for employment, because people in the community are struggling,” Andrews says.
Fasieg Esau, 36, was sentenced to 18 years for Alcardo’s murder, after a trial that took nearly six years to conclude. The legal quagmire through which Andrews had to wade to catch her son’s killer could have destroyed her, or at the very least discouraged her, but it only strengthened her resolve with each passing year. Persistent delays, missing evidence and police apathy tested Andrews’ faith in the justice system and questioned her motivation. Standing up to the police and the criminal underworld put Andrews in harm’s way, but it was a risk she was willing to take.
“When they threatened Alcardo, we went to the police who said they can do nothing. He said, mommy, it’s even worse if you go to the police. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I found out how bad it was after he died, during our first experience with the first investigating officer. I had to look up and say, I’m sorry, my son, I didn’t know you were talking about this.”
Justice is elusive when gangs are involved. There are often no witnesses, and community involvement comes at a price. Emboldened by the cries of mothers who have buried children to gang violence, Andrews started Moms Move for Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Western Cape, an organisation that tries to find closure for families by bringing their children’s killers to book.
“I listened to the moms, and how they pointed out the investigating officers, I realised the corruption is in the police. What happens in court is that all these guys come in, and you feel so intimidated because you’re not used to this. But I’m very grateful for the movement that we started and the moms who were supporting me at court,” Andrews says. “I had to work five and a half years for justice. The guy got 18 years, but I feel so much empathy for this young man. I question myself: Why do I feel so much empathy for him? Even on the last day of court, what broke my heart was seeing him look around him. He was alone. The guys who asked him to do this weren’t there to support him. This is how young men and women get used. He was probably offered R5 000 or R10 000 to do the job.”
Lesley Wyngaard lost her son Rory in a double murder a month after Alcardo died in 2015. He was shot while visiting Mitchells Plain, though his family lives in the southern suburbs. Wyngaard came across a few women who were supporting the mother of the other young man who was shot along with Rory.
“I was introduced to other women who had lost children to gang violence and I got to know Avril Andrews and the organisation. The support sessions were really helpful for me because I was broken. I was shattered. I didn’t even know what the inside of a courtroom looked like. I would cry all the time but through the support of the Moms Move for Justice and the Alcardo Andrews Foundation I managed to move beyond that,” Wyngaard says.
Wyngaard has devoted her time with the organisation to providing comfort for other grieving mothers. “I will do my community work to honour my child. Everything I do is for my son’s honour.”
To mark the anniversary of Rory’s death every year, Wyngaard saves up and gives a R5 coin to every young person she encounters in the community. It is her way of paying tribute to her son who always insisted on giving R5 or more to the impoverished. “It’s not that the pain goes away. I’ve come a long way in terms of my healing and spoken about my story with other women who know exactly what it feels like to have lost a child.”
The Western Cape occupies six of the top 10 murder hot spots in the country, according to South Africa’s latest crime statistics. Compared to April to June 2020, the province’s murder rate in April to June 2021 increased by nearly 30%, reflecting an additional 225 murders.
“Alcardo would say, you’ve been a community worker for 20 years,” Andrews says. “You’re so proud of that, but you have no idea until you understand how the underworld works and what criminals are doing. We need to save some of our young people. He was very passionate about young men. He said, can’t you see how we are losing our young people, our young men?”
Andrews’ community work consumes her life. An aftercare programme takes place in the front yard, which has been closed off to form a makeshift library and study area. Keeping children off the streets after school is the first step in ensuring they stay away from gangs.
Administration work for the foundation is done on the dining room table, which is covered in documents and learning material. The backyard is used for preparing food, before it is taken to the container across the road. An old Wendy house is used for community programmes and more after-school space.
Stuck to a cabinet in the lounge is a reminder of what Andrews is up against. It is a picture of a local ward councillor pointing a finger at her in an apparently threatening manner. The image is the motivator she needs to steel herself for what is to come.
Facing the hunger crisis
Years before the Covid-19 pandemic hastened an already brewing crisis, Alcardo warned about hunger. It was not just gangsters killing people, hunger was too. The lockdowns only exacerbated the situation.
Oxfam named South Africa a “hunger hotspot” in July 2020. The food security status of community members was measured in the Western Cape in 2020. Using the food insecurity experience scale, the study found that between September and November 2020 11.9% of households were mildly food insecure, 23.4% were moderately food insecure and 30.6% were severely food insecure.
As early as 10am, women, the elderly and children begin gathering on a sandy patch of land on Hanover Park Avenue, queuing up at the bright green ship container that houses the foundation’s feeding scheme. They don’t know what food will come, when it will arrive or whether there will be enough, but they wait in hope.
Authorities have threatened to shut down the feeding scheme and impound the green container for not having a permit to operate on the patch of land, yet for nearly two years the foundation has been feeding the hungry at a time when these same authorities abandoned the community.
An old man stands patiently in the blistering sun, clinging to a well-used margarine container. He uses it to shield his head from the sun until he finally positions his thin body in the shadow of a nearby tree to wait more than two hours for the food to arrive.
A middle-aged mother is among the first on the scene, joined by her learning disabled adult son. She lives nearby and Andrews has tasked her with keeping an eye on the container after hours. Andrews fears the container will be vandalised and her family home targeted.
Ironically, the mother of one of the young men allegedly involved in Alcardo’s murder lines up to be fed by the Alcardo Andrews Foundation. Andrews feels empathy for the woman, “a victim too who cannot be turned away”.
“There are too many criminals walking. I told the magistrate the perpetrators are still on the streets. They laugh at the mothers after [the criminals have] killed their son. It’s not normal,” Andrews says.
“We need people from the outside to come in closer to work with us and get involved and really see the challenges that we face with our kids. We take our young people very seriously. Most of them are coming out of homes where there may be drug addicts and alcoholics. They have nowhere to debrief. They’re sitting with trauma. In the evening if there is shooting, they must duck and dive. They must even lay flat next to the bed until the shooting stops. They’re sitting with all this trauma. If more people come in and just assist with therapy, we welcome that.”
Hundreds of residents of Hanover Park now depend on the foundation for their solitary meal for the day. In a response to a question about child hunger and food poverty, Western Cape Social Development member of the executive council Sharna Fernandez quoted Statistics South Africa’s 2020 general household survey published last year. It found that 13% of children in the province are living in households reporting insufficient food. At least 21% live in households where meals are skipped because of a lack of money, and 74% of the children surveyed reported skipping meals for five or more days in a month.
For Andrews, the hunger crisis is a daily reality. She and her volunteers make between 700 and 1 000 portions a day. But that number has dwindled in recent months as donors pull out and the local economy is squeezed even further.
“You’ll be shocked. Right now we don’t get any funding, but we have partners that will supply us with food. It’s a struggle with funding,” Andrews says. “What keeps me motivated is hearing that child who could have been a gangster come and say, hi aunty Avril, I’m coming from school. It keeps me motivated. That mother who comes with her bag and says, aunty Avril I got the job, thank you for the bus fare that you have given me. I think I’m doing what Alcardo desired. It’s also probably God’s way of answering my question: What is my purpose in all of this?”