Every time activist Mark Nicholson passes young boys playing football in Lavender Hill, he greets them with a nod of his head and a word he chooses with purpose: “Manne.” In this small neighbourhood, where street corners are controlled by young boys dressed in black, Nicholson wants the young footballers to know that they are still men even if they’re not with the boys in black.
It is a cold Friday afternoon. In two hours’ time, the footballers will still be playing, even as they hear gunshots in the near distance. Another boy might die, and a mother will remember her daughter who was shot and killed. But no one is really surprised.
Patronella Williams feels her age. It’s around 4.15pm and the 62-year-old looks like a tired mother in her cramped living room filled mostly with children. She lives in a council-owned block of flats in the hubbub of Lavender Hill.
Nicholson leads me and photographer Barry Christianson through the walkways between these various blocks until we reach Williams’ home.
Each block of flats in the area is known as a court, and every court has its courtyard where children scatter when gangsters shoot.
When Williams leaves her house, she will see them. She knows them by name and gang. Some of them look to be in their 20s wearing black baggy pants and black pullovers, a glinting chain around each of their necks.
Williams has lost a lot to the gangsters. It takes her 30 minutes to tell us about her daughter, Amelia.
Amelia, who died without healing
For the last 10 years of her life, Amelia Williams tried to be better. She sat on her parents’ bed night after night, pleading and promising to be a good daughter. She fought fiercely with her mother when she was high, or when she needed money to buy drugs. Their relationship broke down completely over the years under the strain of Amelia’s addiction.
It started when she was in grade 8. She met a boy and fell in love. As Amelia fell deeper into the relationship, she became addicted to the lethal chemicals of crystal methamphetamine. Her relationships with gangsterism took control of her life. Amelia’s first child was born into this shaky world. His father is now in jail and his grandmother is his sole provider. Amelia has a little girl, too, Kelly, whom her grandmother fondly calls Amelia the Second because of her resemblance to her mother.
In July 2018, 26-year-old Amelia was gunned down at a corner shop. The hit was meant for her boyfriend, but Amelia allegedly became the target when they couldn’t find him. Williams knows which gang ordered the killing but is trying desperately to forgive them so she can heal, although the trauma still haunts her.
“I’ve got lots of fear because I’ve got more children and grandchildren. I live in fear that when they’re shooting outside I wonder, who are they shooting?”
Gangsterism was on the rise in Lavender Hill in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it spiralled out of control. Over the past month, the violence has reached a devastating level. It is said to be the worst year yet in the suburb, according to Steenberg Community Policing Forum chairperson Gavin Walbrugh.
Around the Cape Flats, 900 people have already been killed in gang violence this year, according to mortuary statistics for January to June 2019, and the death toll has shown no sign of abating. If anything, the killings continue without interruption.
The shootings in real time
Williams nudges her grandchildren to sit still as we talk. It’s getting later in the afternoon and the children are restless in the small living room. We exit her front door and walk down the steep staircase that takes us out into the cool winter air. We regroup at the bottom of the stairs to begin walking to Nicholson’s house. Suddenly, it starts.
Pop, pop, pop, pop. The sound is like fireworks. Or like popcorn popping in a microwave. It sounds like two things children love and in reality it’s likely to be youngsters firing those guns.
The gunshots sound close, but still far away enough for us to feel safe standing in Williams’ yard for a moment. It’s 4.56pm. The gunshots have just stopped. Kelly, Amelia’s daughter, comes zooming down the stairs and on to the short wall that fences her grandmother’s block. I tell her to go inside but, unfazed by the gunfire, she continues to play at the wall.
“Just wait, they will stop now and we can walk,” Nicholson says.
The problem is that when we walk, we will be heading in the same direction from which we heard the sound of guns being fired. After a few beats of silence, Nicholson promises that it’s safe to go back to his house.
In a situation like this, his home is terrifying. He lives in a row of houses on the edge of a vacant field known as “the Battlefield”. This is where most of the shooting happens between rival gangs vying for turf in their drug and money-fuelled gun warfare. Many boys have been murdered on this killing field. At least two of them Nicholson’s nephews.
We begin to walk back to his house, hoping that during the five-minute walk another shot won’t be fired. Outside, young men still play football and aunties are still standing outside their houses. Everything looks normal.
There’s a tall boy in black, perhaps in his early 20s or younger, standing on the street corner as if he’s waiting for something. Nicholson leads us down another road.
The green grass of the Battlefield starts to come into view. A thin man in baggy clothes with a face slightly hidden by the peak of his cap is walking in our direction. As he nears, he looks lost. His brown eyes are sunken into his weathered face.
Nicholson recognises him. Earlier that morning, a 15-year-old had been shot and killed. The boy was this man’s stepson.
“I loved him like he was my own, he was my favourite,” the man says as tears start to roll over his cheekbones.
The gunshots that were just fired were a retaliation for his boy’s murder, he says. He pleaded with the gangs to leave it alone, but the gunshots told him they hadn’t listened.
“We told them to leave it to God,” he says. Shaken, he carries on walking home.
Trying to help
The exchange with the father and the interview with Williams has left Nicholson feeling sad. He has lost six nephews to gang violence. One of them was killed outside his front door.
His house is instantly recognisable by the large mural on his back wall that reads: Lavender Hill Football Club. The 49-year-old started the club to help boys stay clear of the gangs.
“Lavender Hill also swallowed me in. I was 19 when I started taking mandrax here in the courts,” he says.
It took him more than 10 years to get clean and a few months later, he started his club. Having lived in the area for 32 years, Nicholson knows the ins and outs of the neighbourhood. With his own sense of diplomacy, he has gained the respect of the gang leaders and they have promised to never approach the children in the football club to join their gangs.
But occasionally, Nicholson is disappointed. A boy who walked past his house earlier was a member of his club. The youngster now carries a gun.
“He was intimidated to join,” says Nicholson.
But the club is growing, with more kids and senior players. Nicholson says eight of the young boys who train there have lost parents to gang violence. During the afternoon, Nicholson saw South African Police Service vehicles parked on the Battlefield. Once the vans had left at the change of shift, the shooting started, he speculates. The vans are no longer on the field. Nicholson doesn’t trust the cops, because of the amount of illegal firearms that circulate among gangsters.
“Most of the police is corrupt. I wouldn’t want the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] coming to Lavender Hill, because while they are here the violence would stop. But what happens after they leave?” he asks, referring to growing calls by various communities on the Cape Flats to deploy the army against gang violence.
Across the field from Nicholson’s house is a church called St Mark’s where a cross is brightly lit against the darkening evening sky. At some point while Nicholson talks, more guns are fired from far away. His sister-in-law has heard someone else was killed in the shooting earlier today.
“I hope to register the club as a non-profit soon. These gangsters are breaking down the community and they don’t care how they do it,” he says.
It’s close to 6pm. As the evening sky darkens, children will hurry home before the shooting starts again.