Johannesburg’s bleak and dangerous west

Parents in Westbury desperately try to keep their children out of gangs. But with slim prospects for work, and an overwhelming sense of neglect and decay, it can be a losing battle.

Natasha Jonker sits on a bench at the Newclare public swimming pool on a warm Friday morning watching her two sons play with friends in the pool.

The 38-year-old single mother of four walked past a drug transaction outside her house in Westbury earlier that morning when she brought the children to the pool. The clear blue pool is one of the only public facilities in the area that isn’t in a poor state.

5 October 2018: Twelve year old Mateo Jonker playing in the Newclare swimming pools, one of the very few public facilities available for residents in Westbury. According to his mother Natasha the youngster has already been exposed to gang violence after witnessing some shootings in their area.

Newclare adjoins Westbury, which became a coloured township in the 1960s because of the Group Areas Act. Now, the high rate of unemployment has pushed groups of young men to gather on street corners to roll dice, smoke hookah pipes or just chat.

Jonker is adamant that her 16-year-old son will not be part of that world. 

“I’m an old-school parent. I hit and I kick, but you can’t hit and kick every day. He’s not involved with any of this nonsense. Me as a parent, I told him I’ll take him down to the police station … He is at school every day,” she says proudly.

“You know the children who are involved in this, really, we know … When they say the parents don’t know, they do know, I’m telling you. There’s no parent who doesn’t know what their child is up to.”

3 October 2018: Mourners at the memorial service for late Heather Petersen at the AFM church in Westbury. 

Shooting on the streets

The ongoing drug wars between rival dealers have ended in multiple shooting deaths. Jonker says she still regularly sees a young man who allegedly shot five men, killing two of them, near her house.

But it’s not just drug dealers and gangsters who are being killed. Ordinary residents and children are often caught in the barrage.

Two weeks ago, a mother of six, Heather Petersen, 45, was killed after being caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. 

At her funeral this past Saturday, Richard Koopman, who read her obituary, said it was time the community stood together and fixed the problems they faced.

The church where Petersen’s funeral was held was filled to capacity with friends, family and community members who each had their own story about the gang- and drug-related violence that plagues the community.

During the sermon and celebration of Petersen’s life, Pastor Stan Carolus’s prayers for change were greeted with shouts of “Amen!” from the congregation.

6 October 2018: Mourners take a final view of the face of the late Heather Petersen during her funeral at the AFM church in Westbury

Petersen’s eldest daughter, Veronique, sobbed outside the church after she helped carry her mother’s casket to the hearse. Petersen was laid to rest at the Westpark Cemetery.

Her death ignited outrage and protests from the Westbury community earlier in the week, culminating in Minister of Police Bheki Cele visiting the community twice in less than a week.

He vowed to fight the scourge of drug dealers and gangsterism in the area by bringing in 133 police officers from the police’s elite, and notorious, tactical response team (TRT).

At an official parade of the TRT unit at the Westbury sports grounds on Thursday, Cele told the community that the unit would be on 24-hour patrol and would rid the community of drugs and drug dealers.

“We don’t give them rubber bullets. We give them the real stuff,” Cele said at the parade. “I don’t expect any animosity, any clashes, between this unit and the community. I don’t. Help them, support them, give them information.”

Gauteng police spokesperson, Captain Kay Makhubela, said eight people were arrested on Friday night – four of them in connection with a murder that happened in July. The other four were arrested for possession of and dealing drugs.

4 October 2018: Local residents observe members of the SA Police Service TRT unit during the launch of a programme by the minister of police in Westbury. The community has a serious distrust of the local police who they accuse of being corrupted by the drug dealers.

Systemic unemployment and the turn to the gangs

Maryon Adolph, 50, was standing at the periphery of the crowd that gathered at the Westbury sports grounds on Thursday to hear Cele’s address, hoping he would tell the community how the police would rid Westbury of drugs.

“I was born here. Unemployment has always been a big problem in this community, but it’s got worse in recent years,” she said with her arms crossed. “Our children aren’t getting jobs, then they are attracted by the gangsters. They buy them some tekkies, jeans and stuff some money in their hands. That’s how they hook them.”

The single mother of four, who works part-time as a community health worker, knows from first-hand experience how easy it is for young men to be drawn into the life that has become synonymous with the impoverished suburb. Her 18-year-old son was arrested earlier this year for possession of drugs.

“I went to visit him at Leeuwkop [prison]. I told him, ‘You’ve got two choices: you can come home with me and go back to school, or you can carry on with this life, and I’ll leave you here.’ He chose to come back. He’s in matric now. He’s with the books as we speak,” says Adolph.

“There are many young men hooked in this life. But the moment you are a little strict, then you can still save some of them.”

Adolph says she comes from a generation where children were raised with discipline by both parents. “Our parents were strict. Obviously, there were drugs, but it wasn’t as heavy as it is now. The children these days don’t have respect, and they just say what they want to say. Their fathers are not around and their mothers keep quiet. I am tired of our children wasting their lives with these drugs.”

5 October 2018: Children play a football game outside some of the old council flats built by the apartheid government. Housing is another issue facing residents in this area with some apartments housing three generations of a family.

Jonker agrees. “I’m a single parent. It’s a very big problem here. That’s the in thing. I don’t know why. Let me say, my family, let me not talk for the community, most of our children grow up with a single parent, the mother mostly.”

“My mother died when I was eight, so I can say I am a soldier. I raised myself. I made things happen for myself. Same applies to my children. There’s nobody they can go to and say, ‘Listen, I need R100 because I [want] to do this project’. No, we need to do it on our own. That’s how our lives are. So most of them turn to crime, because it’s the easiest way. God forbid, I don’t need that,” Jonker says.

Sitting upright in a chair in his living room with grease still on his hands, Oom Zakie Mohamed, 75, believes a lot of the problems in Westbury today are because of a lack of structure at home and in the community. “If you look at our youth, the youth in Westbury, I would say 60% of them are being destroyed on a daily basis. You know why? Because there is no structure in the family. The parents don’t worry. The parents are scared of their own children,” he says.

Mohamed raised his five children strictly and inspired a strong work ethic in each of them. He managed to send four of his five children to university – one son was shot and killed years ago.

“I’m 75, and I’m still working [as an artisan] … I don’t believe in handouts. We struggled to raise our children. I had to explain that to my children. I told them the only way they can get out of this area is with education. And, thank God, it happened. I thank the Lord every day.”

Mohamed’s family was forcibly removed from Vrededorp in the 1960s and moved to Westbury when it was still called the Western Native Township.

He says the original gangs in Westbury were started back then to protect the community’s labyrinthine streets when the previous residents, who were forced out, came back to terrorise the new residents.

“But we were never involved with the drugs and guns like they are now. We just used to protect the community. It’s out of hand now,” he says.

4 October 2018: Oom Zakie Mohamed, 75, a long time resident and anti-drug activist in the Westbury area.

A broken, neglected place

“Look around you,” says Roberto Jones, 37, while biting into a ham and cheese sandwich on the stoep of his aunt’s ground-level council flat in Westbury. “The street lights are broken. People are walking around because they don’t have work. People are left to make their own opportunities. That’s what I do. I make my own opportunities and make a little bit of money.”

The block of flats where Jones’s aunt lives are overcrowded, with some one- and two-bedroom units housing as many as 10 people. The grass between the units hasn’t been cut in a few weeks and rubbish is piling up in one corner.

“There’s nothing for us. When I finish work or when a child is done with school in the afternoon, there is nowhere to play basketball or some sport. No, we’ll go to our tjommies [friends] and that’s when we get involved with drugs.”

Jones believes that if government could create jobs and permanently employ people in the community, the situation would improve. “Look, there are many issues here. I can go on the whole day. But one of the biggest problems in Westbury is unemployment.”

The Steven Pienaar Community Cup held every year at the same sports ground where Cele paraded the TRT is one of the highlights in the community. But a man was shot and killed during last year’s tournament.

5 October 2018: Roberto Jones outside some of the old council flats built by the apartheid government. Housing is another issue facing residents in this area with some apartments housing three generations of a family.

Omash Ramjathan, the programme coordinator at Abraham Kriel Bambanani childcare in Westbury, says the organisation assists about 150 children with psychosocial support, skills development, after-school care and food. 

Children usually start off with a lot of enthusiasm, but when they got older, they lose interest. “They get mixed up. The thing with these kids, we notice there is a pattern. The kids who mostly come are the smaller kids, the primary school kids. And you can see the enthusiasm in them,” he says. 

“They want to be in it and do the activities and take part in everything. But at the age when they start high school, you see a change in them. And that’s what we’re faced with. We try to get them away from that negative change.

“Peer pressure … plays a big part with them. ‘Ag, you’re not going to be in the streets with us, what’s wrong? Why are you interested in school. Why do you want to go to aftercare?’ That kind of thing,” he says.

5 October 2018: Young children stand in a line outside the Westbury Mosque to collect milk and a loaf of bread that is distributed by donors from the area. Poverty and unemployment remain the biggest challenges facing the residents of Westbury and Churches and Mosques are often seen as sources of hope for the community.
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