It’s been exactly a week since the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was deployed to Cape Town communities to address the scourge of gang violence.
On Thursday 18 July, more than 1,300 soldiers hit the streets of Hanover Park, Delft, Elsies River, Mitchells Plain and Manenberg, some of the 10 neighbourhoods Police Minister Bheki Cele identified when he announced the deployment a week earlier.
These communities are among the worst affected by gang-related murders and violent crime, and over the past few months, they have turned into something akin to a warzone.
Residents, local politicians, and even the provincial government have periodically been requesting, demanding and begging for the army to be deployed.
On Thursday last week, when their calls were finally answered, EWN was there to witness the deployment.
The mood in these areas changed almost immediately after the army entered their communities. Some residents stood in their doorways, others peeked behind their curtains, while others rushed down their staircases still in their gowns and aprons to catch a glimpse of a very different scene in the area.
In Hanover Park, residents cheered and applauded police as they walked a suspect across the central square of the tenement block – his alleged crime the illegal possession of ammunition.
“The number of weapons floating around in the area is out of control,” said Manenberg Community Policing Forum’s Kadar Jacobs. “I am concerned that more people are being killed. I hope that these operations will yield the necessary results.”
On the day of the deployment, young children – who’re often forbidden by their parents from leaving their homes for fear that they would be caught in gang crossfire – played in close proximity to the soldiers. Some stood in amazement, smiled, cheered, snapped pictures and ran around them.
Hanover Park resident Romonde Dass said she supported the army’s deployment because children were no longer safe when playing outside.
“We would have wanted to see this intervention for a long time, it’s not nice when innocent children get sore. Why must our children be stuck in the houses when they can play outside, they have no free life,” said Dass.
While many residents feel a sense of deep relief that the army is finally on hand to help the SAPS, there are those who are concerned for the children, and how to help them process the presence of soldiers in their neighbourhood.
“We feel a bit safe – but I don’t like the idea of them running up and down with guns and the children all around them, but nevertheless, it’s for our safety – and that’s all we want” said Elsies River resident Debbie Smith.
Cape Town-based family therapist and clinical social worker Talya Ressel said the army’s deployment could have a positive or negative impact on young children living in a neighbourhood where gunshots are commonplace, and where no one is left untouched by gang violence.
“What happens is when we are under stress and anxiety, even if we don’t even realise in times of strain and stress, your brain wants to go to all good or all bad; that’s how it’s trying to make sense of the chaos.”
In an unsafe environment, the presence of authority figures like soldiers can put children’s minds at ease, sparking huge relief, and prompting fantasies that the soldiers will make everything better. But it can also create a false narrative that teaches them that the people with the biggest guns win.
“On one hand, it is going to normalise these giant guns right outside your house all along the street, and on the other it makes the child think that’s normal when it’s totally not normal. So that may be some of the negative consequences around seeing that you need violence to control violence,” said Ressel.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde has made the point on several occasions that the army deployment is simply a stop-gap measure – a chance to allow police to break the back of gang activity while social and economic plans can be implemented as a long-term fix.
Similarly, clinical psychologist Shereen Moolla contends that a level of peace could help children in violence-plagued areas buy enough time to restart their development
“On a physical level your brain changes with repeated traumatic experiences. So, these children are developing with a brain that in responding to danger, is focusing on survival and developing strategies around defending themselves.”
Thus, when all children can think of is how to make it through the day alive and unscathed, their ability to learn and develop and process emotional responses is severely compromised.
“So, the only way in that sort of environment is to show a child an alternative model of an adult is to create safety and to create boundaries,” Moolla said.
While many residents are satisfied with the SANDF assisting police over a three-month period, local community police forums are urging government to come forward with long-term safety plans.
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