Hope in Westbury: ‘I’ve not heard a single gunshot’
Residents say things are a little better since the protests, but some say drug dealing continues
A granny of three speaks softly about crime in the gang-stricken Johannesburg community of Westbury and how it has improved since residents took to the streets to protest against the daily violence in their neighbourbood. “People don’t want us to say things are better, because they want to keep government on its toes by making more demands,” the 73-year-old told a Times Select journalist who paid a follow-up visit to the area that was shut down a few weeks ago.
She insisted that her three grandchildren, aged between nine and 13, could play in the streets that had been littered with debris, rocks and burning tyres. Police Minister Bheki Cele announced this month that a Tactical Response Team (TRT) would be appointed to probe the spate of gang-related killings.
That was the first time in almost a year that she felt it was safe enough for her grandchildren to play outside.
“Gunshots were a common thing. A lot of innocent people in our community were killed in crossfires. I couldn’t risk their lives like that. From school, they played in the yard just so I know that they are safe. I never even sent them to buy anything at shops on their own,” said the woman, who was returning from a hospital visit to her daughter.
“I have not heard a single gunshot ever since the ‘amaberet’ [referring to the TRT] were deployed here. We live in peace now and not with the constant fear that we had in the past,” she said.
Westbury residents took to the streets at the end of September, demanding a police intervention following the death of Heather Peterson. She was shot dead in suspected gang-related crossfire, and her 10-year-old daughter was injured. They were returning from school after collecting the child’s report card.
Another resident, Tatum van der Merwe, 24, said she too felt the police presence had made a difference. “There’s unity in our community now. It’s just sad that we had to burn tyres and close the streets in order to receive the attention of our government.”
But community leader Carswell Snyders said he did not see much of a difference. “Drugs are still peddled in this area. Drug dealers are still selling like they previously did.”
He also did not approve of the way police conducted some raids. “They target standalone houses during raids and also focus on roadblocks. It will be better if they extended their searches to flats,” he said.
Snyders also criticised the use of blue lights, sirens and marked police vehicles during raids. “Obviously, these alert the drug dealers that police are coming, and they hide the drugs before the police even arrive.”
He acknowledged the drug culture would not change overnight but said there was a bigger socioeconomic problem.
“Look at the number of young people roaming the streets because they are unemployed. We have been overlooked for years now. The local hospital doesn’t employ any of the youth from Westbury. I’m not saying we should be given jobs that we don’t qualify for. But some general work in the hospital or the local businesses and shops,” Snyders said.
He said community leaders from different coloured communities were attending a conference from Monday to Wednesday to talk about their problems.
“The conference is organised by the premier’s office and hope that all issues, including unemployment and crime, will be addressed, and we will come with solutions to all those problems we faced with on our different communities in Gauteng,” Snyders said.
Reneilwe Serero, spokesperson for the police minister, said more than 28 people were arrested in Westbury since the minister deployed the specialised units in the area. She said most of the arrests were related to drug dealing and possession, murder and attempted murder.
Ten of those were among the top 20 most wanted criminals who Cele said, during his visit, were on their list.
Gauteng police spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo said most of those arrested were on the police’s most wanted list in Westbury and would remain in custody.