Westbury: a place in crisis as safe havens fall to criminals
A new report on urban safety paints harrowing picture of crime skyrocketing over a single year in the Joburg suburb
When a mother named Heather Peterson was shot dead by gangster crossfire on a street in Westbury, Johannesburg in 2018, her death set off a chain of events that ended in protest, more gunfire, and clashes with the police.
It was the words of her heartbroken husband Reuben that spoke for so many people living in fear in the gang-ridden suburb: “My wife died innocently. I hope and pray it will not be in vain and doesn’t happen to anyone else. My daughter is four years old and has to go through life without her mother. I do not wish that on anyone.”
Now, a new report – The State of Urban Safety in South Africa – has laid bare how more and more families are going through the same horror as the Petersons as murder, rape and carjackings skyrocket.
When the report was released by the South African Cities Network last week, South Africans were surprised that on the whole, Johannesburg was faring far better than Cape Town in terms of safety, but the spotlight falls directly on Westbury as being an exception.
Between 2016 and 2017, rape went up dramatically. In 2016, there wasn’t a single rape, but in 2017 there were 41. Thirty-six people were murdered there in 2017, compared with 27 the previous year (an increase of about 25%). Carjackings went up by 60% (there were 100 in 2017), while in the category “community-reported serious crime”, it went from zero in 2016 to 4,923 the following year.
The Johannesburg City Safety Programme worked with local non-profit groups to try to figure out where the crime hot spots were. They did this by working with young people and facilitating a “mapping exercise to identify crime hot spots”.
It showed that crime is at its worst in “high-density settlements, and in the eastern and northern part of the area”, according to the report. Most worryingly, areas traditionally considered safe havens away from crime have now become hotbeds of crime. These include churches and unused sporting fields.
Residents “do not want to report drug lords because family members who are breadwinners are involved”, according to the report. There is also a dire lack of positive role models, instead “criminality is idealised and seen as cool”.
Residents also “turn a blind eye” when the crime does not directly affect them, while they have also “lost trust in the police”. To make matters worse, some police members are “allegedly involved in crime in the area”, and residents also fear for their lives if they report crime.
Charity Monareng, a researcher who wrote a thesis on youth involvement in gangs, says gangs proliferate in places like Westbury where young people are desperate for the support structures promised but denied by democracy.
She says gangs in SA provide residents with a way of “gaining control”. As a result, “they become powerful role models by propagating a lifestyle of wealth vested in their activities”, and can thus target young people whose economically unstable family backgrounds make them especially vulnerable to being recruited.
Because of this reality, some believe the only solution is to channel the masculine energy of young men in such communities into more structured and healthy groupings since this can divert them from gangs.
Emmanuel Dyantyi is a Goju Kai karate instructor in crime-ravaged Langa in Cape Town. He says: “In the townships, a 13-year-old boy will see a gangster with a flashy car and he will know that he didn’t work for it. It is better to create role models that people can look up to for things other than material gain. Karate and other sports build character, and help young men identify opportunities for themselves where you don’t need a gun.”