“On his death certificate it says he committed suicide, but I know it was a gang that shot him in the head.”
It’s been just over five years since Mary Bruce lost her son Nathal, to whom she gave birth at 15. Now she is 42, a formidable woman with a shock of bright red hair, and to everyone within her community of Hanover Park she is known simply as Sister Mary.
She has had many long nights to reflect on her son’s life – and death – and she traces the source of the problems to before Nathal even drew his first breath.
“Nathal’s dad physically abused me, but the abuse started long before he was born, the abuse started while my son was still in my womb, so I always say my son was abused as well, since before birth. He grew with abuse in my body.”
Domestic abuse is rife within the Cape Flats, the windswept plains where Hanover Park sits and to where black and brown South Africans were forcibly removed by the apartheid government in the 1950s with the enactment of the Group Areas Act, the legislation that divided cities into areas stratified by race.
For white South Africans: the sea-front suburbs, the leafy suburbs, the suburbs close to jobs and industry and work. For black and brown South Africans: desolate expanses on the edges of cities, where they would be housed in dilapidated council estates or left to build their own dwellings from makeshift materials.
Strategically denied economic development for decades, today the Cape Flats continues to reap apartheid’s whirlwind. Poverty and unemployment are the status quo, but what sets the Cape Flats apart from other economically depressed urban areas in South Africa is the massive proliferation of gangsterism and drug abuse.
It was into this world that Sister Mary’s son became drawn as an adolescent.
She divorced his father in Nathal’s early teens, and when Nathal turned 14 he asked to live with his dad in Mitchell’s Plain, another Cape Flats suburb.
“I allowed it, but this is where he became involved in the Nice Time Kids gang, and started dealing drugs,” she says.
Nathal’s gang name was Ougat: an Afrikaans slang term equivalent to the English phrase “too big for your boots”.
“The gangsters made him feel important and so loved,” Sister Mary says. “They made him feel like the real deal.”
Nathal also began using the drugs he was peddling: “He was on coke,” his mother explains.
The Cape Flats’ drug trade is normally associated with rougher street drugs than cocaine, so I enquire about this.
“No, everyone just calls all the drugs coke,” Sister Mary clarifies. “But really it’s mandrax, heroin and tik.”
Mandrax is a synthesised, highly potent version of the sedative Quaalude. Tik is more commonly known as crystal meth, but in Cape Town it acquired the label of “tik” from the crackling sound the drug makes when it’s heated and smoked through a glass tip or old lightbulb.
Once Cape Flats youngsters are addicted to these drugs, the way out is difficult. Rehabilitation centres in the area are few and far between and massively over-subscribed, while access to the drugs is easy and plentiful: primarily through the gangs.
The strain the addiction places on Cape Flats families, and particularly mothers, is hard to overstate. In one famous case, it drove one Cape Flats mother, Ellen Pakkies, to strangle to death her own tik-addicted son Abie in 2007. She was acquitted of his murder after the court heard the depths of despair she was driven to by a son who had robbed her blind and who she feared might rape her.
The life of Sister Mary’s son Nathal ended with a bullet to his head: an all-too common outcome for the young men drawn into the life of gangsters.
Sister Mary drops a bomb in the middle of her re-telling of this story, but for all her candour, it’s the one thing she doesn’t want to elaborate on: “I hear he was also a sniper,” she says.
In other words: a hitman used by the Nice Time Kids to take out rival gang members.
Since Nathal’s death, Sister Mary has devoted her life to trying to ensure that young people from her community feel that they have somewhere to go that is an alternative to the gangs. The door to her small Hanover Park flat is always open to at-risk youth who seek her home out as a tiny refuge from the turbulence of their normal lives.
For a while, Sister Mary felt like she was making a difference. Until July this year, when she was caught by a gangster’s bullet herself.
There’s something different about 2019 on the Cape Flats, but nobody is sure what is behind it. All anyone knows for certain is that the mortuaries are at bursting point.
The Western Cape government is calling this year “the worst in history” when it comes to gang violence. Recent mortuary statistics reveal that twice the number of people (900) have died because of gang violence between January and June this year compared with last, many of the victims regular citizens caught in a shower of crossfire.
On 6 July, six women were gunned down and found dead, in the same yard. Planned killings. Then, a further 43 people were killed over the course of a single weekend that same month.
South Africa’s parliament is located in the centre of Cape Town: less than 20 kilometres from the Cape Flats but worlds apart in terms of safety. Outside the parliament’s gates a group of activists recently gathered with hand-made placards aimed at catching the attention of politicians. Many were elderly women.
“Mothers are tired of crying. Our tears have dried up!” one placard read.
Protesters spoke of spending their evenings crouched on the floors of their homes, too frightened to raise their heads above window level for fear of bullets. They spoke of the recent school holidays, when children were confined indoors, and public spaces abandoned to the rat-tat-tat of gangsters opening and returning fire on each other.
A video which recently went viral in Cape Town, taken on a cellphone by an onlooker, showed rival gangs engaged in a shootout in broad daylight between apartment buildings. The violence was so brash and undisguised that it looked fake. But such videos have become so common that authorities recently pleaded with Cape Flats residents not to put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to gather such footage in the hope of fleeting internet fame.
It is now viewed as risky for journalists to enter the Cape Flats without police protection. Earlier this month, a local TV crew was robbed of all its equipment at gun point. One of the first things Sister Mary told me over the phone was that she did not believe it was safe for me to travel to meet her in her home.
Late one Saturday afternoon, I left the shadow of Table Mountain behind me and as I headed deep into the suburbs.
The M5 freeway leads all the way to the tourist hotspot of Cape Point, fabled as the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. That wasn’t my destination; it also leads to the southern Cape Flats.
I left the serene seaside town of Sea Point behind me. Athlone, Lansdowne, Parkwood and Grassy Park seemed alive. Hawkers sold toilet paper and in-season avocados on the side-walks. Pedestrians walked from the shops to their houses. I mused that it didn’t seem so bad here, and headed off the M5 toward Mitchells Plain. There the mood dimmed slightly and as I went deeper into the flats I could feel the fear settle into me.
Downtrodden. Wrecked. Sad. Dangerous. Those are the words that came to mind.
Large square-shaped fields separated blocks of flats, their paint chipped off by gang graffiti, each corner occupied by unseen enemies.
I realised these were the fields they shoot across; locations for videos I’ve seen too many times. Cape Town’s killing fields, I thought, sitting at traffic lights, wishing they’d go green.
Americans. Sexy Boys. Hard Livings. Mongrels. These gang names – some ironic, some defiant – are as well known to Cape Flats schoolkids as family surnames. They are scrawled across tenement walls and tattooed on to young bodies.
The dust never seems to settle in these parts; it just hovers, waiting for the next storm. Sometimes these quads between the estates are heavy with police, patrolling in shifts to try to enforce ceasefires. But the gangsters have long figured out their schedules – the changing of the guard, so to speak – and they time their shootouts for the gap between one team of cops leaving and the next arriving. The system does not work.
After decades of conflict in the area known as apartheid’s dumping ground, a tipping point has finally arrived. The army has been summoned.
Sister Mary sat quietly in her apartment the morning the soldiers arrived in Hanover Park.
“How pathetic is this?” she thought to herself as she heard the celebratory cries of other residents outside.
Particularly for older Cape Flats residents, the arrival of the troops evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was irresistibly reminiscent of the apartheid years, when black and brown South Africans were viewed as criminal by default and policed accordingly.
On the other hand? Nobody seemed to have any better ideas as to what could stem the bloodshed. It was reported that if Cape Flats gang violence continued throughout 2019 at its current levels, Cape Town would take the title of the world’s most dangerous city by the end of the year.
The issue of military deployment to the Cape Flats has been a long-running political football. The Western Cape is the only one of nine South African provinces not governed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC): it is led by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
DA leaders have been pushing for the last few years to send the army on to the Cape Flats to sort out the gangs. It is a move they have no authority to make unilaterally: such a decision can be taken only by the ministers of police and defence, and signed off by the country’s president.
Critics accused the DA of calling for the army as a way of avoiding paying attention to the provincial government’s unequal distribution of services, including distribution of policing and of the decent infrastructure necessary to keep communities safe. Cape Town’s wealthier suburbs benefit from better street lighting and CCTV coverage: so start there, critics said, before bringing in the soldiers.
But of late it has not just been the DA calling for the army, but Cape Flats community groups too. Community Policing Forum members – citizens who assist police in a kind of neighbourhood watch set-up – lobbied national government for soldiers to act as a “force multiplier” for police in order to take charge of a situation that has spiralled out of control.
On the 11 July, Police Minister Bheki Cele – famous in South Africa for once telling troops to walk with “your stomach in and chest out because people must envy your body” – unexpectedly announced that President Cyril Ramaphosa had approved the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to the Cape Flats for a period of not less than three months.
The expectation was that soldiers would arrive immediately. South African TV networks kept cameras trained on local army barracks and saw – nothing. In the end, it would take a full week for the troops to be sent in. The delay was attributed partly to “paperwork” and partly to the need to fly soldiers in from other parts of the country to avoid the risk of corrupt collaboration between Western Cape-based troops and gang members.
The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, responded to criticism by saying that these types of deployment need an element of surprise and “hopefully this delay will give this effect”.
In the early hours of 18 July, the first troops enter the gang hotspot of Manenberg.
One day earlier, three kids were wounded here while trying to run for cover. Two days earlier, a young pregnant woman was shot dead with a single bullet to the head, another cross-fire casualty.
Residents hang around, keyed up, eagerly awaiting the arrival of armed soldiers dressed in full camouflage. The Cape Town winter sky is held together by a thick mist that sprays over the entering convoys like confetti. People scream and cheer with relief and joy but no amount of celebration can wash away the underlying morbidness of the scene.
“You can’t fight fire with fire,” one middle-aged woman sighs.
If the residents of the Cape Flats are torn about the army deployment, the response from experts has been virtually unanimous: sending in the military is at best a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound, and at worst could seriously backfire.
One of South Africa’s foremost experts on the Cape Flats gangs is Don Pinnock, a criminology research fellow at the University of Cape Town and the author of Gang Town, a book exploring the appeal of gangsterism to Cape Flats youth.
In a recent column, Pinnock wrote that gangsters with guns and drugs were “the visible part of an extremely complex underworld which includes foreign transnational smugglers, local warehousing merchants, area syndicate bosses, gang bosses, bent cops and young street ‘soldiers’ who are the ones who generally pull the triggers”.
What the army will be dealing with on the Cape Flats, Pinnock argues, is only the tip of the gangsterism iceberg. The unseen parts – the parts that control the real levers of power – will likely remain undetected long after the army has left.
Pinnock breaks it down:
“There are ‘warrior’ gangs like the Vatos and Vuras who fight for status, merchant gangs who fight for territory, big gangs like the Hard Livings and Sexy Boys who fight to control supply routes and sales turf, small corner gangs who fight for the right to be on their corner, girl gangs, fierce prison gangs and ‘baby’ gangsters who seek to emulate their older brothers.”
Temporarily eliminating street-corner fighting between these factions doesn’t fix anything, because the relevant turfs will simply be taken over by others.
Pinnock believes that military support is ultimately a shallow solution, which he likens to “mopping up water when they should be turning off the tap”.
John Stupart, editor of the African Defence Review, expressed similar views. “We’re not really of the opinion that the military can effectively police states or towns,” he told me. “The problems that lead to gangsterism or organised crime are so much deeper and more complicated than can be solved by simply throwing a camouflaged sledgehammer at it.”
But the “experts” on these situations generally do not live on the Cape Flats. They don’t know the constant terror of losing loved ones in crossfire. Shouldn’t their pleas be taken into account – the pleas of those in the affected communities, for the modicum of control the army might provide?
“At best, we will have three months of calm,” Stupart warns. “At worst, you have the organised criminals engaged in running gun battles with the military in a dense urban environment.”
In a situation like that, I wonder how the troops differentiate between a gang member and an ordinary teenager crossing the street in the midst of it all.
Stupart believes that SANDF could “genuinely contribute to policing efforts in the Cape Flats through the use of sophisticated image intelligence-gathering methods and larger assets – like the use of helicopters or aircraft – to really get a bigger picture”.
But this has not happened. The deployment the Cape Flats have seen so far is nothing more than a PR exercise, he maintains.
Countries around the world dealing with similar gang situations have experimented with the same fix: perhaps most notably Brazil. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are often likened to the Cape Flats, in terms of being awash with weaponry and drugs and suffering high levels of unemployment and socio-economic deprivation.
In Rio’s expansive Rocinha favela in 2017, 950 soldiers were deployed when heavily-armed rival drug trafficking gangs fought for dominance and local police found themselves ill-equipped to handle the conflict. In fact, since 2001, 29 military operations have taken place in Rio. Not one has produced lasting results.
Experts have also warned that one unintended consequence of a military crackdown on gangs in a specific area can be that gangsters flee to other parts of the country – something that contributed to the spread of the Italian mafia from Sicily to the mainland.
This possibility already appears to be very real. Police Minister Cele told a press conference recently that he was aware that gangsters were moving from the Western Cape into other South African provinces.
But with characteristic confidence, he promised: “We will meet them there”.
Sister Mary’s mood swings between positive and negative these days. Mostly, she’s just tired: a lingering effect of a long stay in hospital.
She was hanging out her laundry on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June when she heard the shooting.
“I had three pairs of jeans in my hands when I heard first gunshot. I ducked behind a car. Then I turned and ran. The second bullet hit me. I fell to the ground. The third gunshot went off. I lay on the ground for seven to 10 minutes before a boy found me and screamed ‘Sister Mary was shot!’”.
The bullets fired were hollow-point ammunition, particularly deadly because they splinter upon impact. Shrapnel is still lodged in Sister Mary’s leg. She’s had two surgeries, one to repair the bone and the other to repair the artery the bullet tore through.
“I’m going on,” she tells me over the telephone. “The pain is unbearable, but this is part of my life story. I have to deal with it.”
Sister Mary says she has to end the call, but will let me know when I can visit her at home.
With army troops now stationed there for over a week, I am still waiting for Sister Mary to tell me it’s a safe zone; that things are under control.
But I remember something she said previously: “Three months with the army will not rehabilitate this gangsterism that has gone on for 45 years.”
Portrait by Shaun Swingler, all other images by Getty Images