In Westbury young people’s choices are limited to gangsterism or staying indoors

Well-resourced recreational facilities are meant to serve as a haven for the youth but that’s not the case for the community of Westbury.

The Joburg west suburb, Westbury has been crying about gang violence and drugs for years on end and their cries have seemingly gone unheard. The weekend of February 25, 2023 was the start of another cycle of violence in this community, two people were killed and 11 injured as a result of gang-related violence.

Like in the previous instances of violence in Westbury, the government, this time led by Minister of Police Bheki Cele reacted through a community meeting. A platform for the community to engage and air their grievances, one community member said: “We want to work – I can tell you that. We want to do [recreational] activities – but nothing is coming to us,” reported Eyewitness News.

Recreational facilities and activities that are well-resourced and maintained can help reduce the number of youth that join gangs in marginalised communities, according to the Southern African Journal of Social Work and Social Development Research, which explores the link between gang participation and the exclusion from recreational facilities.

The study further added that these spaces can help reduce and prevent crime by preventing juvenile delinquency through upskilling and keeping the youth busy. When young people don’t have access to these and have grown up in a violent environment, the chances of them falling prey to gangsterism is high. The effects of poverty and not being able to get out of the cycle of poverty can have a longlasting impact from generation to generation.

A section to the south of Sophiatown became a municipal shelter location known as Western Native Township to restrict African settlement in Johannesburg after 1924 when the Native Act of 1923 was enacted. The area was named Western Coloured Township after the Group Areas Act of 1950, and then renamed Westbury in the 1960s. The spatial planning cannot be ignored in how it contributed to how the area has turned out.

Spatial planning was designed to keep people of colour away from opportunities that could better their lives, research shows that people in these areas were kept far away from the economic opportunities that could help change their fortunes.

According to Wits University professor, Clive Glaser, who studies youth culture and the history of South Africa, young men need to have a sense of belonging , a space that’s bigger than a neighbourhood where they do not feel that their manhood is blocked socially, politically and economically. When manhood can not be exercised in these ways, exerting it through violence is often the route taken.

“Apartheid planning generally has contributed to that [gang violence] when you get areas that are poor and cut off and a few opportunities for young people and gangs look like more viable life choices than going the route of education,” said Glaser.

Lerato Ndlovu being shown around on where the youth programs take place in the Westbury Transformation Development Centre. Photo: Aphelele Mbokotho

Ending Cycles of Violence follows the origins of the formation of gangs in western Johannesburg during Apartheid and focuses on three periods of what it calls “gang violence cycles”.

The first “cycle” from 1994 to 1999 was defined by extreme violence when Westbury had the highest mandrax consumption in the country and a lot of turf wars were happening and then a gang truce, which was the result of the Westbury peace process in early 1999 when gang leaders from the various gang groups met to make peace.

The second cycle, from 2000 to 2013, saw the emergence of new criminal drug lords, an increase of drugs, and a lot of protests by residents that resulted in a visit from then-president, Jacob Zuma. The third cycle, 2014 to 2018, saw an increase in murder in the area and police involvement in criminal activities.

“The gangs in the Ward have been around for decades and will continue to be unless the cycle is broken and people are able to get back on their feet and not be dependent on the drug peddlers and gangs that they become affiliated with in order to survive,” said Susan Stewart, former ward 82 councillor. Stewart was in the position for 10 years and said little has changed since her term in office.

The crime statistics from crime hub show that the Sophiatown precinct where Westbury crimes are reported, showed an increase of almost 50 % over the last 10 years for attempted murder. Twenty seven attempted murder cases were reported in 2012 and 49 in 2022.

Drug related crimes have also been on the increase, reaching a peak in 2014/15 with 1515 cases reported. There’s been a slight increase between 2012 and 2022 where the number of cases were 906 and 1010 respectively. Murder had the highest increase over the past 10 years where the murder cases went from 12 in 2012 to 29 in 2022.

“The Crime Prevention Units and SAPS etc are not effective in dealing with the issues within the Ward and many are alleged to be involved with the syndicates, bribery and corruption and so there is very little to no hope that the situation will ever improve.  To eradicate society of gang violence the justice system has to work and unfortunately, it does not.  Even when arrested many of them are set free after bribing someone,” said Stewart.

Supporting this statement is a study, Ending Cycles of Violence which revealed police corruption and complicity in crime in the Western suburbs of Johannesburg.

“All the major gang bosses have police on their payroll. Some, he said, ‘are considered expendable because they can easily be replaced. Detectives are considered more important because they have access to dockets and decide who gets charged and who doesn’t,” the study revealed.

A resident of Westbury and a pastor in the community Doreen Babi, was a victim of police corruption where her identity was revealed to criminals for being a witness to a crime. “ I was an eyewitness for a murder case because they shot my friend… I was unknown and this policeman gave my identity to the people that shot my friend,” Babi recalled.

The most common area where profits from the drug economy have empowered gangs is their access to firearms. All the evidence suggests that today, influential gangs have more access to firepower than they did in the past. This is supported by the crime statistics of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition which had 22 cases 10 years ago but in 2022 the cases have increased to 61.

When asked where the youth obtained these illegal firearms, Babi adamantly said that it was from the police.

“The COJ has always and still done superficial intervention to real problems.  Window dressing as I would call it.  They create programs that encourage the youth to participate with a small stipend attached for a week, sometimes a few weeks or months and if they are lucky maybe even a certificate at the end that gives them access to nothing as it goes nowhere from there because there are no jobs that will absorb them after the fact,” said Stewart.

The youth often end up where they began after the programs that the city introduces in the community which is the reason why the youth of the community are crying out for recreational activities when they are there, they just aren’t programs that are run long enough she further added.

The City of Johannesburg has been allocated 57.7 million for community development for the current year and of that money sports and recreational centre’s are allocated R215 713 as shown in the Draft Medium Term Budget 2023/24-2025/26.

In this R215 713, money is allocated to Westbury to run some youth development programs. In Westbury, there’s a facility that lives by the motto: “We replace the guns and drugs with our skills development programmmes.”  Westbury Youth Centre runs a three-month job readiness program with the City of Johannesburg where each month they take 50 young people and provide computer training and conduct interview preparation, in an effort to make them employable.

“I would ask the city to extend those 3 months and fund us for a year because these programmes work but three months is not enough to run these programmes,” said Bridget Munnik, manager of the Westbury Youth Centre.

Among these facilities is the Westbury Transformation Development Centre which was recently upgraded by the Johannesburg Development Agency on behalf of the City of Johannesburg and cost the city R67 million. The centre opened in February 2019, and it offers sports and other recreational activities which they hope will empower and motivate the youth to improve their lifestyle and subsequently keep the youth off the streets.

Other services on offer include internet and computer access at the skills development facility, so people can look and apply for work.

Access to resources that focus on skills building, empowerment and the development of self-esteem is an important component in ensuring the protection of young people from the appeal of gangs.

The City of Joburg also runs programmes with I Love Robotics that cater to the vulnerable youth (12 year olds upwards). They run a Robotics programme during the April holidays which keeps these young people engaged in something interesting because it is around this age where it is reported that young people are most susceptible to influence.

This is another example of a programme which is too short, Stewart said more time would increase participants chances of employability.

“Keeping young people in school and enrolled in positive activities and providing proper resources, which could minimise the chances of them joining in gang violence, help them to become agents of change rather than threats in the society” reported SCielo in a study of the youth gang violence on the educational attainment and what benefits the youth get from joining gangs than being in schools.

Unfortunately for the schools in Westbury they cannot make schools a place where the learners can become these agents of change because the school premises have become a battlefield between gang members.

Carte blanche reported in May 2023 that 99% of learners in schools in Westbury aspire to become drug lords. Gang violence in this community has overflowed into the school premises and the work the school would do of having extramural activities is overshadowed by the violence that has entered the schools.

“The environment here at school currently is very volatile… The fights are normally between gang-related gangs, one gang attacking the other one because of what happened over the weekend” reported SABC News, speaking to the principal of Westbury Secondary School on how the school has become a battlefield.

Supporting this statement Munnik said: “It’s chaos at our schools, chaos because there are gangsters at the schools, especially in matric and so the two gangsters cannot see eye to eye in one school.”

The public safety Member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) was reached out to, to provide insight on the safety approach to the rampant criminality in the community but no response was received from him.