Cape Town - It seemed to grow from the dunes like a plantation. The brick homes stacked up slowly; bric-a-brac stalks rising tenaciously in the strong south-easter.
This is how Thomas Michaels, Mitchells Plain’s first traffic officer, remembers the township becoming the sprawling mini-city it is now.
The settlement is nearing its 40th birthday and there are more than 300 000 people living in the area.
But in 1976, it was the Wild West, the dunes echoing with the clangs of construction, with only sand roads to police and tumbleweed to clear from the half-built walls of future homes.
“There was nothing here, absolutely nothing,” says Michaels. “I sat here and I watched.”
Standing in the middle of Silversands Road where the old police station used to be – a small outhouse where the settlement’s first five officers slept, ate and worked – Michaels is still awestruck by the exponential expansion of what was once just a desert.
“Here it was just sand,” he says, pointing down the road. “And over there,” now pointing at the dunes, “was the first home. BJ Vorster (prime minister during the late 1960s-70s) himself handed keys to the first resident.”
Mitchells Plain was designed by the apartheid government in the mid-1970s as a model suburb for coloured people. Intended as a “dormitory suburb”, the development was shown to international dignitaries as an example of the regime’s housing efforts on the plain.
By the late 1980s, the original 56 homes had grown to more than 33 000 – a rapid pace that would continue to characterise the suburb’s later expansion.
In the early days, Michaels’s directorate was simple. With little infrastructure, he was mainly an information officer – an “advert” for the law enforcement to come.
But as taxis moved into the area and the roads were frequented by more than the occasionally rolling ball of fynbos, he found himself pulling over drunk drivers on their way to Monwabisi beach and policing roadblocks on the suburb’s main roads.
“The case I remember best was busting a woman who was selling drivers’ licences from her home,” he says. “It was my first real case.”
But while crime was relatively low-key, there were already signs of the gang violence that would later plague parts of the suburb.
The area’s first station commander, Abraham Pieterson, 69, remembers that his early work involved cracking down on the gangs that moved into the area.
“You must understand, there was basically nothing connecting Mitchells Plain to the city,” he says.
In a way, the suburb existed in a self-contained bubble, and the unemployed quickly turned to crime to make a living, he says.
“These guys weren’t violent, yet. They knew which corner was theirs and they kept it that way. But we would often open post boxes (on patrols) to find packets of mandrax and dagga… They operated on a simple philosophy: you party now for free, you pay on Friday.
“They were powerful guys, respected by the community, you know. It was difficult to get people to talk,” he says.
When police did manage to nab gangsters, they were kept in cells built from corrugated iron, which stood in the back garden of the police station, boiling in the sun.
“Mitchells Plain was an interesting place, and difficult… It was also beautiful.”
Michaels shares Pieterson’s fond memories of the suburb’s early days. But unlike the policeman, the now retired traffic officer is pessimistic about Mitchells Plain’s future.
“There is no respect here for authority anymore,” he says. “We need more officers, we need to turn this around.”