In Helenvale in Port Elizabeth, the spectre of street violence and the sound of gunfire is ever present. Picture: ANA

Port Elizabeth - In Helenvale in Port Elizabeth, it does not really matter which side of the line you are on, whether you are the innocent bystander, a police officer or a gang member. The spectre of street violence and the sound of gunfire is ever present. Deadly.
 
Over the weekend, a two-year-old boy, Hakeem Baartman, was playing in the streets of Helenvale, in an area called "Die Gat" (The Hole), when gang violence erupted. Baartman was hit in the head by a stray bullet and died at the scene.

In December 2015, a gang shooting claimed the life of another two-year-old, Caydene Ruiters, who was in front of a house in Barcelona and was with her mother when a stray bullet hit her in the back. 

In Helenvale the bullets fly from any given side on any given day. It is a case of hoping that one is not in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is a daily and grim tale of survival.

But that is just one half of the story. As with many sub-economic and working class neighbourhoods around South Africa, Helenvale, located in the northern areas of PE, is a stark reminder of the cold, calculated architecture of apartheid. 

Located away from the city CBD which holds the promise of plentiful and meaningful work, the best schooling and finest public facilities, residents in Helenvale and surrounds face the added daily burden of trying to beat the suffocating socio-economic trap which most were simply born into due to the colour of their skin.    
  
It is a dysfunctional reality. One which every now and then erupts as the community gives vent to their frustrations through service delivery protests. Roads are blocked, tyres burnt and police and government officials taunted.

Many community members do not trust the police, with many believing the men in blue to be in bed with the gangs, who boast such colloquial names such as "Kak Dalers", "New Kids", "16 Honde", "Dondollos" and "Nice Time Bizzas".

The gang members in turn intimidate and threaten residents into paying protection fees to ensure their day-to-day safety. It is a contract that does not come with a guarantee. 

And all the while young children grow up thinking that their environment which is consumed by gang warfare and street violence is normal. 

For the older, more impressionable and dislocated youth, there is always the promise and threat of gang affiliation, initiation and ultimately membership.   

In this maelstrom of violence and socio economic depravity operates the South African Police Service. Few dispute the taxing and life threatening nature of the work police officers are called to do in South Africa, in places such as Helenvale. But Helenvale community members claim that these high stress and anxiety levels make SAPS members trigger happy. And dangerous. 

Last week Monday, protest action erupted along Stanford Road, the main artery into the city's northern areas. However, in an unrelated incident on the same day, the police's Tactical Response Team (TRT) was patrolling Kobus Road in Helenvale when a volley of gunfire was unleashed, scattering frantic children and residents.

Who fired at who? In an official statement, police claim that an altercation ensued between police and and a man, whereafter community members opened fire at the police. 

But the men at the centre of the dispute claim that they were the victims of police brutality and had only stones with which to defend themselves. 

David Thulo, 29, told the African News Agency (ANA) of the "sheer brutality and show of force" by four of the TRT members. 

Thulo is currently unemployed but used to work as a security guard for a private security company for several years. To pass time, he claimed that on mid-morning on Monday last week, he and two friends were playing in Kobus Road with a tennis ball. 

"The ball hit the tyre of their vehicle and that's when all hell broke loose," he recounted. Thulo said the TRT members approached him and his friends, enraged. "They were cocking big guns, not small ones. One policeman chased my friend Brendan into his yard, my other friend Deswin was kicked down to the ground. We were unarmed and they came for us because of a tennis ball." 

Thulo said that he was smacked in the face and began to bleed from his mouth, adding that a TRT member pointed a gun in his face, placing the weapon to his forehead. He was subsequently shot in the leg as the situation spiralled out of control.

Charlton Ketteldas was nearby as the confrontation unfolded. The 20-year-old said said he approached the police and tried to defuse the tension. "I asked them to leave and take it somewhere else because of a funeral taking place at a house. I asked them, just out of respect for the funeral house and the children there. They told me 'voetsek' (F...k off) and asked me where are the guns? 

"They searched us but there were no guns," said Ketteldas. 

VIDEO: Raahil Sain/ANA

By this stage, according to Ketteldas, the situation had become volatile and locals began pelting the police members with stones. He said that he kept hearing the words "load, load, load," as shots rang out in Kobus Road.

The violence spilled over into surrounding streets. Ketteldas claimed that police members drove into Martin Street where more shots were fired. 

In a video supplied to ANA, at least 25 gunshots are heard as community members scatter in fear. 

Video:Supplied

Reeven Tobias, 25, said that he was walking to the shop with his one-year-old son when they were forced to take cover. 

Tobias, a father of two, works as a packaging operator at a brewery but used to work as a taxi "gaartjie" (minibus taxi sliding door operator) for many years. "I left that industry because of the gangsters asking for protections fees, they used to even rob the passengers. I didn't want to be part of that, I want a better life for my family." 

Video: Raahil Sain/ANA

Tobias said that his child had been traumatised by the shooting. 

A young woman, who had just had a baby, was also injured when she was shot in the stomach by a stray bullet. 

The residents said when they went to the Gelvandale police station after the incident they were treated like non entities. "We were a community at the police station, we wanted to know what was happening, but they just laughed at us. They kept Brendan for attempted murder but he was later released. We went to court but the case is now going to continue next month," said Ketteldas.

In the police statement issued last week, police spokesperson Captain Sandra Janse Van Rensburg said that attempted murder dockets were being investigated. 

Janse Van Rensburg said that the police members were not injured but because the community had allegedly shot at police, an attempted murder case was under investigation. Janse Van Rensburg confirmed that the police members did not recover any firearms from community members at the scene. 

Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) spokesperson, Moses Dlamini, also confirmed that a case had been registered and was currently under investigation.

Currently four metro police vehicles are deployed on a daily basis to the entire northern area precinct. The northern areas include Arcadia , Booysens Park, Bloemendaal, Windvogel, Salt Lake, Marikana, Salsoneville, Timothy Valley, Jacksonville, which mostly makes up Bethelsdorp. Other areas include Gelvandale, Park Side, Gelvan Park, Hillside, Cleary Park, Malabar and Helenvale, amongst many other smaller extensions. 

Nelson Mandela Bay Safety and Security head, councillor John Best, said that 21 members of Metro Police had received the Basic Crowd Control Training as presented by SAPS, adding that a new police station was set to be built in Bethelsdorp as approved by council earlier in June.

Best said that the metro were now using "advanced technology" to address gangsterism in the Helenvale area. 

He said that the coalition government was not in favour of army deployment to the Bay and would rather support additional police deployments.

Last week Friday, Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula was at the Helenvale Resource Centre to address issues of drug and gang-related violence. 

Mbalula has pledged to bring in the army to assist the police and further announced plans for a new police station to be situated in Helenvale, a place where violence and distrust form a potent and toxic mix. 

ANA

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