Johannesburg - Cautious optimism greeted Police Minister Bheki Cele’s major boots-on-the-ground and intelligence-driven operation in crime-besieged Westbury, where Special Forces will go to war with criminals.
A bullish Cele announced on Thursday that 141 highly trained officers - including Tactical Response Team (TRT), National Intervention Unit (NIU) and 10 intelligence officers - will be stationed in the Joburg township for the foreseeable future to wage a war against gang and drug lords.
TRT members, also known as amaBerete, are known for using unorthodox methods to fight crime. Launched by Cele in 2011, the TRT has had some success in combating serious crime.
However, this was tarnished by controversial videos on social media showing them slapping and kicking customers in taverns, and forcing taxi drivers to do push-ups on the side of the road.
Cele was speaking at the Westbury sports grounds in front of a large crowd, where he said that a list of 20 names of violent criminals had been given to the TRT and NIU.
Pointing to the bevy of police, Cele said: “All those people you see there; we don’t give them rubber bullets - we give them the real stuff.”
The minister said the extensive operation, which would include local metro police, would involve intelligence-driven operations to smoke the gangsters out, and visible policing that would attack known drug dens and gangsters’ homes.
“We want these criminals who are linked to murder - some of them more than one, two or three murders - and drug lords, you go and knock on their door; if they are not opening, kick the door!”
Cele said the intervention was similar to Operation Thunder in Cape Town, which was launched in June, where law-enforcement officers were supposed to be there for three months, but their stay was extended due to what the minister called “an assessment”.
The intervention comes in the wake of week-long protests in Westbury following the fatal shooting of mother-of-six Heather Petersen, who was struck last week by a stray bullet believed to have been fired in gang-related violence.
Meanwhile, community members overwhelmingly welcomed Cele’s announcements but cautioned that they would monitor the progress of the minister’s promises to ensure he was not just paying them lip-service.
Community leader Doreen Jentison, 48, gave a vivid description of what she called the torturous life lived by her community, where walking to the shops after 6pm was a recipe for disaster.
“These crimes are not so much about gangs but are caused by drug dealers. It’s a corner thing; these criminals are always shooting at each other because of who owns which corner to sell his drugs.
“On Tuesday, as we were preparing to march against the violence, there was a guy who was shooting in our street. I found three bullets just outside my gate. So I welcome Mr Cele’s intervention,” Jentison said.
But Anthony Williams, one of the organisers of the Total Shutdown movement in Westbury and other predominantly coloured areas in Gauteng, said Cele’s intervention was dividing the community because people didn’t want to participate in the shutdown any more.
Williams said, however, that their planned protests would still go ahead today as they believed they had enough numbers to make an impact.