Johannesburg - Fears of fresh violence and a gang takeover gripped the community of Westbury as Police Minister Bheki Cele’s Tactical Response Unit (TRU) appeared to be withdrawing from the township in the west of Johannesburg.
This week, messages warning residents to stay indoors from as early as 5.30pm were circulated following shootings. These incidents fuelled further anxiety for the community that has been traumatised by gang violence for decades.
“We are being held to ransom in our own community,” is how some residents described the situation.
A woman who spoke on condition of anonymity said even walking in the streets during the day was unsafe.
“When you take your children to school there is a high chance that you can be hit by a stray bullet or caught up in a shootout.
“When it gets dark, I start to wonder where my children are as everybody needs to be in the house, where they can be safe,” she said.
The troubled township hogged headlines due to gang-related crimes, drugs and murders. Cele deployed a special police task team to Westbury in October to root out crime following community protests that threatened to shut down the area.
Since the deployment, the TRU’s increased police presence resulted in a number of arrests.
Recently, community members said the presence of the task team has since been inconsistent, and created a gap for gangs to “go back to square one”.
When the Sunday Independent visited Westbury, members of the task team were nowhere to be seen.
Gladys Gailey, one of many residents who lost loved ones to violence in the area, was angry at the minister and felt betrayed by the police and the justice system.
“I’m not happy because when Bheki Cele came here we were thrilled. After that, things fell apart and there was no police visibility. I have been in this community all my life and this trouble has been brewing all these years. It’s unacceptable for a small community like this one,” she said.
Gailey said members of the task team had only resurfaced three days earlier after a long absence.
Their absence opened up old wounds. Her 35-year-old son was killed almost a year ago and his case is yet to be resolved. Her family, especially her husband, had not come to terms with his death, she said.
“There is no ubuntu here. People saw him being killed but nobody is willing to talk. I don’t know if they are scared or not.
“It’s so sad, because today it can happen to me, and tomorrow it can happen to anyone,” lamented Gailey.
Genevieve Sherman, Ward 59 councillor, reiterated that the lack of police visibility was problematic.
“Shootings are still going on, although they are not as common or as prominent as they used to be. Visibility of police, let alone the task team, is vitally important in an area which has been affected by the kinds of crime that have been taking place here,” she said.
Sherman said the community was led to believe that the task team was going to remain in Westbury until satisfied that things had changed for the better. However, she revealed that shootings resurfaced this week.
Brigadier Mathapelo Peters of Gauteng police said the task team arrested more than 200 suspects in Westbury from October to November 2018, over and above normal arrests by the Sophiatown Station.
Most arrests were of dealing in and/or possession of drugs, murder, and assault, with at least 30 illegal firearms recovered during operations in the area, revealed Peters.
Peters further added that the task team would continue to intensify deployments and operations to sustain stability in the area.
“The team has been successful in executing their mandate and this is substantiated by the number of arrests made since October last year. The reduction in shooting incidents and other serious and violent crimes in the area,” said Peters.
Peters said progress in the area was not without challenges.
“The biggest challenge remains the reluctance of members of the public to give statements.
"While some gave tip-offs and information, they refuse to submit statements which are critical towards ensuring prosecution.”