9/10 chance Cape paramedics will face being attacked on the job in red zones
The bloodshed is so intense in areas such as Tafelsig, Beacon Valley and Eastridge that there is a constant demand of around 3000 calls per month from those regions alone. In addition, whole areas have been declared red zones by EMS because ambulance crews have recently been attacked there.
“In areas such as Nyanga, Crossroads, Philippi East, Tafelsig and Beacon Valley the risk factor is a nine or 10 that you will be attacked. Most of our staff have been shot at in Tafelsig,” Van Zyl said. “The last incident was two weeks ago on my shift; they were held at gunpoint.”
In an attempt to protect medics, ambulances can’t enter red zones without a police escort.
“The impact is huge because the knock-on effect is that people wait for hours (for an ambulance).”
Van Zyl said that mostly, gangsters leave medics alone thanks to all the gang members whose lives they’ve saved. “The problem is not gangsters. Gangsters will not attack us, because of all the patients over the years,” he said.
“The problem is opportunistic criminals who steal to fund tik and whoonga use.”
Being escorted by police not only fails to protect medics, but sometimes even incentivises an attack.
“It actually increases the risk when SAPS is there because they have firearms,” he said. “That’s why we discourage EMS staff from carrying firearms. They’ll kill you brutally for a firearm.”
Van Zyl said the violence peaked in 2016, with 288 attacks on medics. Since then, he has taken it upon himself to go into the most dangerous communities in his leisure time, cook up food to share with residents and engage with them about the work that medics do.
“We unpack the ambulance and show them that nothing in the ambulance can be used for purposes other than a patient,” he said. “There has been a decrease in violence against EMS because of engagement with communities.”
Still, the job involves constant exposure to violent crime and this has psychological consequences for medics.
“We’re exposed to more violence than the average person. It’s not normal to function in this environment,” Van Zyl said. “But it’s our choice. We could’ve been doing something else.”
The Western Cape Health Department makes support services available to its employees through ICAS, a company which runs employee wellness programmes. EMS medics can access psychological counselling for free - but many choose not to make use of the service. We’ll take a closer look at ICAS in a later instalment of this series.