On a cold afternoon in late September, Rachel* tried to hold back the tears as she walked home between the tightly packed rows of government-built shacks that comprise the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, known to most locals as Blikkiesdorp, Afrikaans for “Tin Can Town”.
But when she came across a close friend walking the other way, Rachel broke down and collapsed into her arms, her shoulders heaving as her friend’s chest muffled her sobs.
Two days before, Rachel’s boyfriend, 26-year-old John Florens, who’d just been released from a three-week stint in prison for malicious damage to property, had gone missing. He was last seen outside an evangelical church in the centre of Blikkiesdorp, next to the settlement’s only playground.
On that morning, residents had found Floren’s body on the edge of the settlement. There were rumours he’d been decapitated, and that his body was in such a bad state the only way he could be identified was by a tattoo bearing one of his four children’s names across his abdomen.
In the previous few weeks, as many as five Blikkiesdorp residents (police would not confirm the number) had been brutally murdered in a wave of mob justice attacks by a ragtag vigilante group. By early October, the vigilantes would have razed about 20 shacks to the ground with petrol bombs.
According to Jerome Daniels, chairperson of the Blikkiesdorp Joint Committee, an organisation established to represent residents’ interests, the vigilantes initially targeted leading members of a local gang called the Young Gifted Sexy Bastards, which was shortened to the Young Gifted Bastards (YGB). With roots in the rapidly gentrifying suburbs of Woodstock and Salt River, from where many Blikkiesdorp residents have been evicted in the past decade, the YGB have been terrorising the community with impunity for years.
Daniels said he did not condone the killings, but “the original principle was to drive all the gangsters out of Blikkiesdorp, and I was 100% in support of that”. Many residents, having long since lost faith in the police, felt similarly.
According to committee member Ettienne Claassen, the violence had quickly spiralled out of control as police stood by. Now, he said, residents with even the most tenuous gang connections were being targeted. He also claimed the conflict had taken on a distinctly racialised tone.
Factions of the dispossessed
In 2011, just four years after the desolate camp opened, the majority of residents identified as coloured (although controversial, the apartheid-era designation for people of mixed racial heritage is used ubiquitously in Blikkiesdorp). There was also a precariously small group of migrants who had been driven out of their homes by the devastating xenophobic attacks of 2008.
Today, some residents estimate that isiXhosa-speaking people make up as much as 60% of Blikkiesdorp’s population, which has ballooned from the initial 650 or so squatters and pavement dwellers who moved here more than a decade ago for what they were told would be a six-month stay. The total population is now somewhere in the vicinity of 15 000.
The fallout from the initial onslaught against the YGB, a predominantly coloured gang, was quickly perceived by many coloured residents, including Claassen, as a concerted move by Xhosa residents to take over Blikkiesdorp.
“Everyone was sick and tired of the gangsters, but these Africans took the initiative, and they took over, and now it’s getting totally out of hand. They realise the power they have now. Things could get a lot worse,” Claassen said in a friend’s shack where he was sheltering from the cold, afraid to return to his own home alone. As he spoke, his eyes kept darting towards the door at the slightest sound from outside.
Xolani Ndongeni, ANC councillor for Ward 106, which includes Blikkiesdorp, strongly denied there was a racial dynamic to the recent violence or its aftermath. “This is a false perception. It is purely a crime and gangsterism issue,” he told New Frame. “Aside from that, everyone in Blikkiesdorp is comfortable living with each other.”
A few hours later, as dusk descended and a light rain began to fall, two urgent meetings took place on opposite sides of the settlement. Outside a ramshackle pool hall, a group of about 30 coloured men, led by a local imam, decided they were going to patrol through the camp in a show of force against the vigilantes. Some wielded knobkerries and sjamboks. Others hid illegal firearms beneath their jackets. They covered their faces with bandanas.
Meanwhile, hundreds of residents, including scores of anxious-looking women and children, filed into the evangelical church to listen to a local pastor, Theodore Mxenge, who was trying to broker peace between black and coloured residents. “Both blacks and coloureds, we have struggled here together,” he told the crowd. “Most of us know each other. We are neighbours. We cannot now start killing each other.”
A small group of Xhosa men stayed outside, milling around listlessly by the playground. A young boy came past on a bicycle and whispered: “Those men, they all have weapons.”
By the church’s front entrance, a security guard named Alfonso* seemed unperturbed by the situation as he cracked crude jokes with the men and tested out bad chat-up lines sprinkled with a few words of rudimentary isiXhosa on some of the women.
Alfonso is a burly 44-year-old with a pockmarked face and deep smile lines. He’d moved to Blikkiesdorp at the end of 2014 after serving almost five years for manslaughter in Brandvlei prison, about an hour and a half from Cape Town. “I had nowhere else to go,” he said, a refrain echoed throughout the camp.
Alfonso had previously worked as a long-haul truck driver. Fatigued and overworked, he’d drifted off behind the wheel one night in KwaZulu-Natal and hit a school bus. The accident took the lives of 13 children. “It happened so quick,” he said. “One moment I saw lights. The next, I heard this loud crash. Then I just remember bodies everywhere. I still dream about it every night until this day.”
While in prison, Alfonso had become a member of the 28s, one of the infamous Numbers gangs. “I had no choice. It was either that or being beaten every day, robbed every day, maybe even raped every day. I’ve seen that happen. People being raped in front of me,” he said.
But when he got out and moved to Blikkiesdorp, he said he’d renounced gangsterism and “turned to Christ”. A rough patch of skin and two small blue dots on his neck are the only traces of the gang tattoos he’s subsequently had removed.
Until a few weeks ago, Alfonso had shared a cramped, leaking shack with his 13-year-old son. But like so many of the boys and young men in Blikkiesdorp, which has scant services and diversions for the youth and chronically high unemployment, the boy had been lured into the YGB. He was the first gang member to be attacked by the roving vigilantes.
“They took a hammer and with the claw they pulled his stomach open. His intestines were hanging out. He barely survived,” Alfonso said. “I warned him about what he was getting into. I told him what the Bible said. I love him to bits, but he deserved what happened to him. How many people’s tears fell to the ground because of what he was involved in? When I saw him in hospital, I said, ‘I hope you change your life now. Look to Christ. Nothing can change the past, but you can change your future.’”
After he was released from hospital, Alfonso’s son, no longer safe in Blikkiesdorp, moved in with his mother, Alfonso’s ex-wife, in Delft, the expansive township that wraps around Blikkiesdorp. Alfonso said the recent spate of violence had made him think about leaving the camp, though he confessed that sleeping on the streets was likely his only other option. “This place is changing. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I can’t hang around here forever,” he said.
Nowhere else to go
Blikkiesdorp is heading towards the end of its lifespan. Most residents are gradually being moved into new homes in the surrounding areas as part of a housing project provisionally set for completion in 2021. Alfonso’s sentiment is becoming increasingly widely shared.
In early October, Claassen was among a group of 22 residents, a number of them long-standing community leaders, who fled Blikkiesdorp, allegedly under the threat of death from the people they claimed were trying to take control of the camp.
The group initially took temporary shelter in a small children’s play area at the back of the Central Methodist Church on Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square. All have since moved on again, mostly staying with family members dispersed across the Cape Flats, waiting to see if they’ll ever be able to return to a place that, for better or worse, has become home.
In their absence, life in Blikkiesdorp resumed an uneasy calm, though there were still rumours the vigilantes were planning further attacks. Alfonso has also changed his mind about leaving Blikkiesdorp, for now at least.
He said he’d been sleeping a lot better since the gangsters were driven out. He’d recently been offered a better-paid job by his manager in another neighbourhood, but turned it down. “I never pictured myself living in a place like this,” he said. “But despite everything that’s happened, I’ve actually come to like it here.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This is the first of a three-part series on the past, present and uncertain future of Blikkiesdorp, a fissured Cape Town community in the embattled final throes of its lifespan.
Additional reporting by Shaun Swingler.