Violence and alcohol tear Northern Cape apart

The ambulances bring them to Kimberley Hospital in dribs and drabs, hastily applied bandages staunching the stab wounds. Downtrodden women mostly, and young men.  

Lucky is the youngest that Friday night. He’s 14, blind drunk and sobbing as he begs for pain relief. His wounds are small and round; perhaps made by a screwdriver. But he says he doesn’t know how it all happened, and then he buries his head between his knees and howls. His drunken father hovers nearby, imploring the doctor to treat his son.

Elizabeth Kaekae, on the other hand, is stoical. Her mustard dress is soaked with blood around her left breast.

“My boyfriend het my gesteek met ‘n sker,” she says in a matter-of-fact way, as she waits patiently to be treated, her scarred face bearing testimony to a lifetime of assaults.

Most cases in casualty that night are classified green — “walking wounded”. There’s only one red (emergency), Pieter, who was stabbed deep in his face. “He bled like a pig, and we thought we were going to lose him in the ambulance,” says one of the medics.

Assaults, assaults and more assaults stream in – the majority are stabbings with sharp objects such as broken bottles, okapis (penknives) and kitchen knives. Others are “blunt assaults” where victims have been kicked or hit.

“It’s always like this on a Friday and Saturday night,” says Sister Janice Madlala. “Ninety percent of the people we treat have been assaulted.”

At 2am, Dr Cesar Garces, a Cuban who has been in the province for 19 months, shakes his head as he attends to yet another stab victim: “Know what is your country’s national sport? Stabbing.”

Women patients have usually been stabbed by drunken boyfriends. Faces seem to be the favourite site for boyfriends’ knives, followed by their breasts and thighs.

With the young men, the attackers are either their friends turned nasty by alcohol, or other youngsters their own age.

Sipho, 17, has been stabbed in his back, face and arms by unknown attackers in a shebeen fight. “I was with my friends at the shebeen. We were going out and someone stabbed me,” he says. Blood has spilt all the way from his boyish face to the turn-ups of his pantsula pants and Converse takkies.

The Northern Cape has the country’s highest rate of rape, serious assaults (in police-speak, grievous bodily harm or GBH) and common assault per 100 000 people. The police crime intelligence centre bunches all these crimes together as “social fabric crimes”.

While it is not clear why the Northern Cape has such a high rate of violent crime, widespread alcohol abuse, poverty and an almost total lack of job opportunities are all important indicators in the bleak landscape.

The vast province accounts for almost 30% of the country’s land mass, and seems to consist of nothing but sand, low bushes, thorn trees and bleached grass.

Only 2% of South Africans – about 840 000 people – live here. Afrikaans is the home language of almost 70% of residents, cutting across racial lines. While right-wing Afrikaners have claimed a piece in the middle, Orania, as its homeland, the land lies largely unclaimed, barren of any agricultural promise.

Over a quarter of the province’s inhabitants are bunched around Kimberley, initially attracted by the De Beers diamond mines. Such was the diamond digging frenzy in the 1870s, that diggers turned a kopje into the biggest hand-dug hole in the world.

Kimberley’s township, Galeshewe, is the provincial hot spot for rape and violent assaults. Thabo Madlolo, who has lived in Galeshewe for all his 22 years, believes that the lack of facilities for young people contributes to the high rate of violence.

“There isn’t much for the people to do,” says Madlolo. “So some join gangs like Kangols or Zebra Force or Yizo Yizo. They are the ones who rob and stab the people. Drinking is also a problem. Other school students take plain clothes to school, and go out and drink in shebeens at breaks.”

Unemployed, Madlolo is ploughing his energy into a community initiative, “Youth against Crime”, which he chairs.

The initiative, launched in April last year, aims to get youth out of gangs and into crime-fighting. Methods include organising sports events and giving talks about crime at schools, and on the local community radio station, Teemaneng.

So far, says Madlolo, the response has been good. “Pirates Never Die has stopped being a gang since we started, and their members have joined us. And we have the youth from other places, like Barkly West, calling us to help them to form their own Youth against Crime.

“We also invite people to report criminals to us,” says Madlolo. “Some might not want to tell the police straight, so they come to us and we make sure no one knows who gave us the information.”

Alcohol plays a big part in assaults. A police survey of greater Kimberley cases over a three-month period in 1997 found alcohol abuse by the perpetrator, the victim or both in a staggering 73% of incidents.

In Upington, the province’s second most violent place, alcohol abuse is the legacy of generations of the dop system, where farmers in surrounding wine farms paid their workers in alcohol.

Today, says Health MEC Dipuo Peters, farmers in the Gordonia area around Upington, sell wine for as little as R50 for 25 litres ‘€“ enough to last a person for a month.

And if money is short, adds Peters, people simply “brew their own concoctions with batteries, tobacco and all kinds of things”. One such drink is called ‘sal nie haal nie’ because once you drink it, it becomes difficult to move.

To better understand the nature of social fabric crimes, the premier’s crime prevention committee and the provincial secretariat for safety and security asked researchers from Technikon SA headed by Duxita Mistry and Dr Rika Snyman for help.

They analysed a sample of social fabric crimes committed in four areas of the Northern Cape ‘€“ greater Kimberley, Upington, De Aar and Victoria West — during 1997.

Serious assault was by far the most prevalent crime, followed by rape. A disturbingly close link between attackers and their victims was uncovered, indicating a widespread breakdown in families and personal relationships ‘€“ the very relationships meant to provide a person with love and support.

“One in five attacks were by a family member, partner or ex-partner while more than half the perpetrators were a friend or acquaintance.” says Mistry. “In only 15,5% of cases no relationship existed.”

This makes traditional law enforcement very difficult. As Superintendent Hendrick Swart says in despair: “How do we police families?”

Director Wilson Tyuthuza, SAPS provincial head of crime prevention and until recently the station commander of Galeshewe Police Station, says a big problem caused by the familiarity between victim and attacker is the fact that the victim often withdraws an assault charge.

Mistry and Snyman found that charges in 65% of the assault cases and 50% of rape cases they investigated were withdrawn. Economic survival is the most likely reason for this, given that most of the victims were unemployed women with children, and most of the attackers were men.

The researchers also found that assault victims were almost as likely to have drunk alcohol as their attackers. For this reason, they describe alcohol abuse as a “trigger” rather than a cause in assaults.

Officials in the health, welfare and police services of the province are unanimous that alcohol abuse needs to be tackled, and that there are far too many taverns in the province’s townships.

But they also admit that they clash with government departments promoting small businesses when they talk about clamping down on illegal taverns, as these are virtually the small businesses that stand a chance of success in the townships and dorpies.

Themba Mbo, deputy chairperson of Galeshewe’€™s Community Policing Forum (CPF), Themba Mbo, agrees that shutting the taverns and shebeens is unrealistic because of the lack of jobs. But he advocates a zero-tolerance approach to drunkenness as a starting point. “We are telling the people that if we, the CPF members or the police, get you drunk in the streets we will arrest you and you will be charged.”

The police have set up a forum for legal shebeen and tavern owners in Galeshewe, and are encouraging them not to sell alcohol to those under age and to report illegal liquor outlets. But Director Tyuthuza confesses that policing social fabric crimes is virtually impossible without community support.

The normal law-and-order approach simply fails to address the socio-economic and personal dimensions of violent crimes: the frustration caused by unemployment, the broken relationships and the victims’€™ needs.

Mistry and Snyman stress that the criminal justice system cannot be solely responsible for addressing interpersonal violence in a society that is “committed to force as the primary tool of persuasion and reaction”.

Instead, they propose that all affected departments ‘€“ from social welfare to housing ‘€“ work together to support those caught up in violent relationships. Community service for offenders, anti-alcohol programmes, offender rehabilitation, parenting courses, anger management courses, more recreational facilities and less liquor outlets are some of the specific solutions that they offer.

There is every indication that their proposals will meet with a favourable response when they are formally tabled next month (April). Already provincial leaders are trying their level best to address violent crime and clearly have popular support. (In last year’s election the ANC increased its support base from 50% to 64%.) A special sex court with its own magistrate and two prosecutors was set up last month (Feb) to speed up sexual assault cases. A rape crisis centre has been built in Galeshewe (although lack of funds means it is only open during weekdays) and a number of inter-ministerial committees are trying to address crime.

But the task is enormous. Social worker Valentia Molusi at the provincial SA National Council on Alcohol (Sanca) office says her youngest alcoholic client is 11 years old. Her colleague, Susanne van Tonder, who has worked for the Kimberley Sanca for 13 years, believes the task is hopeless: “We are fighting a losing battle because the people want to drink. Our success rate is about 30%.”

Back in casualty, Lucky’€™s father takes to rambling in an expansive way about the difficulties of life, as he waits for his son to be discharged. “The problem,” he mutters to anyone who wants to listen, “is that there is no respect. I am old enough to be your father. I am not a drunkard as you think. I came to this place more than 20 years ago. I have worked hard all my life. But I have nothing. I just have nothing.”

And Lucky will inherit nothing but a love of liquor unless massive effort is put into stitching up a past so brutal that it has engendered a society of frustrated, desperate people who keep turning on those closest to them. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.

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    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

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