Constant exposure to violence weighs heavily on South Africans’ mental health

” My father was only 35 years old when we lost him. He and his brother were shot in a robbery,” recalls Chantel Grodes. She grew up in Hanover Park on the Cape Flats. “When we got to the scene he had already passed away.”

Three years later, Grodes’ older brother, who had dropped out of school to take care of his family, was thrown out of a train on his way to work during a violent strike. He died in hospital that same evening. 

Earlier this year, her younger brother died too. 

“He was shot 26 times at 7am, just across the road from our house. If you look out the window you are able to see the exact spot where he laid,” says Grodes. “He was one of the sweetest people I know. Well mannered, quiet, always greeted, always cracked a joke.”

Grodes says they’re still having difficulty accepting and coping because of the violent way he was killed. “My eldest son is 22 and he was broken when this happened. My brother was the last father figure at home and they were very close.”

Exposure to violence

Grodes says the sad part is that their freedom and that of their kids are taken away because of all of the violence in the community. 

“Kids cannot play outside. You cannot sit outside as a family; always in fear. When you hear gunshots your stomach turns upside down. You hear the backfire of a car and feel the same way; that you must duck and run,” she says.

Research shows that excessive exposure to violence was associated with high levels of emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. The Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+), a longitudinal study, looked  at the impact exposure to violence has on children born in 1990 in Soweto, Johannesburg. The study showed that children exposed to violence are at risk of becoming desensitised to future violent situations, uncaring towards others, and becoming violent themselves.

Grodes, a mother of three, says she gets anxiety every time she hears a gunshot going off or sees a gangster. 

“I stress about my sons being outside, especially my first born; I fear for his life. I cannot keep still every time he is just sitting outside on the road. I stress more about him because he’s at an age where with the anger and pain he is feeling, he can easily be influenced to turn to violence,” says Grodes.

Jandre Cupido, is a specialist wellness counsellor at the Healing Journey, a private counselling practice. She says daily exposure to violence like gang violence or gender based violence can impact a person’s education and employment, leading to decreased attendance and low academic performance. 

“There also could be an increased chance of involvement in violence: being exposed to or participating in violent activities is more likely when growing up in a community with a high rate of gang violence. This exposure may normalise and desensitise using aggression to resolve conflicts, which could eventually lead to the use of violence in daily life,” explains Cupido.

Driven from their home

39-year-old Tasneem De Lange grew up in Manenberg, another community on Cape Flats that is a hotspot for gang-related crime and violence. Like many Cape Flats communities, witnessing violence has become a norm in Manenberg. 

“When there was a gang fight we could hardly leave our homes because it was a war zone. At some point it got so bad that the army had to enter our area,” she recalls.  

In 2020, De Lange and her husband relocated to Greenville in Fisantekraal, near Durbanville, thinking they would have a better life for their 10 and 13-year-old sons. 

“It’s not much different, we are stuck with similar problems but burglary is added to the list. You are not safe here and it’s affecting me mentally. I have suffered from a panic attack too,” says De Lange. 

She says she tries to ignore the crimes but it’s hard because she hears about incidents  happening every day.

Secondary trauma

Whether you are directly involved in a gang shooting, a witness to a shooting or simply just heard about a shooting, you can become traumatised.

“How we respond to trauma differs according to age, if there is a history of trauma, and the coping skills one has to deal with the trauma. Trauma is not the event itself, it lives in the nervous system. When we are faced with danger, we have no time to think but rather our physiological responses take over. Our brains are created to keep us safe and help us survive,” says Cupido. 

She explains that when the brain perceives danger, a series of automatic responses are triggered in the body: cortisol is released which, in turn, triggers other responses that are created to help us defend ourselves such as the fight, flight, or freeze responses.

“It is important to remember that these responses are automatic and our brain chooses a response based solely on survival and protection.” 

Growing up with violence

According to Cupido, childhood years are the most important period in our development. Living with ongoing violence can affect emotional regulation in the long term. 

Research also shows that childhood exposure to violence has effects that can persist well into adulthood. These consequences include drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behaviour, criminality, and neglectful or abusive parenting, leading to a cycle of violence and poor functionality.

Despite the difficulties, Cupido says people who are raised in high-gang regions may become more resilient and resourceful as they mature. 

Combating gangsterism

In 2019 the Western Cape government launched the Safety Plan which aims to halve the murder rate by 2029. It’s estimated that over 80% of all gang-related murders in the country occur in the Western Cape. 

“In 2020 our Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (LEAP) officers were deployed to the areas with the highest murder rates in the Cape Metro. This includes areas such as Delft, Gugulethu, Harare, Khayelitsha (Site B policing precinct), Kraaifontein, Mfuleni, Mitchells Plain, Nyanga, Philippi East, and Samora Machel. 

“Other high-crime areas in which they are deployed are Atlantis, Bishop Lavis and Hanover Park, along with Lavender Hill, Steenberg and Grassy Park,” says Western Cape Minister of Community Safety, Reagen Allen.  

In a statement shared with Health-e News Allen says the province believes that the interventions are making a difference. Between January and March 2023 the province had the highest reduction in the murder rate, which was 1014 to 872 murders, followed by a reduction of 994 to 939 murders  between April and June 2023. 

“Part of the reason why successes are being achieved is due to LEAP,” says Allen.- Health-e News

If you or anyone you know is struggling, you can contact the SADAG helpline number 0800 567 567 or WhatsApp 087 163 2030.


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