Cape Town gang wars put children in firing line

In her years of witnessing Cape Town's gang wars up close, primary school principal Brenda Manuel has witnessed an execution-style killing and lost a pupil in the crossfire.

But the violence has never been this bad.

"It's been going on for so long and it seems there's no end to what is happening," said Manuel, who has worked at Rio Grande Primary School in the city's notorious Manenberg region for 38 years.

The latest episode in the turf war saw 16 schools temporarily shut down, keeping 12,000 children at home for two days.

In less than 11 weeks, 10 people were murdered here, with seven killed in July alone.

"In June we had an average of about four to five shootings a week. And in July, it spiked to 24 with one week showing 31 shootings," said Superintendent Chris Bauermeester of Cape Town's metro police special operations unit.

A massive police presence and a peace agreement between the two rival gangs -- the Americans and the Hard Livings -- has brought a lull with shootings back to pre-July levels.

But Manenberg is still on edge. The authorities deployed more than 100 police officers in a two-week blitz. Uniformed personnel, official cars, flashing lights and sirens have become the backdrop to its streets.

Patrols have created safety corridors for children to walk to school and police officers will be stationed at the hardest-hit schools, such as Rio Grande, until the end of the year.

The shootings are mostly random, as captured by a cellphone video clip which shows a gangster walking in daylight brazenly firing a gun down a street.

The children here are veterans at knowing how to survive.

"You must go lay on the ground in the house under the bed, if you heard the shot outside, you must run," summed up one young boy on the street.

At Rio Grande, teacher Magdalene Paulse's classroom faces a corner where bullets recently flew across the street as a battle raged during school hours.

"They must be very used to gunshots but I think they are scared. It's like they hear them every night and then they have to duck and dive," Paulse said about her pupils.

In a class of 40 children, aged 12 to 13, all of whom had heard a gunshot in their short lives, 13-year-old Kerishney Adams said the pupils go under their desks when they hear gunfire.

"I never feel safe," she said, saying she sometimes covers her ears when she hears shots as she "can't take it".

But the police have brought some sense of security.

"With the police around, I feel safe," she said. "For me it feels like a relief, because the police are here and the police are here to protect us."

Manenberg was built by the apartheid state as a segregated suburb for people of mixed race, and graffiti-strewn buildings and shanties in yards are a common sight in the run-down district.

Search operations take place daily, with police hunting Manenberg's 1,000 most wanted criminals, those suspected of offences ranging from murder to drug possession.

Scoring heroin or crystal meth, known as "tik", costs as little as two to three dollars here, marijuana less than 50 US cents, and a sedative known as "button" just shy of five dollars (3.8 euros).

But with one out of every three people in Manenberg estimated to be using drugs, murder is seen as worth it to gain control of the captive audience of local addicts.

"Basically, your turf will overlap all the time so that is what the constant fighting is about," said Constable Emile Gelderbloem of the metro police drug unit.

"The whole of Manenberg is nine kilometres squared (3.5 square miles), so its a very, very small area to sell your drugs, so you've got to make the best of it."

For many of the youngsters, gang affiliation is already part of life.

In Adams' class at Rio Grande, only five of the 40 pupils said they did not have a relative who was a member of a gang. Several were already members of child gangs.

"Unfortunately I have to say that I see a lot of my boys becoming gangsters," said principal Manuel.

"A lot of my ex-pupils are running with guns out there and it's very sad."

Between 2007 and 2011, 532 murders took place in five gang hotspots in Cape Town and the provincial government has repeatedly demanded that the army should be sent in, calls which have fallen on deaf ears.

The police are sceptical about Manenberg's current peace, which has allowed children and residents to return to the streets.

So is Manuel, whose school's front door has been barred shut since she watched three bullets being fired into a man's head on the street outside.

"It's much more peaceful although I feel that it's not the end yet," she said. "It will definitely flare up."