Living in Samora Machel, Cape Town, you hear gunshots any time of the day
If you live in Samora Machel, in Philippi, Cape Town, you get used to the sound of a gun going off at any time of the day. Not a day goes by without residents being mugged, killed, hijacked or having their houses broken into. Everyone who lives here has learned ways to deal with crime.
Violent crime is so serious here that it is often not safe for City of Cape Town council workers or ambulances to operate. In May, in response to numerous robberies and threats the City launched specialised policing units to escort and protect the workers operating in Philippi and other dangerous areas.
I’ve been living in Samora since 2006, when I started primary school. I’ve survived all these years without personally experiencing any kind of crime. I have been robbed a couple of times, but it was not in Samora. But I’ve witnessed people being robbed in my area, and a lot of people I know, including family, have experienced crime. Once a woman whose house had been broken into ran and jumped into our yard. Mostly, criminals go about their work when it’s dark, but in Samora, people are robbed and even killed in broad daylight.
I’ve learned ways to deal with the constant threat. One is prayer. Whenever I walk into or come across a dangerous situation I always mumble a little prayer until I’m past it.
I remember once when I was on my way to school, around 8am. I was just three minutes away from home. There were three guys across the road from me who looked as if they were having a casual chat; one of them had a bag and was taking stuff out of his pockets. It was when I saw a gun in the hands of one of the thieves that I realised that this was a robbery.
My heart raced and I wasn’t sure whether to pass them and continue walking or just turn back and go home. I figured that if I turned back, they would realise that I had seen them and come after me. So I decided to walk past them fast while saying a little prayer and pretend I hadn’t seen anything. I had a panic attack in the taxi a few minutes later.
What I have been taught since as long as I can remember living in Samora is that, when I leave the house I need to make sure that my wallet and cell phone are not in a bag I’m carrying, but on my chest or my waist. So that when my bag gets snatched, at least I have my essentials.
My dad got robbed on his way to work about a week ago, at the same spot where I witnessed a robbery. His smartphone and transport money were safely inside his socks and the bad guys only got a R10 note and a spare phone that was in his pocket. He says he always keeps stuff in his pocket just so that the thieves get something out of him, because if they don’t get something they harm you.
A friend of mine from my street was chased by thieves on his way to work, at the very same spot. The thieves were across the road when they spotted him, but there was so much filth and dirty water between them it took too long for them to get to him so he had time to run for his life. He says that is what saved him.
When we talk about crime in Samora anytime is teatime. From the earliest hours of the morning until sunset, criminal activities are brewing. It’s best to avoid walking around at night in Samora. It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, if it’s dark and you are outside, chances are you will get mugged, especially if you are around the hotspots.
The hotspots are next to the police station, next to the library and all along Oliver Tambo Drive until the beginning of an informal settlement called Kosovo. Also in between streets.
I live about 15 minutes away from the taxi rank. If I need to go somewhere by a taxi and it’s early hours of the morning say around 5-6 am, I need to prepare myself.
If it’s not necessary for me to carry my phone I leave it at home. I carry only the amount of money I need to travel and not my whole wallet unless I really have to.
I know I have to avoid corners. I have to avoid walking in between streets where there are no people around because I might just be trapped. When I come out of my street, I need to quickly find someone or a group of people to walk with, people going to work or learners on their way to school. This is so that I’m not an easy target for thieves. This is something almost all people (especially females) in areas like Samora have adopted.
If you’re walking around a scary place and you’re female, quickly find someone (preferably another female) to walk with you. At times you’d want to walk with a male person, but that takes a lot of thinking about because you’re not sure if that person is a predator himself.
The taxi rank itself can be deemed a “safe space” because we trust taxi drivers. We know that no criminal activity would occur in their presence, especially in their territory. So, if you make it to the taxi rank, you’ve won. If something were to happen at the taxi rank, the predators wouldn’t get away with it easily, unless it’s heavily armed professionals targeting the taxi drivers. That’s a different kind of war.
I don’t go out much. When I do, it’s mostly in the day. If I do go out at night, it’s mostly to church and with my parents.
The weekends are busy in Samora: from morning till midnight the streets are booming with people having all kinds of fun, and it’s also a time when thieves get a chance to pounce on people. I avoid being outside at these times because I don’t like crowds and also because I know my chances of being robbed or pickpocketed without even noticing are very high. If I have to be outside, I take someone with me.
About a month ago I was on my way from the supermarket in the late afternoon. I had two heavy plastic bags of groceries with me, and my home was about 25 minutes away.
There was a guy walking in front of me and he kept turning back to look at me. Then he stopped walking and waited for me to pass by him.
I didn’t know what to do. He didn’t look like a robber but I’m smart enough to know that a robber doesn’t look like a robber. So, I said a quiet prayer and walked past him, avoiding eye contact.
When I passed him, he asked if he could help me carry my plastic bags. I don’t know why, but my answer was: “How do I know you won’t run away with my groceries?”
I could see the shock on his face — he didn’t expect that answer — but he told me he understood and continued walking next to me. He started making small talk and when we parted ways, he said goodbye. I know it must have been crazy for him to experience that, but then, I trust no one in Samora.
One thing that people say saves you, is knowing the criminals. Apparently, if a thief knows you and you know them, it’s unlikely they will come after you. I do know one guy who I went to school with who robs people.
Another technique I use is, if I see a suspicious person and I can’t dodge them, I try not to look them in the eyes. And if they try to talk to me, I make sure I respond nicely so as not to make them angry.
But even if you feel you’ve done all you can to protect yourself, you are still unprotected. It’s just a matter of time before your turn comes.