“What do you do when a learner tells you, ‘jou ma se p**s, jou n***, ek gaan jou vrek skiet’. Sorry for the vocab. Ja that was my day”. Those are the exact words, quoted directly from a message on a family WhatsApp group. The family member who posted this, is a staff member at a primary school in one of Cape Town’s notorious gang areas. Yes, a primary school.
That language is indicative of a culture of violence that has plagued the Cape Flats for decades. So much so that several movies have been made about the violence. “Noem My Skollie”, “Four Corners” and “The Dorp – 40 Days of Our Lives” are just a few examples. Gang violence on the Cape Flats has been the subject of many documentaries and it has been referenced in several stage plays. And it looks like it is getting worse every day.
A quick Google search on the subject and the headlines that pop up hits you hard, ten times harder than the kick of a high calibre rifle in the hands of someone who has never even held one before. “Battle for Cape Town drug turf: 9 killed in 3 weeks of ‘urban terror’”, “Cape Town’s children – a generation at gang gunpoint”, “Children ‘too scared to play outside’ in Ocean View”.
How can it be stopped? What needs to be done to make our neighbourhoods safe? Politicians asked for the army to be brought in to help stop the violence and to restore peace, but other politicians who control the army refused to let it in. Politicians asked for more police, but the other politicians who control the police turned a deaf ear. Eventually though, just recently, the police did go into certain gang areas, fully dressed in body armour and riot gear, but only to keep the peace while residents peacefully protested against the ongoing violence in their communities. Ironic?
When the peaceful protests end, the cops will disappear, and law-abiding citizens will take cover again under tables and beds; they will lie flat on the floor in the hopes of avoiding stray bullets. The gangs on the other hand, will “phakamisa” again. And so, it will go on and on and on… death after death… funeral after funeral… babies barely out of their mother’s womb, plucked out of this world by bullets that did not have their names on it. Bullets that was meant for Ou Langes, Ou Dikkes or Ou Donkey perhaps.
There are several factors being blamed for this violence, much of it historical. Most of us are aware of our history so I’m not going to go into that here. We need to look to the future, to find solutions that will bring lasting peace and quality of life. It seems at this stage that there is no real political will to bring about that peace though. There is no magic wand that can bring an end to the violence. Or perhaps there is… Nature. It won’t be an overnight fairy-tale though.
Nature is a powerful anti-depressant and antidote to society’s stresses. Several studies have been published about the healing power of nature. Healing on a physiological as well as psychological level. These studies claim that the closer we are to nature, the healthier and happier we are. Dr. Eva Selhub, co-author of the book, “Your Brain on Nature” says in a blogpost on www.mindbodygreen.com, that “Research from all over the world is showing that people who live closer to green space have fewer health complaints and live longer and that the green space itself is a stress buffer, helping people cope better with life’s adversity”.
Okay, let’s pause there for a moment … “the green space itself is a stress buffer, helping people cope better with life’s adversity”. Is it really that simple, that easy to solve crime and violence in our country? Apparently so. According to an article published on the mother nature network, www.mnn.com, “In 2000, Philadelphia (in the United States) launched a program to plant vegetation along roadways to help soak up rainwater. Researchers looked at 52 of these vegetation plots and compared them with control plots that didn’t receive the greenery upgrade. After tracking 14 types of crime in nearby areas, researchers found that narcotics possession in those areas decreased by 18 to 27 percent, even as the rate for the rest of the city rose by 65 percent”.
In the same article, they say “A similar effect was noted in Youngstown, Ohio — a depressed Midwestern town known for its high rates of crime and unemployment. From 2010 to 2014, city officials embarked on a project to reclaim some of the city’s empty lots and derelict buildings by converting them into green space. In 2011, they added another initiative that gave local communities funding to plant green space in vacant lots in whatever method they chose — lawns, community gardens, playgrounds and more. The result: they found the areas around new green spaces had lower crime rates than elsewhere in the city”.
Can we also lower our own crime rates by planting trees and cultivating green spaces in our communities? Personally, I do believe so. Perhaps naively so, but I do. If you don’t, then try this quick exercise. Close your eyes. Imagine walking into a lush green and tranquil forest. Feel the cool breeze on your skin. Listen to the rustling leaves and the distant call of mating birds. Go deeper into the forest. The breeze is gone, the birds are silent. The forest is silent. Take that in for moment. Take a deep breath… in and out. Now slowly open your eyes.
I can almost guarantee you that, even for a very brief moment, all you felt was calmness and serenity. Imagine what it would have been like if you were in a real forest. Unfortunately, real forests are far removed from our crime ridden communities, but any form of nature or greenery can have a positive effect on our well-being. The green moss growing on a damp wall, a small plant fighting its way through a crack in the concrete wall on the highway, the smell of the ocean once the gunpowder has dissipated. Take time to notice it.
And let me remind you, September is Arbor Month here in South Africa. It is the perfect opportunity to green our open spaces and hopefully in this way, start a journey to lasting health and safer communities.
** The word phakamisa is often used by gangs. It means to “lift up” or to “pick up”. I used it lightly in the title to mean “Lift Up (plant) Trees.