[notice]Helenvale in Port Elizabeth has gained notoriety as the worst gangster violence hotspot in the city and one of the most dangerous places in South Africa. But for the people who live there, this small, poor, Northern Areas suburb is home. This article, is the third in a series of Hope In The Darkness stories about people in and close to the community who believe that there is a hope and a future for Helenvale and other troubled, Northern Areas hotspots. Stories about people who are doing something special to bring hope and change in the area. People who believe that Jesus is the answer.[/notice]
Helenvale in the Northern Areas of Port Elizabeth is known as a gang violence hotspot. But it also deserves to be known as a place of humble heroes.
This week I was privileged to speak to two local heroes; Rina Potgieter, 54, and Gregory Visagie, 52, respectively chairperson and coordinator of the Helenvale Eyethu (Ons eie) Peace Workers.
The group was started in 2009 by some godly mothers and grandmothers who began patrolling their neighbourhood streets after naughty kids started throwing stones on the rooves of houses at night. Little did they know what they were getting themselves into.
“We set out with sticks in our hands and prayers in our hearts, to take control of our streets,” said Potgieter.
The women soon extended their campaign to include patrolling the playground of a local high school by day. At the time drugs, knives and firearms were rife on the school premises. Peace worker volunteers still patrol the school premises and have succeeded in restoring a sense of order and discipline on the campus. They have started patrolling at another local school and are planning to target a third school which currently has serious problems with drugs and violence.
Police and local authorities recognised the valuable contribution made by the peace workers and formed close working relationships with them in their growing mission to keep people in their community safe. And so their portfolio of voluntary services grew to include intervening in incidents of domestic violence — especially where the safety of children was concerned, talking at schools, and acting as security guards at church functions.
Potgieter said she felt blessed that senior police officers in the area “speak about the Lord”.
“That puts us at ease. Very often it is not easy to trust police but we can go to or phone our police management at any time. I love that relationship”
More recognition for the volunteers’ day and night patrolling followed in 2010 when the provincial government, municipality and a German company, GTZ, clubbed together to provide the peace workers with a fully equipped container base, safety equipment and communication equipment. The Ebenezer Church in Algoa Park also “adopted” the group and paid members a stipend from January to March this year, said Potgieter. She said the church was looking at securing further funding for stipends for the peace workers who were mainly unemployed.
From the outset, the voluntary street patrollers knew that they faced danger on the streets in an area with serious drug and alcohol abuse problems. But nobody anticipated the escalation of gang warfare and shooting incidents in the area in 2011.
Potgieter, a grandmother of 10, said she and some of the 45 women and 12 men who patrol the streets of Helenvale, have been shot at, stoned and threatened with firearms.
“But it just makes us more determined,” she said. “I have no fear of what may happen to me because I love the Lord with all my heart. We always start and end our patrols with prayer. And I tell people if I have to die this way it will only be me to go but at least some bad people will be taken off the street.”
Visagie said he had recently set up a group of 10 local people who provided 24 hour daily prayer backing for those patrolling the streets.
“It’s prayer that keeps us safe. We are bullet proof monks,” he said.
The volunteers walk the streets from 6pm to 9pm during the week and from 8am to 3 or 4am at weekends. When they encountered people on the streets after 9pm they searched them and they had confiscated 40 to 50 knives, toy guns and various types of drugs during these searches. Amazingly, they say most people submitted to being searched by the granny and grandpa patrollers.
Potgieter said that even the young gangsters respected the plucky peace workers most of the time.
“We know who they are and they know who we are. The leader of the Boom Shakas (a gang) lives near me and if they are drinking beer in the street as I walk past they say ‘sorry’ and go into the yard,” she said.
In a recent incident Potgieter and some of her team members broke down a gangster shack which was becoming a source of problems in the area. When the street patrollers started pulling down the shack, where young gangsters abused drugs and slept, some neighbourhood parents joined in.
“So are the Helenvale Eyethu (Ons eie) Peace Workers winning the war?” I asked. Potgieter was silent for a moment before she replied. “With the community, yes. But with the gang warfare, no.” she said.
She said adult drug lords who lived in comfort outside of the area, were using young school dropouts, to carry out contract killings of gang members in their campaign to increase their drug sales territory in Helenvale.
“The children do their dirty work for tackies, name tag clothes and bling,” she said.
“We are going to go and speak to the drug lords and will tell them to stop using our children in their business. But before we go to them we will first pray and fast,” she said.
Asked why the peace workers who risked their lives daily were predominantly women, Potgieter said she believed that men feared that they faced a greater risk of retaliation than was the case with women.
“If men search a man on the street at night they fear that he will take revenge the next day,” she said.
But she said that church leaders organising a major public prayer day in Helenvale on Sunday (August 21) had assured her that they would be motivating more men to join their womenfolk in patrolling the streets and that she should expect male reinforcements.
Potgieter and Visagie both believe that there is hope for Helenvale and are encouraged by increased cooperation between churches and by small but significant signs of upliftment in the area.
Potgieter said that people in Fitchard Street were taking charge of their street which was the first to be upgraded by the muncipality’s Helenvale Urban Renewal Programme. She said there were grass lawns, street lights, flowers and people had even put out garden chairs. There was somewhere for children to play which would keep them off the streets.
“It looks beautiful. I feel so proud,” she said.