After Watching BBC’s Heartbreaking Cape Flats Doc, South African Poet Athol Williams Looks Beyond the Violence

In a BBC report this week, the British broadcaster labels Cape Town ‘Murder Town’ and describes it as a well-known “tourist hotspot where 8 people are murdered a day”, calling it one of the most divided and dangerous cities in the world. Watch the video below, and then read the article by Athol Williams, award-winning South African poet, and former resident of the Cape Flats…

WATCH VIDEO: Cape Town – where 8 people are murdered a day

READ: A Reflection on the Cape Flats: Looking Beyond the Violence – By Athol Williams

Cape Town does not have a murder crisis or a violence crisis. Cape Town has a hopelessness crisis.

Violence is the overflowing of hopelessness. It is a form of suicide that comes when life has no meaning and you have no reason to live so the threat of death isn’t a deterrent. At the heart of our social ills are deeply shattered communities and people who are vulnerable and desperate.

The scale of the murders on the Cape Flats rightly attracts our attention and outrage, but concern is only superficial if our attention is not drawn to the real crisis on the Cape Flats, that of the vulnerability and desperation of its people.

Why else would someone join a gang to commit despicable deeds and risk death for themselves and their families? Only severe desperation leads someone to this point just as severe desperation leads a woman to prostitution or a man to work in South Africa’s deadly underground mines.

Gangs are about livelihoods. For many on the Cape Flats there are no alternatives. Proceeds from theft and drug dealing feeds families, pays children’s school fees, buys grandparents’ medicines.

But violence is not restricted to the gangs.

Cape Flats communities can be frightening and aggressive places to live. People are daily called upon to physically defend themselves. These horrors don’t make the headlines.

Teachers, parents, nurses all adopt the mind-set of fight-readiness. Even children need to be aggressive to survive. These are communities where violence has become normalized.

Children as young as 8-years old are found in classrooms assaulting peers, swearing or carrying weapons. If the violence doesn’t get you, the fear of violence certainly does.

Across South Africa’s cities we know the fear of crime but it is accentuated many times over in these parts. Assault, rape and murder wait at every turn no matter where you are – at the bus stop, in church or in bed.    

What lies at the heart of this hopelessness is structural poverty and sustained abuse. People are trapped in these situations and have no way of escaping no matter how hard they work.

Those who escape are the extreme exceptions.*

The hopelessness begets more hopelessness and this sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to violence. There is a brokenness of spirit that comes from multi-generational domestic and structural abuse. These are communities where multiple generations have only known dislocation and dysfunctionality.

People have been made vulnerable by the enduring effects of decades of this poverty, deprivation and abuse. This vulnerability is exploited by those who channel drugs and guns to these areas unimpeded, and manipulate real lives on a political chessboard.

I am not suggesting that we absolve anyone from their individual responsibility. We must each take responsibility for our actions but for some the option to act ethically or non-violently is severely limited.

How can the situation be turned around? What the Cape Flats needs is hope not the army. We will never solve violence with violence.

Given the complexity of the social ills, the list of remedial actions reads like a wish-list but there are a few hopeful interventions that could move the dial.

The most significant is to develop industrial zones on the Cape Flats by offering companies incentives and stimulating new enterprises. This will begin to address the unemployment scourge and avoid the need for soul-destroying use of decrepit public transport.

Linked to generating employment would be a programme of expunging the criminal records of those who have served their sentences. Countless would-be employees cannot gain employment because companies hold against them their criminal records thus penalizing them a second time. Without the option for formal employment, these people return to their lives of crime.

We do need visible law enforcement of greater integrity to serve as deterrents to criminals but we also need healing that can only come from the likes of social workers, and improved public and recreational spaces.   

Like every other South African, people on the Cape Flats yearn for peaceful and prosperous lives. Most play sport, have romances, do honest days’ work and have dreams for their children.

We owe it to them to move beyond the superficial to the core structural barriers that trap them in lives of deprivation that they suffer.

The upside for us all is a Cape Town that is voted the most beautiful in the world not judged only by its natural beauty but by the beauty of the cohesive society we have developed.


ATHOL WILLIAMS grew up in Mitchell’s Plain on the Cape Flats and most of his family, including his mother, still live there. His Read to Rise literacy project (which has distributed new books to over 100,000 learners) works in 45 primary schools and most public libraries in the area.

*Athol is one of the ‘extreme exceptions’ who escaped… and went on to become the first person to gain Masters degrees from five of the top universities in the world. He says his escape was made possible by books.

“Books helped me imagine a life beyond the poverty and violence; this imagination developed into a dream and then a determined purpose. But it starts with books and I still believe this is the most hopeful thing we can do in these communities right now…” he says.

It takes just R50 to support one child through Read to Rise – they would LOVE to have more supporters. If you’ve been wondering what you could do to help the kids and the community of the Cape Flats, please consider supporting this wonderful initiative.

Below is a photo from this morning where Athol chatted about poetry with children in Vrygrond on the Cape Flats. “We will keep bringing hope and inspiration to every part of our country…”

Best morning … reading and discussing my new book with young readers

Posted by Athol Williams on Wednesday, July 31, 2019

MORE ON ATHOL WILLIAMS (Athol Williams’ nation-building radio show, State of Our Nation – tune in this evening at 6.30pm)