Living and dying in Westbury hell
Westbury residents bury a victim of gang wars every weekend
● “I could not get close to hold her … it was a crime scene, I was told. I stood and waited about three hours before her body was removed.” Reuben Petersen is mourning the death of his wife Heather, a bystander caught in a shoot-out between Westbury gangsters last week.
Residents told the Sunday Times of the pain and despair that fuelled protests in the Johannesburg suburb this week.
A community worker who buries victims every weekend said: “It’s traumatic, standing at a grave every weekend, burying innocent people, and even gang members.”
A father, 73, who watched his son die in March, said: “It’s something you never get over, helplessly watching your son bleed to death.”
A mother told of the ever-present fear: “I pray even before going to the bathroom because it is not safe any more.”
● Eldred Fredericks sits nervously on an empty crate, brushing tile and cement dust from his face.
At 73, the builder has seen drug dealers painfully kill off Westbury, west of Johannesburg. In March his son Selwyn, 37, was shot dead blocks away from the family’s tiny flat.
“It’s something you never get over, helplessly watching your son bleed to death.”
Fredericks’s house is close to the outdoor passageway where Westbury mother Heather Petersen was shot dead last week. She was caught in a shoot-out between rival drug pedlars.
For Westbury residents, Petersen’s killing was the final straw. Hundreds vented their anger in violent protests this week. Police minister Bheki Cele visited the scene.
On the day she died, Petersen kissed her husband Reuben goodbye. When he saw her again, she lay dead in the street, just 60m from their home.
“I could not even get close to hold her … it was a crime scene, I was told. I stood by and waited for about three hours before her body was removed,” said Reuben Petersen.
Heather had accompanied her 10-yearold niece to fetch a school report. On their way home they were caught in crossfire. Heather was killed and the niece slightly wounded in a leg.
Petersen said he never thought much about the sound of gunshots “until you lose a loved one”.
“It is then that you start asking yourself: what are you doing in such an environment? But it’s life in Westbury and we have nowhere else to go,” he said.
The street where his wife died is the frontline in battles between drug gangs.
Pastor Collins Andrews was killed in October last year while sitting outside the front door of his house which borders the passage where Petersen was shot. In 2016 he had survived a bullet wound and was due to testify within days about that incident.
Fredericks said he was terrified every time his children and grandchildren went out. “Just last week a father-of-three was killed as he got off a bus ... from work.
“I just never know if [the children] will make it back home alive. We escort our grandchildren to school, or friends give them lifts.”
Dr Been Robinson, the principal of Westbury Secondary School, said fights often started on the streets, especially over the weekends at street parties.
“Our kids bring weapons — like knives — to school to protect themselves from those they have been fighting with over the weekend, or from bullies from rival schools.
“Those who are found with weapons are sent on rehab programmes. The last thing you want to do is have the child expelled as their home situations are often not ideal.”
He said parents and the community needed to work together.
“Time and again community meetings have been called, but hardly anyone shows up,” said Robinson.
Policing and security expert Eldred de Klerk said poverty, poor education and decades of neglect by local governments provided a breeding ground for criminals.
“People keep on thinking of education and poverty eradication as long-term fixes, but they need to form part of the short-term fixes,” said De Klerk.
“Criminal networks provide their own economy by offering residents loans, paying for funerals, providing food and other welfare. If we don’t sort out these issues, criminals will carry on exploiting and trapping residents.”
Community activist Bishop Dalton Adams remembers gangs like the Spaldings, Varados, Majimbos, FBI and the Fast Guns.
“I used to live right next to the Spaldings’ nest and I had to choose between being a gang member and a servant of God,” he said.
“Gangsterism was not driven by drug dealings then, and the innocent would not be affected. In the end it was churches that brokered peace.”
He said nowadays there were faceless people who lived in the suburbs who used Westbury as a drug mall.
“Everybody knows the drug houses, pushers and individuals behind everything, but who would put their lives in danger? Police must just do their jobs properly.”
He buries bullet-ridden bodies every weekend. “I understand since 2014, about 900 people have died in all this violence here. It’s traumatic, standing at a grave every weekend burying innocent people, and even gang members.”
Down the road, Gladys Gailey used to host visitors, even from overseas, at The Place Pub and Grill.
“Bookings have all dropped now,” she said.
Just three months ago, her 35-year-old son was shot and killed in Styler Street.
“I pray every day for my life and everyone’s. I pray even before going to the bathroom because it is not safe any more.”