About 500 members of a Port Elizabeth Northern Areas community living in the crossfire of deadly gang violence attended an anti-crime prayer meeting on a sportsfield in Bethelsdorp Ext 31 on Sunday afternoon.
While those at the gathering organised by local church leaders called on the Lord to intervene in the desperate situation and nodded in agreement to a call by local SAPS station commander Brigadier Zolani Xawuka for residents to join hands with police to take the community back from criminals, a small group of fed-up residents armed with guns took to the streets in several Northern Areas gang hotspots where they challenged gangsters to a shootout.
According to media reports, police shut down the activists’ street marches and warned them they were not above the law and that they were counteracting constructive engagements between police, religious and community leaders.
Apostle Donovan Arends, the coordinator of the Bethelsdorp mass prayer meeting, said in an interview yesterday that one of the groups challenging the gangsters had apparently been active on a street not far from the prayer event at about 3pm on Sunday.
But the atmosphere at the prayer rally was peaceful and the crowd appreciated special moments such as performances by two local Christian dance groups.
It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and it was hard to imagine that a week before, two people were fatally shot nearby and primary schools were closed because children were traumatised by shootouts between rival gangs and between police and gangsters. Only the presence of police vehicles parked on the perimeters of the field indicated that this was not an ordinary community event.
One of the most moving moments of the rally occurred after the sound system was disrupted for a while and community members were asked to form circles and pray for God to intervene in the gang violence situation. The air was filled with a rumbling sound as hundreds of people fervently called on God to help their community.
Arends said that since the rally he has received many calls from people thanking the organisers for the event and saying that the area was quiet after the rally and they were sleeping peacefully.
He said the next step was for further dialogue between the church, community and police, not just in the Bethelsdorp area but also in other areas affected by gang violence.