This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian.
The yellow police tape had been cradling the street corner, till a stiff Cape Flats breeze tossed it down the street to a nearby bush. Two men were gunned down the day before. Their bodies bled out, while from behind barred windows, children at the kindergarten took in the scene, noticing the shooters, their age, their clothes, their tattoos, where they came from, where they went. In defiance of what adults may tell you about the veracity of child witnesses, the prevailing wisdom in gang rife areas like this one is that if you want to know what really happened, ask the children.
Nearly 900 million guns are in circulation on the planet. That’s one gun for every seven people. On the Cape Flats, many of those guns are in the hands of child “foot soldiers” of gangs. In a survey we conducted, of children from Hanover Park, age 11-13, 54% of boys and girls surveyed admitted to having carried a knife or a gun or both in the previous four weeks. How children come to possess and use weapons without even knowing how to, begins many years before, with the witnessing of acts of violence like these, which almost always happens without any legal consequences for the perpetrators.
Children growing up in the Cape Flats face injury, disability, orphanhood, imprisonment and loss of life – their own, their friends and their family. Boys are particularly vulnerable. Gang violence and inter-personal violence is the cause of death for 60% of boys age 15-19 in South Africa. The global average for child death from injury is 8.8 in 100 000. In South Africa that rate is 39.8, and the greater proportion of those deaths in South Africa are young men aged 13-17, living on the Cape Flats, who have died as a result of gang violence or inter-personal conflict with peers. The Western Cape government recognises that gang violence has resulted in the “the normalisation of violence”. Yet the cost to society of gangsterism has been allowed to escalate to astronomical levels.
Fabian (not his real name) became a hitman at age eleven. He grew up wanting to become one, “because all my uncles are hitmen.” His family rules a Cape Flats gang. There were also days when he swore that he would never become a gangster. He hated the way his uncles spoke to their soldiers. He hated the violence and the drugs. He lost three uncles, three cousins, and of his thirteen childhood friends, today only four are left. His parents, both drug merchants, are alive, but they had no part in raising him.
Fabian learned about the power of the gun round about the same time that he started school, age 6. A man came into the house, and some time later, this man followed Fabian’s uncle into the yard where he was playing. The two were arguing. His uncle raised a gun. “I grew up with that bang sound,” Fabian says. He cannot remember the man’s face. This bothers him, because his child’s reasoning convinced him that if he remembered, it might answer why his mother abandoned him as a child.
Exposure to violence in childhood alters the brain in ways that lead to physical, mental and emotional harm throughout a child’s life. One of the things that can protect a child growing up in conflict zones are consistent, nurturing parents. Even in extreme conditions a child with parents like this will have better psychological adjustment.
Three years later, Fabian’s uncle was partying at the house. He gestured to Fabian to come over, took out his gun and laid it on the table. He explained each part and how it worked. He showed him how to cock it, how to take out a magazine, the type of lifts you put in, how you hold the gun.
Some may say Fabian was lucky. He was given a lesson that many “foot soldiers” never receive. “Gangsters are often very poor shots,” explains Michael McLaggan of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. “They’re given guns from a very young age. They’re not trained how to use them properly. They hold firearms the way you see it in movies and that affects the trajectory of the bullet. It’s part of the reason so many bullets go astray and why there’s so much collateral damage.”
With all this happening, it is little wonder that Fabian’s schooling became populated with incidences of violence from an early age. His first stabbing of a fellow pupil was in Grade 2.
“What do you expect, a boy of ten years old?” asks Gang Intervention Specialist and reformed gangster Colin Barends. “Whole night they smoke drugs in this house, whole night they sabela. He see guns, he see drugs, he see adults having sex with one another. Tomorrow he sleep in the class – they say he’s naughty, he don’t want to listen. But he couldn’t sleep at his house. He didn’t even have a breakfast. They buy him a packet of 50 cents chips. Then you go to school. Now the educators see him as a naughty child. They don’t see this, where he is coming from. And then they put him out of school. Who’s going to take care of him now? The gang leader.”
Fabian remembers missing out on school because they were caged up in the house for weeks as gang wars waged in the streets. Fabian couldn’t take the strain, so he ran away to live under a bridge for two months, close to an affluent shopping centre. He was ten years old. He smoked buttons and sniffed glue. He scratched the bins of the mall for food, and begged for money.
Fabian enjoyed learning; scoring top marks and winning awards. Too often gang alliances and warfare spilled over onto the playground however, and there were times where he experienced brutality from his teacher. It was almost inevitable for Fabian that despite his obvious intelligence, he dropped out of school.
Public schools on the Cape Flats are not equipped to cope with the toll that violence takes on teachers and learners. Classrooms have up to 56 learners, all from the same environment of poverty and violence. Teachers, who are under pressure from a curriculum focused education department, when presented with a problem child, find it easier to exclude the child through neglect and suspension – occasionally abuse. Grant Stewart, a Trauma Disruptor, describes a teacher who attacked a learner with a hammer. Eventually children don’t come back to class, he says, and if a child has been away from class for more than ten days, the school can deregister them.
In an ideal world, the school is the place to teach behaviours and values of non-violence, social inclusion, empathy and anger management. Not dropping out of school and longer school days have also been shown to protect against violence. In the Cape Flats schools should also be allowed to be places to process grief. Evidence from Latin America and the Caribbean supports these recommendations. But as much as an education could have been Fabian’s path out of violence, his schooling amplified the violence and violated his right to an education.
The Power of the Gun
At age 11, Fabian moved out to live with his mother. It was good. They re-connected and he made new friends. One day, Fabian and a friend decided to go to his friend’s house to play TV games. As they were playing, his friend’s brother came running into the house. Gunmen followed him in killing first the mother, then the father and then the son. The two boys scrambled under the bed at the first sound of fire, but it was dusty and his friend sneezed just as the gunmen were leaving.
His family all bear a striking resemblance to one another. One of the hitmen recognised Fabian’s features. So instead of killing them, they gave them guns and forced Fabian and his friend to commit their first murders.
Fabian became the very thing he hated and it terrified him, “that wild dreams, no sleep because of what people wanted you to do, that you didn’t want to do.”
He also experienced a new feeling – power. “Before I go out in the morning I would shoot mad (sic) and people would be running. For me it was fun. Almost like I had to do this thing because I know no-one can do anything to me.”
Age 13, Fabian had his first brush with the law. He and his friends tied up a neighbourhood watchman with bread packets they found tangled in the fence. Then they stole his firearm. “Deny everything,” his uncle advised. It worked. They found women to stand in for their mothers and won the case. It would be the first of seven arrests. Of that seven, he only received two sentences. All the other times, his family paid the police for his records to go missing.
The power to change
When a gang member changes, it’s never because of any intervention. Stewart has found that those that changed could all point to someone in their lives that really believed in them. Or they changed with the birth of a child.
Fabian remembers the day it all changed for him very clearly. He was in prison, lying on his bed in the cell. He had just received the news that his cousin had been killed by friends. He blamed himself for the death. Up to that point, he had been making the most of prison – rising through the ranks of the Numbers Gang and eating KFC. The wardens were his allies and he was invincible.
Through the clamour of the overcrowded cells that unhappy night, the voices of singing reached his ears. Their voices carried a single thread of hope to Fabian that he has drawn himself along ever since.
“Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness
Opened my eyes, let me see.”
“Those words touched me hard,” he remembers. “It actually showed me the light. It showed me what I can do with my life. Even though I had the best protection there and the best life I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to make children. I wanted to become a father and have family.”
In the days that followed, he noticed a woman walking through the prison. As she walked passed his cell, he called to her. She found a piece of paper and asked him to write his name. Her name was Lisa Marqua. Marqua runs an NGO called Restore that focuses on restorative justice. Fabian is one of thousands of young men that Marqua and partner Celeste van Es have worked with in their combined 21 years of Christian prison ministry. In each course that Restore facilitates they conduct a survey of how many times their class of fifteen has been a victim of crime. They have found in a single class, there can be up to 9,000 accounts of the prisoners’ own victimisation by crime.
The course fed the new song in Fabian’s heart. It was his first experience of what Fabian calls the “purity of love” and the beginning of a journey toward feeling human.
When he came out of prison, during his “transformation”, while still in the gang, he shot people. But there came a day when he could stop. These days, Fabian works at different youth centres diverting young people from gangs. He has earned no salary from this. This kind of work is woefully under-supported, many non-profits are closing down or close to it. Without an income or an education, with a new baby and without electricity or water, the R10 000 a day he once earned as a hitman, and selling guns and bullets could go far. But Fabian has an inexhaustible energy for what he calls, “positive change”.
In his spare time, he goes to the scrapyard to find parts to fix broken bicycles in his neighbourhood. He likes to surprise neighbours with fixed bikes. He uses his own money and the odd donation to maintain a small fleet of bicycles. Then on the weekend, he rounds up a few young men and takes them on long bike rides to Sea Point.
Fabian’s reformed life is punishing. The horror of what he has done seeps into his conscience. He is terrified of retaliation and of something happening to his child. His choices will pay off one day soon he tells himself. Yet he is trying to solving a problem far beyond one person’s capacity, especially when that person has undergone as much as he has.
It is the responsibility of the State to end violence against children, and to do it in a way that place the rights of the child at the centre. The means resourcing health, education, youth development and urban development. It means counter-balancing “coercive efforts” of policing, with contributions by developmental sectors in a co-ordinated way. There is overwhelming evidence from around the world for the success of a coordinated multi-sectoral approach.
In the Western Cape Department of Community Safety, there currently exists a strategic plan that seeks to safeguard the best interests of the child. However, the Strategic Roadmap has to all intents and purposes been buried for lack of political will. This in view of Cape Town consistently having the highest number of homicides in the world. The City of Cape Town needs to account for how they plan to action and resource this strategy or provide one that is equally centred on the rights of the child, as a matter of fundamental importance to the best interest of children on the Cape Flats.
 Prison vernacular for the language of the prison gang.