Change lives

Johann Kikillus, Soteria Ministries, Ocean View Care Centre

The Western Cape has battled with gang problems since the 1970s.

Many communities, from Ocean View in the far south to Beaufort West on the other side of the province, are completely paralysed by the actions of a minority of young men.

In the 15 years that I have been involved with gang rehabilitation, I have noted that the problem has gotten worse each year.

Most concerning is the fact that gangsters are getting younger and more violent. As a result, even our primary schools have become dangerous.

I believe that not nearly enough has been done by government to prevent young males from dropping out of school and joining gangs. Most schools today do not have counsellors or social workers or programmes in place to deal with these matters, unless the governing body has extra funds to employ one. Truancy officers are non-existent.

We all want gangsterism to stop. But the question that has not been given much thought is “What then?” If every young gangster suddenly decided to change his ways, how will he be integrated into society?

At the beginning of each year, I am visited by youth who have grown tired of being gangsters. They have witnessed their “friends” being shot dead or were imprisoned and then decided they would prefer to finish school.

Their first obstacle is that their reputation precedes them. Most schools do not want them back. The community has turned its back on them and sadly gang-ridden communities are not very forgiving. So they face rejection and this just causes their anger to increase.

After a short while of facing many obstacles, they give up and conclude that being a gangster is the only way of life. This is a lie. Tragically, I know of several hundred such cases where the young man went back to his gang only to end up dead. The truth is that a violent death is the only outcome for most gangsters.

Some end up in prison, but considering the state of our prisons, maybe death is a better option. If a community is serious about changing the lives of its young gangsters, then a whole new change of mindset needs to happen.

There needs to be a restorative justice approach. The young men must want to change, and the community must want to assist the youth with their change.

As difficult as it is, there needs to be a dialogue between perpetrators and victims, and steps must be taken towards forgiveness and healing.

We must always bear in mind that although gangsters display some of the most atrocious behaviour, the vast majority of them faced abuse, neglect and rejection throughout their childhood. They never experienced love, acceptance or encouragement. They do not know better, because no one taught them.

This does not excuse their behaviour. But it means that we have to acknowledge that all of them are broken people.

In my private interviews with many gang leaders in prison, I witnessed many of them sob their hearts out. We have grown weary of seeing dead bodies of young men who grew up in front of us.

The year 2020 needs to be a year where a space is created for gangsters to begin to walk a different path.

Any gangster or family of a gangster that would like to change is welcome to meet me at Ocean View Care Centre to take the first step. I welcome dialogue with the gangs as well.