Helping Khayelitsha’s children escape gang violence

Axolile Notywala
Child gangster in Khayelitsha. Photo by Mary-Anne Gontsana.
Axolile Notywala

The youth of Khayelitsha have been infected with a terrible “disease of gang violence”—as ‘Big Guy’, a radio presenter from Radio Zibonele called it—that is destroying tomorrow’s leaders. It is not hardened gangsters who are involved but children, some as young as 13.

Although this has been going on for some time now, it has escalated to the use of guns where previously it has been knives, pangas, axes and stones. A lot of children have stopped attending school because they fear being caught up in fights which take place on school premises or when they walk home.

“I was attacked with a panga and tried to block it with my hand and got cut, it was during exams and it became very difficult to write”, a learner who has now quit school told me. Teachers who have tried to help by giving children lifts home now also live in fear as their cars have been stoned. A lot of schools are affected by this but Bulumko and Iqhayiya Secondary are the worst affected.

A friend of mine’s three younger brothers have found themselves involved. The youngest–who is 15 years old—has been stabbed more than once, and I feel really helpless seeing my friend stressed and confused. He has had to take his three brothers to the Eastern Cape after a group from another gang went to their house to attack them. The disease is spreading and getting out of hand very fast. In Khayelitsha, there are not enough facilities for extramural activities. Most children get involved in gangs because they have nothing else to do when they come back from school and on weekends. This gang fighting is what keeps them occupied. It becomes fun for them. But once in, it is very difficult to leave.

I decided to write this because I was inspired by two young Green Point Khayelitsha residents at a community meeting that was held on 21 July. The two young guys, Thando (who is the oldest of my friend’s brothers) and his friend Khaya (not their real names), approached some of my friends and me, telling us that they are tired of gang fighting and they want to quit but it’s not easy as the other groups will still attack them.

Present at the meeting were various community organisations, the youths involved, parents of some of the youths involved and Vuyo ‘Big Guy’ Mgqibelo from Radio Zibonele. Sadly and very disappointingly the police—a vital partner in ending the violence—did not arrive after they promised to do so. They did not even pick up the phone when we called them several times. Nevertheless we continued with our event as planned. All attendees spoke about how gang violence in schools and in communities had affected them personally, and how we may be able to jointly intervene to get rid of this disease.

Thando and Khaya shared with us how they got involved in a gang, how this has affected them and their families and why they decided to quit. “I enjoyed it at first but one night I sat alone and thought about the countless times where I would speak badly to my family members, how I disrespected everyone. I had lost the respect I had when I was a hip-hop artist. People used to look up to me for my music but now I was being a bad influence to children younger than me,” Thando told the people in the hall.

Khaya told us that he grew up in Site B, Khayelitsha, with most of his family. Now he lives in Green Point and is fighting with people in Site B. “I miss my family. I want to be able to visit my friends and family in Site B again. I am tired of being famous for being seen with pangas in my community. I want to be a normal child again and focus on my future because the only place I will end up with this is jail or underground,” he said. These words got to me. They got to everyone there.

Some of the other gang members also came forward saying that they also want to change but it’s still difficult when they have to go to school because they get attacked. At the end of the meeting Thando and Khaya were applauded and praised for coming forward and being willing to help put an end to this.

They were then invited to a slot on Radio Zibonele, Khayelitsha’s largest community radio station, to share their views. This is where I really applauded them for the words they uttered to their fellow youths who are still involved in gangs and those still thinking about joining. They said powerful messages on radio. Everyone who called in praised them for coming forward and speaking out about this. “Give yourselves a pat on the back,” one caller said.

Thando and Khaya used to say to me jokingly, “You are my role model.” I told them after the radio interview that now it’s them who are my role models.

There are a lot of others who want to get out of these gangs but they all need support, especially from their parents.

The gang violence has got worse recently and taken lives. It is reported that four people who have died since Thursday last week but there might be more than that. More have been injured and sent to hospital. The gangs now go to communities to intimidate and attack everyone they see on the streets. It’s difficult for many people who use trains to go to work as they fear the gangs. Residents say that police are not doing enough and now they will patrol themselves and have to be armed. Police, communities, NGOs and other stakeholders need to work together to tackle this.

I always think of my younger brother when I hear that there has been a gang fight in the area in which I live. I write this for Thando and Khaya. I hope they inspire a lot more gang members to quit and discourage other youths from joining gangs.

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TOPICS:  Violence

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