Crime and Redemption in Cape Town: How one organization has turned to curing South Africa’s epidemic of violence, one offender at a time

December 24, 2013 • Glimpses, Print, Roots • Views: 1687

By J.R. Reed

One of the yellow walls of the First Community Resource Centre (FCRC) in Hanover Park, a township in Cape Town, is plastered with the front pages of major South African newspapers. Tabloid-esque headlines proclaim “In the Line of Fire” and “Cape Town’s Most Dangerous Streets” in oversized red, black, and white fonts. An enormous map of the neighborhood hangs below, laden with marks pinpointing where acts of violence have occurred. The headlines may be hyperbole, but Hanover Park’s high rates of violence are not exaggerated – the roots of which can be linked to the prevalence of gangs in this area just on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Surrounded by crime, township youth often neglect their classrooms in these poverty-stricken urban areas – originally constructed exclusively for non-white citizens during the apartheid era. Just this past August, education officials closed 16 schools in townships surrounding Cape Town due to teacher’s concerns for their own safety. Faced with failing schools and limited employment opportunities, these youth often turn to gangs instead – engaging in violence, dealing drugs, and contributing to the darker side of South Africa’s post-apartheid era.

But inside the First Community Resource Centre, one effort is underway to help these youths turn their lives around and hopefully, one day change the content of the newspaper headlines. Three years ago, Pastor Craven Engel, a resident of Hanover Park, began spearheading the FCRC, offering counseling to children and helping to provide them with a safer, healthier environment in which to grow up. While Hanover Park does not reach the same violence levels as other townships such as Nyanga, the most dangerous area in South Africa according to 2012-2013 national crime statistics, it is widely considered to be one of the communities in Cape Town most affected by gang violence. During the first half of 2012, for example, 23 deaths occurred throughout the Cape Town region; seventeen of those fatalities were in Hanover Park and Lavender Hill, another township, alone.

As a part of responsibilities for his church, Engel regularly reaches out to Hanover Park residents to gauge the community’s most pressing needs. He realized it was crucial to mentor children in the community, who might otherwise fall into the easy trap of violent activity in the township’s streets.

In Cape Town’s Langa Township, many residents live in overcrowded shacks, faced with deteriorating sewage systems, low water pressure, and poor electricity (Reed/TYG).

In Cape Town’s Langa Township, many residents live in overcrowded shacks, faced with deteriorating sewage systems, low water pressure, and poor electricity (Reed/TYG).

But Engel recognized the important difference between deterring these children from crime and helping them develop into positive influences on the community. “We have a day-to-day challenge of making them believe they can make this change,” Engel said. With guidance from the South African Consulate General, Engel founded CeaseFire, a program used to combat dangerous gang activity and support children growing up in these violent neighborhoods. CeaseFire limits gang violence by focusing on conflict mediation and street-level outreach. Engel’s program found its inspiration from other CeaseFire programs implemented in 21 lower-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago. In the Windy City, CeaseFire, according to its website, has reduced violence in “every [Chicago] neighborhood it operates in by up to 34 percent … [and] successfully cut retaliatory homicides by 100 percent.”

Ceasefire’s success hinges on the quality of its staff members, drawn entirely from residents of the township. Engel and his Program Manager Raymon Swartz rely on these citizens, trained in “violence interruption,” to promote alternatives to crime. The two have organized a team of ex-gang members, who are then trained to become violence interrupters. These individuals meet with Hanover Park youth gangsters in the aftermath of attacks to limit violence that could stem from such tragedies. These violence interrupters also organize separate sessions to encourage conflict mediation and prevent the community’s youth from relapsing into a cycle of violence.

CeaseFire’s staff is drawn from young offenders on the street, and according to Swartz, “the skills that they have are skills that we simply cannot teach. We have employed them because of the strict knowledge they have already. They have the credibility to speak about violence, and what we have done is help train them in conflict mediation techniques to diffuse situations on the ground.” Ranging in age from 20 to 55, many of these violence interrupters have spent several years incarcerated, some for 10 years or longer. Their credibility as ex-criminals and ex-gang members gives them significant influence when they enter conflict communities.

Albert Matthews is a former gang member who became a CeaseFire activist after he witnessed the shootings of two of his friends, one of whom was struck with 14 bullets.  “When I was introduced to the center, I was sent away with a team of ex-gangsters for three months,” Matthews said. “I came back, attended the support group, and then began a work-study. I completed the course and am currently working at the center helping youth get off the streets. Gang violence is simply not the way into our future.”

As the FCRC’s CeaseFire program continues to expand, Engel personally organizes the recruiting efforts. At the Hanover Park location, Engel has recruited 26 members and six additional volunteers. One of the most effective ways to recruit is to mediate a conflict and then integrate those involved in the violence into the program. Violence interrupters will identify group members involved in a shooting and then gauge if they are suitable candidates for the position. “If someone says that this is a great candidate for the program, I will go to different gang members in the area and see if they would let this guy on the ground,” Engel said. “They will let me know if we (as an organization) can trust this guy. We also will talk with the community to see what they think of the guy – to see if he is credible and good for the job.”

In Cape Town’s Langa Township, many residents come from low-income households.  Many can only afford small shacks, like the one featured in this photo, to house their businesses. Limited economic opportunities can lead to greater violence and substance abuse (Reed/TYG).

In Cape Town’s Langa Township, many residents come from low-income households. Many can only afford small shacks, like the one featured in this photo, to house their businesses. Limited economic opportunities can lead to greater violence and substance abuse (Reed/TYG).

There are six criteria that CeaseFire uses to recruit, and candidates must fulfill at least four of the following categories: 1) be between the age of 14 and 26, 2) belong to a gang, 3) have been released from jail recently, 4) own a weapon, 5) have shot someone before, and 6) been shot at. Using this recruiting process, Engel and the FCRC bring in qualified members that can help derail youth violence and also integrate these individuals into the job sector while training them in the CeaseFire practices. Not only does FCRC provide economic opportunities, but Engel and the organization also provide in-house social support groups for volunteers to discuss issues with other former gang members.

For example, former drug addicts can enroll in substance abuse programs, and ex-gangsters can re-enroll in school to pursue further education or training. Here, Engel and his team have seen major successes. 70 percent of those who enroll in the programs complete them, and approximately 50 percent of those who enroll are physically placed in a job.

In spite of these successes, Engel and his team realize the challenges they still face as an organization. The future for their efforts is complex and fraught with peril. The two most significant problems are funding and establishing an evaluation framework for the program. Without adequate funding, Engel and his team have admitted that they will not be able to sustain the organization. In spite of the tremendous challenge, Swartz remains optimistic that funding will increase once potential donors see tangible evidence of the program’s benefits.  In terms of evaluating the program, the team intends to create a database documenting the levels of violence in areas in which violence interrupters have intervened. This database would provide the “necessary tangible documentation” to whether or not the program has worked.

“We need to continue to focus on creating this database and improving the programs we currently have,” Swartz said. “That database will better allow us to expand and, once we roll out to other communities, we can hold this as a baseline to say this is what how the program can truly help communities.” Although the organization has started to extend its efforts into other communities including the townships of Lavender Hill, Kewtown, and Manenberg, Engel and his team have predominantly focused their CeaseFire efforts thus far in Hanover Park. Until they receive the necessary funding, they are hesitant to expand and use the program to impact these other communities.

Engel is proud of what the center has accomplished using the CeaseFire model, but he realizes more can be done and knows the evaluation framework must be completed to ensure further success. In the face of their efforts, crime persists throughout the Cape townships, and CeaseFire’s mission is not yet complete. To stop the violence, Engel and his team know they must bring their program to more locations to ensure South Africa’s youth are sheltered from the many environments that still perpetuate these perilous cycles of violence. CeaseFire has the foundational tools in its arsenal to build a holistic cure to this city’s violence and perhaps the nation as a whole, now it just needs the funding.

J.R. Reed ’16 is in Silliman College. He can be reached at jonathan.t.reed@yale.edu.

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