Escaping Khayelitsha’s Gangs

Escaping Khayelitsha’s Gangs: Tim Blogs on the Battle of W4C Participants to Leave the Gangs of Kuyasa

“If you’re in, you can’t get out. They’ll come for you. They’ll kill you. If you want to get out, you gotta become a ghost. They can’t see you. You can’t go outside, can’t go to school….you can’t be seen. Maybe then they’ll forget about you…”

It was about 2 months after Waves for Change opened in Khayelitsha, October or November 2012. Bandile arrived at the beach, carrying himself awkwardly. 16 years old, he’d been part of the first sign-up, referred to us by his school social worker. Boisterous and confident he was an early presence, attending over his allocated 2 sessions a week and inseparable from the waves.

He was carrying himself awkwardly. More over he sat quietly, his voice thin. His face was swollen, his left eye heavily bloodshot and the socket visibly damaged. His wrist looked broken, deep purple and he bore cuts from what looked like a heavy fall. From what I remember little was said, and what was I couldn’t really understand. He hid himself mostly amongst the group, hiding from view and shying from the coaches’ attempts to talk to him. After that we weren’t too sure if we’d see him again, but the next day he came back. It took him a month to get back in the water.

It’s now August again, almost a year since it happened, and we’ve only just started to learn from Bandile what it means to be in a gang. We are learning more as the coaches gain the trust of the boys who seem to be reciprocating by telling their friends to join up, to leave the gangs, to find something new.

Bandile Michael

Bandile                                               Michael

Bandile talks through Michael, his friend and fellow gang member, who joined Waves for Change in February to get out of the Vato gang – of which they were both members. Bandile told Michael about this new sport of riding waves. Michael tried it out and today sits deepest, waiting only for the biggest waves, which he tackles fearlessly, despite his basic swimming ability.

He translates Bandile’s words into his own broken English.

“If you’re in, you can’t get out. They’ll come for you. They’ll kill you…”

Local to Kuyasa, the Vato are made up mostly of senior schoolboys who in turn recruit juniors to fight the Vura, from neighbouring Harare section. Increasingly the older members of the gangs have dropped out of school and prefer to roam the streets during the day waiting for the school bells. After school, armed with pangas, knives and knobkerries, they go to battle on the deserted open fields that used to be used as soccer pitches. The community looks on, whistling, goading. Occasionally gunfire will send them running and the police then move in.

For Bandile and Michael, this was their life. Until Bandile decided to leave and they came for him, cornering him on his street and beating him until he drifted into unconsciousness. It was shortly after this that we saw him, and for several weeks post he sheltered at home: The Ghost, shying away from view, missing school and falling further and further behind his peers.

For many kids of Bandile and Michael’s age this a reality. “Gangsterism”, as it’s known locally to Khayelitsha, is a relatively new phenomenon in the community and seems to be driven less by drugs and territory than by rivalry born of frustration and boredom, initially smaller scuffles that have now escalated far beyond control.

*A gang fight blocking the main access to the beach road in Kuyasa.

“I was in a gang last year” says Nwabisa – 17 years old and one of several female surfers at Monwa’

‘I wanted to be cool; I wanted people to fear me…but yoh! It’s not what you think, this is not family…people use you, people are dying”.

The years of Michael and Bandile’s gang involvement are worn obviously through the scars on their faces. But the effect goes deeper. Like Nwabisa, both are now struggling to maintain a place at school having failed their respective academic years through their self-imposed exile, as Ghosts trying to slip the gangs’ grasp and re-enter society.

We hope that’s where Waves for Change comes in, offering a chance to engage with kids struggling to get out, and place to seek shelter and support, both to leave the gangs and to re-enter normal society. We know surfing is enough to lure them, we know it’s enough to keep them with us, and we’ve seen our first successes. But we know it takes time.

There is no quick fix, and the challenge remains huge. Gangs continue to proliferate in Khayelitsha and kids continue to join from a young age. Every Friday there are fights which often spill into the week. Often we are locked in school waiting for the fighting to subside. Occasionally we hear gunshots.

But we have a foothold, we have the buy-in of ex-gang members, we’ve found a way of engaging with them and securing their continued attendance, and we’re starting to see more kids turning up.

A year down the line and Surfing is here to stay in Khayelitsha, and it’s proving a tool for good.

*goofy, another ex-member of the Vato a W4C member since August 2012, dropping in at Monwabisi