Cape Town, South Africa - In recent months, gang violence has found its way to the centre of attention in the Western Cape. With on-going gang wars in different areas around Cape Town, communities are fighting back through reinegration programmes. 

The First Community Resource Centre in Hanover Park is a non-profit organisation founded by Pastor Craven Engel. When the cleric was positioned in the notoriously crime-ridden area, he swiftly realised that the main problem of his community was the gang violence. People in the community don't always trust the police to protect them against the gang activity and often remain quiet when they see crimes being committed.

When Engel heard about a successful government initiative from the US, project Ceasefire, he contacted the people in charge and discussed ways of bringing their approach to South Africa. The idea is simple: A team of ex-gang members is recruited to use their influence and connections on the street to speak to active gang leaders and lower rang members and mediate conflicts between rivalling gangs.

"There were a lot of similarities to what we were doing. We were a local NGO, working with the youth here since the year 2000. We focused on substance, on guys coming out of prison," Engel tells us about the early stages.

With the help of their American colleagues, Engel's First Community Resource Centre started to assess Hanover Park and identified people that would be credible on the street and trusted by the community.

Engel describes the process of getting the anti-gang-violence project started: "They said: 'You need to employ guys that have been involved in gang banging, who've been in prison, guys that maybe have a gang number, guys that have been violent but have recovered and in the community, people trust them.' And I already had five guys like that who were running our programmes. But they still needed to go through the credibility check."

The American Ceasefire workers came in 2010 and the 2011 to help out and give intense 80-hour-trainings to their South African counterparts from the First Community Resource Centre. A rigorous process, Engel admits that he himself failed the tough exams the first time around.

Opposition to Ceasefire

The Community Policing Forum used to have peace talks with the gang leaders and the killings stopped. Now the killings don't stop, the project isn't working.

Avril Martin, Community Policing Forum

Despite the program's success in the US, not everybody in Cape Town is convinced that the program has the right approach to deal with the local gang violence.

"It doesn't work because these ex-gangsters aren't dedicated enough. I don't think they have the right motivation or that they are the right people to try to minimise the gang violence in our community," says Avril Martin, a member of the Community Policing Forum (CPF). "The CPF used to have peace talks with the gang leaders and the killings stopped. Now the killings don't stop, the project isn't working."

Official police statistics on gang-related murders in Hanover Park and statements by the City of Cape Town disagree with this. Compared to the figures for the previous three years, Hanover Park's gang violence has halved in the first six months of 2013. JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security, credits the Ceasefire program for this achievement and is planning to extend it to other areas around Cape Town.

Despite repeated efforts, the South African Police Service (SAPS) officials responsible for the area did not respond to our inquiries about the recent trends. Avril Martin however rejects the enthusiasm for Ceasefire. She thinks that projects like this one receive too much funding; an opinion she shares with African National Congress (ANC) Western Cape chair Marius Fransman, who also doesn't believe that the Ceasefire project has the right approach.

"The provincial government put money into organisations that in our view have relations to the criminal scene. It's nothing but a smoke screen on the Cape Flats. They should rather use money to advice offices, to hire legal people, and give it to the churches in the communities. We must address economic issues, have street workers working everywhere and make sure that socio-economic conditions are being addressed."

Fransman had posted a much harsher comment about the project's credibility on his personal Facebook wall, but removed it after the South African press caused a media storm.

Pastor Issel Simmers who is working in Hanover Park's community, disagrees strongly with Fransman. "The people that gave the critique are so far fetched; they don't know what's going on. They don't live here. We [the community leaders] welcome the program. If the the ANC wants to play politics with the program, they are playing with our lives."

Nevertheless, the public critique from the ANC concerning project Ceasefire's alignment with the opposition party and criminal scene triggered a row of investigations into the program's legitimacy and the First Community Resource Centre's registration papers as an NGO – but all investigations have been concluded to the program's benefit.

"I don't understand where the anger comes from," Craven says. "In this program, we've got autonomy, we're an independent NGO, we're not politically aligned to anyone but we need funding to exist. Obviously we approached the City of Cape Town in regards to this program. They came on board, they like the program, they looked at the research, at the data. So they are funding the program. The next thing we heard was that we are a 'DA-NGO' [Democratic Alliance, political opposition party], but the guy running this program is a card-carrying member of the ANC. So politics doesn't spill out into our work area."

'Violence interrupters'

Despite a CV that "might not look very pretty", Pastor Engel underlines how crucial the much-disputed gang-background of his workers is to really have a stand in the community and be able to move between different gangs' territories.

One of the men with the know-how for the project is Colin, a bulky guy in his forties with a face that seems to tell a thousand stories he himself isn't quite willing to go into detail about. He carries an aura that says he means serious business. And he does. But now this business means peace making.

We are coming from that background and I got a second chance. And I want to tell those guys that there is a way out from where you are, because they are indoctrinated.

-Colin, former gang member

"From the age of 14, I belonged to one of the biggest gangs in the Western Cape, the Ugly American gang. I grew up in prison until I was about 35 and was involved with all three prison gangs, number 26, 27 and 28. I served two long terms, and some short terms. My last sentence was ten years," he says by way of introduction to his background.

After spending some time in rehabilitation, Colin turned his life around, helped other drug addicts in different programs and then joined Hanover Park's Ceasefire project to work as a "violence interrupter" and give back to his community.

"We are coming from that background and I got a second chance. And I want to tell those guys that there is a way out from where you are, because they are indoctrinated. They believe there is no other way for them. I lived to die when I was on the streets. There was no other reason for me to be alive. That's what keeps you active."

Now his job is to mingle with the gangs he has left behind and mediate when trouble is in sight. This close relationship seems to be a thorn in the side of the national police service SAPS, especially because the Ceasefire workers often end up being the first on the scene when a shooting happens.

"They think they could do a lot with our information, but if we share that kind of information we lose our credibility on the ground," says Engel. "The gangs trust us, they sort of listen to us and hold back on shootings and discuss with us how they can mediate the conflict before they start shooting. We are cool with the local police force, we're only having trouble with SAPS."

The Ceasefire project was under high scrutiny in the beginning, when people wanted to see whether any information would be given to the police or other authorities. "Outreach-worker" Clint still remembers his breakthrough in a time of gang wars in Hanover Park. During an assignment in the street, he was arrested and spent a night in prison.

"The guys I was arrested with had a lot of respect, they said: 'Wow, this guy was standing on the corner, he didn't know anything and he didn't once snitch or say that he wasn't with us.'"

Many of the community leaders, like Maureen Asvoel from the Chrystal High School governing body, think that the program's focus on the criminal scene might be too limited: "I think it's a bit too far fetched from the rest of the community. It should include more community leaders and organisers. Because then there would be more support. There needs to be more awareness about what the project is all about. People just don't know."

With the city of Cape Town backing them, the project is bound to expand. Pastor Issel Simmers offered these remarks about a situation nobody seems to have the perfect solution for: "When we asked the ANC to bring in the army to minimse the violence, they refused. Now we have something in place and now they criticise that. You cannot criticize things when you don't do anything yourself."

Source: Al Jazeera