South Africa: Escaping gangland through Islam

In Cape Town’s Hanover Park, former gang members who found Islam are giving youth an exit strategy from violence.

South Africa
Abduraghmaan 'Abi' Ruiters displays his BSK [Backstreets Kids] gang tattoo [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera]

Hanover Park, South Africa – Abduraghmaan “Abi” Ruiters pulls up his sleeves to reveal scars from gunshot wounds alongside his tattoos. These are the markings of more than a decade spent with the Backstreets Kids gang in the troubled Cape Town community of Hanover Park.

“I was shot two times in this arm, and two times in my leg,” Abi told Al Jazeera.

At the base of his neck is a scar from a stabbing. “I was almost – you see,” he said, letting a rueful laugh punctuate a story that could have easily ended with “killed”.

That was a decade ago. Today, Abi and another former Backstreets Kids member – Khiyaam Frey, a convicted murderer – work as councillors for Hanover Park’s Ceasefire programme. Ceasefire employs a team of 10 ex-gangsters as part of a violence-prevention model that works to stop its spread in communities by detecting and interrupting conflict, identifying and treating high-risk individuals, and changing social norms.

Abi and Frey are also Muslim and their faith was instrumental in helping them exit gang life, they said.

“Things changed when I got out of prison [after serving nine years for murder],” said Frey. “My friends were shot dead. I lost a lot of friends. I decided to change my life religion-wise.”

Khiyaam Frey, at the Ceasefire office, shows news clippings detailing gang violence [Dariusz Dziewanski] 
Khiyaam Frey, at the Ceasefire office, shows news clippings detailing gang violence [Dariusz Dziewanski] 

Doing time

Though he served time in prison as well, Abi’s turning point only came when he met and married his wife – a follower of Islam. Becoming a Muslim gave him “a belief system” that he could look to as he made his way out of gang life.

Both now employ Islam in the work they do to prevent gang violence. As Ceasefire councillors, they are trained extensively in violence mediation. But each also rely on other means when preaching Ceasefire’s doctrine of non-violence, often drawing on their personal experiences as gang members or applying their faith to relate to youth involved in gangsterism.

In Hanover Park, roughly half the population is Muslim and half is Christian.

“It was conscious that we could also recruit an interrupter that could also speak to the Muslim community … and is credible with the high-risk Muslims that’s already in the gangs,” explained Pastor Craven Engel, founder of First Community Resource Centre, out of which Ceasefire operates.

According to Abi, “To the Christian people … I only talk what I learned from the Ceasefire manual.”

But when working with gang members that share his faith, “I give [them] the Ceasefire manual, then afterwards I come with my religion … because they understand man.”

A typical council flat in Cape Town's Hanover Park [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera] 
A typical council flat in Cape Town’s Hanover Park [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera] 

Marginalised to radicalised

Hanover Park is situated about a 20-minute drive outside of Cape Town’s picturesque city centre, in a patchwork of impoverished and neglected communities known as the Cape Flats. In many such communities, gangs and violence are a part of everyday life.

A recent survey of Hanover Park adolescents aged 12-15 years found that 93.1 percent had been exposed to more than one type of violence.

Youth in communities such as Hanover Park are often pushed onto the streets because of problems at home, and into gangs for protection or for respect, in circumstances that are lacking sufficient opportunities for jobs or empowerment.

As a result of these conditions, City of Cape Town authorities estimate there are between 100 to 120 gangs in Western Cape Province, with membership ranging from 80,000 to 100,000.

Abi linked radicalisation among international religious movements and recruitment into gangs in the Cape Flats.

“You know why the people are [radicalised], it’s because they are oppressed and poor.” With gangs, “it’s more like the same thing… There’s nothing going good in the house and no jobs, it drives him to the corner.”

From there, youngsters as young as 10 are deliberately targeted for recruitment and manipulated into joining a gang with money, clothes, and drugs.

Tathir Kelly displays his gang tattoos [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera]
Tathir Kelly displays his gang tattoos [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera]

A menace no more

In addition to heading off gang disputes, the Ceasefire programme also helps young men and women quit gang life.

Tathir Kelly is a 31-year-old Muslim currently in a six-week rehabilitation programme. Looking back on his life, Kelly admitted, “I was a menace.”

A former member of the Terrible Westsiders, Kelly was in prison for four years, awaiting trial for 14 attempted murders, all of which were eventually thrown out.

But even as a self-proclaimed menace, Kelly described how Islam provided a positive influence on his life. On holy days, he said, “[Islam] was my heart. If I had a gun and I see my enemy, I would not shoot him. I would let him go, because if I shoot him in that time, it’s a bad sin.”

Now, Kelly said, “There are no more thoughts for me to be a gangster … I won’t take up a gun any more.”

Kelly’s six-week programme will be over soon. “I’ll finish on the first day of Ramadan… After [my] fast, I am a changed person. I can put my life on it.”

Tathir Kelly during his six-week programme at Camp Joy, Ceasefire's rehabilitation centre [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera]
Tathir Kelly during his six-week programme at Camp Joy, Ceasefire’s rehabilitation centre [Dariusz Dziewanski/Al Jazeera]

Dropping out

Yet, leaving gang life is extraordinarily difficult. In a context where gang membership is defined by a motto of “blood in, and blood out”, piety provides one of the few means of exiting gangs, other than prison or death.

“In a gang culture, you can’t just drop out without a valid reason – like religion,” Frey said. “And so my religion was a foundation for me. And that is how I did go out of the gang.”

Religion is also one of few social resources available in a community where opportunities for empowerment and employment are scarce. In this context, Islam provides not only a belief system but also a community and identity outside of gang life.

Ceasefire’s statistics further suggest the potential of religion – and specifically Islam – to interrupt violence.

As described by Pastor Engel, “Friday is a religious day for Muslim people. But Thursday is perceived as a religious calm-down. So they are in preparation for this day. So these two days, there is practically no shooting.”

The same is not true of Saturdays and Sundays, however.

So, it is by harnessing the power of their faith, Ceasefire training, and personal determination that Abi and Frey work to reduce gang violence in Hanover Park. In doing so, they hope to inspire change in their community by helping young men such as Kelly turn their lives around.

“Because we did see in ourselves man, we did change,” said Abi.

Muslim faith can play a fundamental role in such a transformation, Frey added.

“[Islam] is a great example for the community … if you do it in the right way and believe that things can change. It’s just that you must believe – with a clean heart, a clean mind – that things can change.”

Follow Dariusz Dziewanski on Twitter: @ddziewan

Source: Al Jazeera