Over a 9 day period in December, a Peace Agreement was signed by 5 youth gangs. Each group is comprised of approximately 15 boys between 15 and 20 years of age, living in 4 geographic areas or Locations (former townships). Much of Jim’s time since returning to South Africa has been devoted to establishing relationships with the members of each group, and building on those relationships to facilitate a path to peace.
The process included face-to-face meetings between a few boys from each group, such that the boys could hear firsthand that their enemies wanted peace. Three meetings were at a neutral site selected by Jim, and one was at the police station with 3 officers in attendance. Only in the presence of police did the latter group feel sufficiently safe to attend without weapons.
Gangsterism is a huge problem in South Africa. Any reference to gangs, including youth gangs, can understandably elicit a negative reaction from many individuals. While no form of aggression or criminal activity should be condoned, it is important to differentiate between gangsterism with the purpose of criminal activity (e.g. illicit drug trade), and youth gangs fighting over territorial disputes (turf), girls, or seeking revenge for having been stabbed in the past.
For the purpose of this blog post, the term youth gangs shall be used to describe the category of gang involvement which does not include criminal activity as its purpose. For obvious reasons, none of the boys personal or gang names will be mentioned in this post.
We understand if you are wondering how our stated purpose in South Africa would include gang-involved youth. Aside from benefiting the boys who are directly involved, peace between fighting gangs greatly enhances safety for school teachers, students who are not gang-involved, and the community at large.
While many fights occur away from school where the boys live, some stabbings also occur on school premises or immediately outside the school gate. Knowing that gang-involved students may bring weapons to school and that a fight could occur during or after school hours poses an ongoing distraction to students and teachers alike. Enemy gangs can also target the younger siblings of gang-involved youth, as they provide an indirect means of punishing your enemy.
Much has been written about why boys and men join gangs, and some of that research has been referenced and quoted in previous blog posts. With youth gangs, the motivation often stems from perceived necessity; namely the belief that one is safer belonging to a gang, carrying a knife or weapon, and walking to/from school with “your crew” to protect against the risk of attack from enemies.
While it is true that some youth gang members are involved in crime against innocent individuals, such as robbing people on the street or stealing from homes and businesses, we would contend that the majority of the boys are not involved in these types of crimes. Drug use tends to be the primary reason for those who do steal, in particular crystal methampehtamine (known as “Tik” in South Africa). Most of the the 5-6 boys currently awaiting trial are facing assault charges from having stabbed a member of an enemy gang.
Shortly after a Truce was signed in April 2015 between 3 youth gangs (different gangs than the 5 who signed the December 2018 Peace Agreement), one of the leaders said to Jim: “you trusted us, so we trusted you”.
If we wait to be trusted before granting trust, the wait may be long. Particularly with at-risk youth whose trust has been violated in the past.
Individuals and organisations wanting to connect with disenfranchised youth living in circumstances which include poverty, drugs, and violence have a powerful set of tools at their disposal. Open, honest, non-judgemental communication in a manner which reflects affinity and a desire to help is more likely to prove effective than lectures, punishment, or violence.
When combined with kindness, empathy, and humour, don’t be surprised if troubled young people soon feel sufficiently safe to reveal the wrongs they have committed and express a desire for change.
Members of Group 1 and 2 signing the Peace Agreement. The background in the following photos serves as examples of living conditions and the environment.
Groups 1 and 2, moments after signing the Peace Agreement.
Group 3, moments after signing the Peace Agreement.
Group 3 displaying the signed Peace Agreement in the shack where they hang out.
Group 4, moments after signing the Agreement in the shack where one of the boys lives.
As soon as the 5 groups expressed interest in a Peace Agreement, the situation on the streets started to change. Even before the Agreement was signed, Jim started noticing guys walking through their former enemies’ Locations. It was strange to see, and initially concerning. But each gang started to relate similar stories: “I was able to walk to the health clinic for the first time in years”. “It’s okay Jim, we are friends now”.
There remains much more to accomplish. Schools re-open January 9th for the first time since the Peace Agreement was signed, meaning increased contact between members of the 5 groups. Opportunities such as vocational skills-training are needed for the boys who dropped out of school or were forced to leave due to fighting or stabbing at school. Maintaining peace now becomes the priority.
“If you want to know a person’s true character, observe how he treats those who don’t matter”. Matshona Dhliwayo
Thank you for your continued interest and support,
Janet and Jim