Editor’s note: Matt Tennyson is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa and editor of Hipe online magazine.
At first glance Tyrone seems no different to any other 13 year old boy. Put him in a group of boys his age and there is nothing that would make him stand out. It’s only when you dig a bit deeper that you begin to discover that Tyrone is very different to most 13 year olds.
He dropped out of school at the age of 10. At the age of 11 he was addicted to crystal methamphetamine. He was only 12 when he shot his first person. By the time he became a teenager Tyrone was a well-known ‘shooter’ for a gang and had already been identified as a ‘high-risk individual’.
Now in many communities this would elicit a gasp of shock at the very least. But Tyrone is not from a normal community. On the Cape Flats of South Africa Tyrone is regarded as the norm rather than the exception.
The Problem in Cape Flats
Like many countries around the world South Africa sits with a problem of gangs and gangsterism. Gangs range from highly organized and powerful crime syndicates to small street gangs. Yet nowhere in South Africa are gangs more of a problem than in the area known as the Cape Flats.
At the age of 10 Tyrone became a ‘runner’ for the gang that controlled the area where he lived. He would carry parcels of drugs from one place to another. Sometimes he would be required to take a firearm and deliver it to someone.
“The cops usually wouldn’t stop and search a lightie (small boy) like me,” he says. “I was always given something for it, either money or tik. I eventually became a shooter. It’s kwaai (cool) because no-one expects some lightie to come up to them and pop a cap in their ass.”
“You can’t live in an area and not be part of a gang,” Tyrone explains. “It offers you an income, safety and a feeling of belonging. And anyway there’s not much else to choose from.”
A gang that controls an area also controls everything that happens in that area. This includes the sale of narcotics, gambling, the sale of alcohol and any type of criminal activity. They will go to any lengths to defend their territory. And often this leads to violence.
“The gangs are a major problem,” a law enforcement office told us on condition that we did not publish his name. “And it’s a problem that is not going to go away.” ]
While tackling the issue of gangs and the criminal activity associated with them remains a priority for the authorities, there is something that was even more vital – to reduce the violence and death rate.
A Cure Violence Solution
It was with this in focus that Cure Violence, called Operation Ceasefire in Cape Town, was launched as a pilot project in Hanover Park, a fairly small township on the outskirts of Cape Town. While Hanover Park is small the rate of murder and attempted murder was anything but.
Ceasefire makes use of violence interrupters and councillors. The job of the violence interrupters is to attempt to stop a violent incident from taking place. If there has already been a violent incident they will attempt to stop any retaliation from taking place. Once a high-risk individual is identified a councillor will attempt to work with them and get them to become a member of the Ceasefire program aimed at rehabilitating them.
And it’s a project that is working. During the first year murder and attempted murder in Hanover Park was reduced by more than 50 percent.
Building New Norms
My personal involvement with Ceasefire came about when a friend, John Verster and I, were asked to produce a short video about the project. John and I are both freelance journalists that run a small video project called Two Grumpy Old Men.
While we were making the video we met Tyrone and were so moved by what we experienced that we wanted to do more to help reduce violence in Cape Flats. So we decided to hold a short course in video production to give the youth something to do other than participate in violence—much like the project we were documenting to begin with, we were trying to shift norms.
The aim was simple–show them how to use cameras, how to script and storyboard a video, how to film it, and finally how to edit it. The object was to let them each produce their own short clip which we would then upload to YouTube. If there clip was viewed by enough people they could then make something from it. We thought that we would at least have four or five youngsters interested. We were very wrong on that one.
There was no way we could cope with the numbers that turned up. The two cameras we own would never be enough to go around. We had to divide them up into groups and give them turns at using the cameras. The excitement and enthusiasm was overwhelming.
“I think I can make some lekker (nice) videos,” Tyrone told us. “Maybe even one day I can make a movie that everyone wants to watch. If I can do something like that then I won’t have to be in a gang because I know that if I carry on like this I’m going to end up in prison, or in the cemetery.”
We would love to run projects like this on an on-going basis as while the youth are busy doing something like this they are not taking or selling drugs, not shooting anyone, and most importantly, not risking the health repercussions of living in violence. Yet we are not able to fund something like this out of our own pocket. We need extra equipment, staff and a bigger infrastructure. If you have any suggestions please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Cape Flats violence is a problem, but there is a cure for violence—and we hope our project can continue to contribute to it.