Meet the peace­keep­ers in the heart of gang­land

They put down their weapons, and lifted the ban­ner of peace. These for­mer gang mem­bers are now on the front lines, help­ing oth­ers do the same



his hands slip­ping in the blood that had pud­dled un­der­neath him. Why was he still alive? Sa­muel “Sammy” Ger­well felt dazed and dis­ori­ented. He took care­ful steps towards the door of his home, where – just mo­ments ear­lier – a gun­man from a ri­val gang had barged in and opened fire on his friends and his girl­friend. The fi­nal rounds were meant for Sammy: four bul­lets were now buried in the wall be­hind him, an­other had grazed his arm, and the fi­nal shot had hit his head.

When he left his Mitchells Plain home that night, stum­bling into the dark, res­i­dents saw a dead man walk­ing. Later, the doc­tors saw a man who shouldn’t be alive, a man who had been shot at point-blank range, the bul­let pass­ing through his head and burst­ing through his palate. But Sammy saw a new path: a way out.


“They talk to us be­cause they trust us,” says Sammy.

He’s sit­ting in­side a board­room at the of­fices of CeaseFire in Hanover Park, a cramped space bathed in muted win­ter sun­light. Around here, he’s no longer a mem­ber of the Amer­i­cans – one of the ma­jor gangs vy­ing for con­trol in an end­less turf war, in the sprawl­ing neigh­bour­hoods of the Cape Flats. That’s a gang he used to carry a gun for, a gang he used to kill for, and a gang he was ready to die for. But now he’s try­ing to help other mem­bers find a way out, to put down their weapons and fol­low in his foot­steps.

It’s what’s at the heart of what it means to be an In­ter­rupter – to step into the bat­tle­field, be­tween the gangs and their re­cruits: “To go out there and show them there’s an­other way.”

Sammy has been train­ing for the po­si­tion with CeaseFire since he first joined the or­gan­i­sa­tion as a care­taker, af­ter his brush with death in 2014. They’re a small crew of ex­gang­sters, still with strong ties to their for­mer broth­er­hoods. But more im­por­tantly, they are ex­am­ples of a life out­side of the gang ecosys­tem that ex­ists, and it gets bet­ter.

If you’d told the young Sammy the same thing – a fresh-faced 11-year-old then, re­cently re­lo­cated to the heart of the Cape’s gang­land from Port El­iz­a­beth – he would have laughed. He would’ve told you: “You sound just like my fa­ther”.

“My dad was a hard­work­ing man,” says Sammy. “He worked day and night to make sure we were taken care of.”

Sammy’s par­ents were sup­port­ive. And when his mother died, his older sis­ter stepped up to fill the void left by her sud­den de­par­ture.

But the eth­i­cal way, knuck­ling down and mak­ing an hon­est liv­ing, just wasn’t pay­ing

div­i­dends. Sammy would walk out­side in a pair of scuffed loafers and hand-me-down threads, only to be con­fronted by a tat­tooed hu­man bill­board, ad­ver­tis­ing the life he could have right now.

“I thought to my­self, look at these guys – they’re wear­ing Nikes, they get all the girls; and they work to­gether, they would die for each other,” he says.

Look­ing back, join­ing a gang was an or­ganic process, a rite of pas­sage for a young man find­ing his place on the Flats.

At the age of 13, Sammy was ar­rested and sen­tenced to two years at the Tokai Re­for­ma­tory School. Then, at 14, he spent 18 months in Pollsmoor Prison, while cus­to­di­ans brain­stormed whether an­other stint at Tokai would do more harm than good.

Af­ter his re­lease, he was stabbed in the neck. The at­tack left the right side of his body paral­ysed, and he was con­fined to a wheel­chair.

“You know, I ex­pected some­thing like this. They tell you the only way you’ll fin­ish with the gangs is dead or in a wheel­chair.”

But Sammy wasn’t ready to quit. He claims he forced him­self to stand up, to walk – and to fight again. In­stead of a wake-up call, the at­tack and in­jury had fired up his fe­roc­ity. Over the next few years he was in and out of jail, serv­ing sen­tences for armed rob­bery, drug pos­ses­sion, prison fights and theft. At the age of 22 he be­came a mem­ber of the 28s: a bru­tal prison gang, the bas­tardised rul­ing class be­hind bars.

“There were times I tried to get clean,” he ad­mits. “When I got mar­ried and had a son, I avoided drugs and I got a real job.”

Those mo­ments of so­bri­ety were brief; small mo­ments of tran­quil­ity, punc­tu­at­ing the chaotic lan­guage of vi­o­lence that had be­come Sammy’s only con­ver­sa­tion with the world.

By the time the gun­man barged into his

home on 16 June 2014, Sammy had ac­cepted his fate: that he would die a gang­ster, as a mem­ber of the Amer­i­cans and the 28s. The at­tempt on his life was the apex of the es­ca­lat­ing gang vi­o­lence in the area, with shoot-outs ev­ery night for the past month.

As the first bul­let grazed his arm, Sammy was so high he barely even re­alised what was hap­pen­ing.

“And then I was wak­ing up on the ground,” he says.


It was on one of sev­eral trips to the hospi­tal that Sammy knew he was des­tined for a dif­fer­ent path. The hole in his mouth could be fixed with re­con­struc­tive surgery; but the void in­side him – which had opened on his ini­ti­a­tion into the gangs, and fes­tered ev­ery day he spent in the ranks of the Amer­i­cans and the 28s – would re­quire far more work to seal.

That was when he ap­proached Pas­tor Craven En­gel, also known as The Ea­gle, who runs the CeaseFire pro­gram in Hanover Park.

“I begged them – I said I needed their help, I would do any­thing to leave the gangs be­hind,” says Sammy.

CeaseFire, a Cure Vi­o­lence ini­tia­tive, was founded by Pro­fes­sor Gary Slutkin, for­mer head of the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s In­ter­ven­tion De­vel­op­ment Unit, and is a model that has been im­ple­mented in eight coun­tries spread over five con­ti­nents. CeaseFire Hanover Park is also par­tially funded by the City of Cape Town.

Pas­tor En­gel says the aim of CeaseFire is to re­duce vi­o­lence in the area, through curb­ing the num­ber of shoot­ings – many of which claim the lives of in­no­cent vic­tims in the cross­fire.

“We treat vi­o­lence like a dis­ease,” he says. “We look at the trans­porter of vi­o­lence – the gang mem­ber – and we quar­an­tine him; then we look at who is most likely to get the dis­ease, and who he can con­tam­i­nate. We help them al­ter their be­hav­iour, and of­fer them a bet­ter life.”

Sammy was re­ha­bil­i­tated by the or­gan­i­sa­tion through a six-week in-house pro­gramme at Camp Joy in Strand­fontein, where he re­ceived treat­ment such as anger man­age­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion train­ing, skills de­vel­op­ment and speech ther­apy.

It’s what the Pas­tor calls “cool­ing down the brain”.

For Sammy, and many oth­ers, it worked. He no longer wakes up to hunt down drugs, drawn to the flick­er­ing flame of vi­o­lence. Now, he fo­cuses on what’s most im­por­tant to him: work. “I’ve re­alised I love to work – I love to be busy.” In part, be­com­ing an In­ter­rupter is what has kept Sammy so driven. For a man who loves to work, step­ping into such a cov­eted po­si­tion is a labour of love.

Khiyaam Frey, who also works as an In­ter­rupter, says: “This job, you have to do with a lot of heart. Peo­ple’s lives are at stake; and if we are able to save a life, we will.

“One of the most dif­fi­cult things about changing your life is that you will al­ways get those peo­ple who will hold the past against you. Peo­ple judge you on your tat­toos. They call you a skol­lie. But even skol­lies can change.”

Khiyaam turns around to re­veal large, bold let­ter­ing on his jacket, a new brand: “CEASEFIRE”.

It’s an in­signia he car­ries with dig­nity as he walks into the old bat­tle­grounds – not as a fighter, but as a peace­keeper.

It’s where he’ll find gang­sters who are re­sis­tant to change. Who might even try to chase him out. That’s how Tasleem “Tassie” John­son felt when the In­ter­rupters first walked into the Val­ley of Plenty when he was a gang­ster.

“I told them to leave, to get out of here,” he laughs.

Gang­ster­ism is a fam­ily busi­ness. The John­son men don’t think twice be­fore en­ter­ing the fold of the Mon­grels, one of the Flats’ most no­to­ri­ous gangs. It’s been that way for gen­er­a­tions.

But when Tassie re­alised he needed to be a strong role model for his son, that he couldn’t bear to watch his child adopt the same lan­guage of vi­o­lence he had learnt from his own fa­ther, he knew he needed to change.

Now, he’s the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s youngest In­ter­rupter. There have been at­tempts on his life, threats to his fam­ily. But he re­alises he has a unique gift. “No­body else can do what we can do,” he says. “It’s only be­cause we’ve lived the life we have, that we can save the lives we save now.”

“Peo­ple­judgeyou ony­our­tat­toos. Th­ey­cal­ly­oua

skol­lie. Buteven skol­lies­can­change.”

BOUND BY BLOOD Tassie John­son knew he couldn’t be a good role model to his son if he stuck with the gangs.

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