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
HHE PULLED HIMSELF UP,
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.