Look Out For Life Lines
24-year-old Loyiso Botha was stuck in a place in his life where gangs and prison felt like the only option. He tells us how changing his negative behavioural patterns has changed his life.
Born in Cape Town, Loyiso grew up in Langa with a single mom. There were ten in the house - four uncles, a younger brother (20), a sister (23) and twin brothers (7), so home life was busy and there was never time or privacy to have one-on-one conversations.
“My dad didn’t live with us, he lived in a neighbouring township called Khayelitsha. Even though I did not see him often, when we did see each other, it was an intimate time where we would have real conversations.”
Loyiso’s life took a downturn when he was 12 years old and his father passed away.
“It was a heavy time for me, I wanted to die too. I wanted to throw myself in front of a train. I had lost the only person that assisted me through difficult times. At school when I was beaten by teachers, he was there - he would help me and talk to the teachers. For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone.”
Loyiso said that this led to a change in his behaviour at school.
“I would be unruly at school – take other people’s things and beat them up. I had a lot of anger about my father’s death – my mother’s uncle spoke to me about my father and I found out that he was murdered by a policeman who shot him.”
While at school, Loyiso went to court to face his father’s killer.
“When I was at court and I looked at him, and hearing his statement, I found out my dad was involved in crime. I never knew that side of my father, he was always my hero. I felt he had lied to me all my life. I had relatives involved in gangs, but my father told me to stay out of it and warned me about the dangers of crime, so I took this news really badly.”
With no one to talk to, Loyiso’s disappointment towards his father turned into anger.
“I was angry with my dad and life, and I did not know how to deal with these feelings. The only people I felt I could reach out to were the gangsters in the area. They could connect with my pain and they made me feel like I belonged there.”
By the time he was 14, Loyiso’s life was off the rails and he was making many bad decisions.
“I was already smoking drugs at that time, everything from tik* to mandrax*.”
“I was in the Chicanos gang – one of the biggest gangs in the neighbourhood - and we would rob people. During that time, I could not go to school like other children, because I would feel threatened by the gangsters who would wait outside the gates. My school was in the rival gang territory, so they would target us. My mom would talk to me, often crying, asking me to leave the gang. But I felt like I couldn’t change so I dropped out of school when I was 15.”
“One day, I got arrested for robbing four ladies in the street. We had knives and guns and took their bags – we needed money for drugs. Six of us robbed them, I didn’t feel guilty, I was just desperate for my next fix. I ended up at the police station and was lucky that a social worker rescued me because I was underage. I was allowed to await trial at home for the next nine months.”
“I didn’t take awaiting trial seriously, I never thought that I would go to jail. It was my first offense and I had seen too many people awaiting trial that never went to jail. During that time, there were increased fights between our rival gangs. On one occasion, they came to our territory and robbed people, so we caught them, stripped and beat them. The police came and we were arrested.”
“At the police station they charged us with robbery. My friend and I were rescued again by the social worker, but because it was the second time, we were sent to a juvenile prison.”
“I was scared, I remember the first time I entered the cell, we were about 60 people in a small dark space. My friends knew people from Gugulethu so they gave us blankets to sleep on. The biggest thing that scared me was seeing the guys with tattoos on their faces. I couldn’t believe I was in prison, I felt helpless.”
Loyiso adapted quickly to prison life and he knew that in order to be protected, he needed to join a gang number.
“I chose the 26’s because I love money and was told that 26’s have money. The gang gave me direction and a false sense of protection, saying that I would be protected on the outside as well.”
Loyiso said that he only spent a little time in jail.
“On a few occasions, I thought about changing when I came out, but I always went back to the same friends. The problem with guys that come out of prison is that it’s only their old friends who want to associate with them. Once you realise this, you become more loyal to them. They were there for me from the time I was 12, so I couldn’t just leave them and put their lives in danger.”
Loyiso began stealing cars to make money.
“I got caught in Bonteheuwel; I was doing drugs in a car I had stolen. Police came to the car, shone their lights inside and fired a warning shot. They told me to get out of the car and lift up my hands. I spent the weekend at the police station, then went to court and then back to Pollsmoor Prison for bail application – I got bail and my mom came to fetch me.”
When Loyiso was finally sentenced, he was given five years in prison.
“I was sentenced in 2009. I was only 17 and sent to the Medium A section in Pollsmoor Prison. I felt miserable thinking I would spend the next five years in prison. My number brothers tried to console me by saying that at least it was not life in prison.”
“When I was about to turn 18, I was transferred to Drakenstein Correctional Centre. The new environment exposed me to new things in my life. I began to go to church and became a choir master. I also joined the inmate band and I went back to school, where I studied for a certificate in engineering.”
“I made the most of every opportunity there was. When organisations came to the prison to give workshops, I would be the first one to enrol. I became a sponge, I wanted to learn more and more.”
In 2012, Loyiso was offered amnesty due to exceptional behaviour, and he was released.
“When I was released, instead of going back to the gang and my usual friends, I went to the offices of one of the organisations that had worked with me in prison. I continued enrolling in courses and met former inmates who wanted to change their lives. Talking to them helped me to understand more about myself and reinforced the belief that I wanted to change my life.”
Today, Loyiso’s life is totally transformed.
“Currently I volunteer as a youth leader and facilitator for the organisation. I’m proud that I found myself and I know what I really want in life. I am certain that I don’t want to go back to prison and I want to help other youth. I also found a job at a children’s home as a child care worker.”
In conclusion, Loyiso says “even when you think you are in the deepest pit of your life, life still throws you ropes. It is up to you to hold onto one of them and pull yourself out.”
Loyiso is a YIPSA beneficiary and volunteer.