In this story we meet Sinethemba, a former gang member who shares his journey of how he became a number ‘28’ and how he turned his life around.
Sinethemba Gcwabe, 29, grew up in Khayelitsha, ‘my parents were only 19 when they had me, so from a young age I lived with my grandmother. Not to have a mother or a father figure was hard but we did had some good times. The hardest was to live in a small shack with 10 people, we were seven grandchildren what made it impossible to have any personal space.’
Sinethemba’s grandmother ran a tight household, ‘we went to church and she pushed me in my studies. In primary school I was doing well.’ But Sinethemba’s grandmother was getting old and when she finally retired, she decided to go back to the Eastern Cape to take care of her family home.
At the age of 12, Sinethemba was given to his father’s side of the family. ‘My father didn’t stay there. To date, I have never had a relationship with my parents, they never visited me. As long as I can remember, my father was a drunk and despite some efforts from my side to get to know him, we have never spent half an hour together.’
‘Moving from a stable home, to my aunt who was a Sangoma (a traditional African healer) was difficult. At my aunt’s house there was no structure and alcohol was freely used for the traditional rituals. At the age of 13, I started drinking. I had friends who drank on weekends and peer-pressure hit me hard. I didn’t have anyone in my family who tried to stop me. I was left to my own device.’
Sinethemba started to hang around with the wrong crowd. ‘My new friends had nice clothes and always money to drink. At first, I didn’t know they were doing house break-ins in the white suburbs. When they told me, I succumbed and joinined in.’ It wasn’t long before I was caught and sent to prison for the first time at the age of 16. I was sent to Pollsmoor prison, got out and got caught immediately again. This time, I was sentence to five months and it was here where I was introduced to the gang life.’
‘In prison you are given a choice. Join a gang or forget your human dignity. I chose the “28” because their members were my “home boys”. I was afraid that if I didn’t join I was going to be treated differently. I would be forced to do gang members’ chores and I would become their wife. Joining the ‘28’ introduced me to a different world with more violence.
After Sinethemba was released, he naturally progress to more violent crimes. Armed robberies and hijackings happened often during weekends. ‘I felt powerful, before I was nobody and now I felt people respected me.’
Sinethemba continued attending school during the day, ‘incredibly although I did not pass, I finished matric in 2004. By then I was deep in the gang lifestyle. It supported me financially; ironically it also made me feel safer. It gave me a sense of belonging, something I had lost with my family. I knew this had become my way of living, as no one leaves the gang alive.’
‘I was trapped in the cycle.’ In 2005 Sinethemba was caught again for the serious crime of hijacking and attempted murder. ‘I shot the driver and I was sentenced to 10 years in prison.’
‘I was transferred to Drakenstein prison and everything shattered. It made me think about life and what really matters the most. Prison makes you hopeless, I continued being in the gang but I started changing. I got inspired to study mechanical engineering and for the first time I start believing that I might be able to do something else. Unfortunately, I was transferred back to Pollsmore, as it was assumed they had more resources. However, I was unable to finish my course due to lack of funding.’
‘In spite of this, the transfer introduced me to a lifesaving organisation. ‘I was attracted by the concept of playing soccer, I had always enjoyed playing and the game gave me a sense of freedom. I was finally doing something that I loved, it brought me back to being a child. For the first time in a long time, I felt happy, free and loved.’
‘The program also offered life skills and bible studies. This began to reshape my way of thinking. I remember one session in particular, we were asked the question ‘who are you?’ A million thoughts began to go through my mind; some positive but the majority negative. It triggered a lot of emotions, I felt ashamed for all the wrongs I had made and I felt angry about my past. It was the first time I really began to understand all the hurt I had inside of me and all the hurt I had cause. It seemed I had spent my life in a dormant status.’
‘I understood that if I didn’t go to the root of the problem, no matter what skills I was given, it would be short lived because the problem would rise again. This would trigger me to go back to my old ways. I also understood how prison and gangs destroyed my way of thinking as I was always told what to do. It reduced my confidence to think for myself and to make my own choices.’
The organisation reunited Sinethemba with his family, ‘I was surprise they accepted to be part of the program. We were finally able to reconcile after many years. This gave me back a sense of belonging, something to look forward after prison.’
Turning your back on the gang is an almost impossible thing to do, ‘in gangs there is a golden rule, “one way in and NO way out”, so I knew making this decision would have potentially fatal repercussions to me. I had recruited many members, who had become my “sons” and I was their role model. It became dangerous for me in prison and I had to restrict my movements. If I went to certain areas of the prison they would have killed me. Fortunately the organisation had its own cell, so as long as I stayed there I was safe.’
Sinethemba continued to excel in the program and successfully graduated. He was released from prison six months ago, on 14th January 2014. ‘When I was released, I had many fears. I feared that I might once again not be accepted. I had changed but would people give me a chance, would people give me a job. I pushed myself through as I knew that if I wanted to motivate others I needed to motivate myself. This was my last chance and there was no way I would ruin it.’
Sinethemba was taken as a volunteer with Ambassadors Football, the organisation who ran the program in prison. ‘I am a coach to inmates, I went back to my electrical engineering studies and I have also decided to further my education in theology. I work with the church and in community development, running a football club and doing work related with substance abuse and gangsterism. I want to become the role model I never had, I want to be a leader and I want to be a good father one day.’
‘I am passionate about justice; I feel through my own experience that everyone has the right to dignity. Despite our actions, we all possess the power to change if given the right tools and support. This is the reason I choose to go back to prison as a free man each week. I want to continue inspire change.’
Sinethemba works for Ambassadors Football