Ten former criminals are mediating between gangs to halt a vicious cycle of murder and retaliation in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood just outside of Cape Town. The unusual concept has halved gang-related killings in the area since 2013.
Hanover Park, South Africa (dpa) – Wilfred Mckay drives slowly through the streets of Hanover Park, one of South Africa’s most violent ganglands. His window is wound all the way down. With a big smile, he waves at pedestrians.
“Hello, how are you?” Mckay shouts across the street. Some people wave back. Others walk up to the car to chat.
Mckay is part of a CeaseFire Team that aims to stop a vicious cycle of gang-related murder in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood, where dozens of people get shot each month. It is located only 20 kilometres from popular tourist destination Cape Town.
Through casual conversations with residents, Mckay receives valuable information and tip-offs about the mobs.
About 10 different gangs fight for territory in Hanover Park, and residents are often literally caught in the crossfire. Children have been killed by stray bullets on their way to school and on the soccer field.
In January, the project recorded 232 shots fired. Nine people were shot, of which two died. ++how is it funded
“And that’s a good month,” says Protestant pastor Craven Engel, who founded the CeaseFire Team with the help of NGOs upon realizing that the police was unable to contain crime levels.
“You’re in this hell,” the pastor sighs, pointing out of his office window. “…and you realize you’re not going to make an impact if you don’t do something drastically different.”
Engel employs 10 ex-gangsters, including Mckay, as “violence interrupters.” They are street-wise, have the respect of gang members and know the community. From afternoon until early morning, they make rounds to mediate and prevent violence.
Hanover Park is just one of many gang-controlled neighbourhoods in the Cape Flats, a highly-populated congregation of various townships and slums outside of Cape Town. With the success of the CeaseFire Team, Engel hopes to soon get the funding to expand the project to additional violence-ridden areas.
As Mckay drives on, he approaches a group of young men loitering in a side street. The 43-year-old stops the car and gets out. He knows the youths belong to a notorious gang, the Laughing Boys, which is involved in countless drug and turf wars.
Later this afternoon, the Laughing Boys will attend a mediation with a rival gang, the Americans, over a shooting the previous night. Mckay wants to gauge if they are willing to agree on a ceasefire.
Mckay knows how to talk to gangsters. He understands the codes, the gang’s internal structure and the way it operates. He was a criminal himself for more than 20 years, until he cleaned himself up eight years ago.
The CeaseFire project is an unusual approach to solving crime, but the Cape Town municipality gives it a big thumbs up.
“Gang culture is deeply ingrained [in the Cape Flats]. We have to work with that and cope with the reality on the ground,” says City of Cape Town safety and security official Jean-Pierre Smith.
The murder rate in the Cape Flats is one of the highest in the country, according to Smith, while the conviction rate for murder and attempted murder stands at a mere two per cent in the area.
“The CeaseFire project has resulted in a 50 per cent decrease in gang-related murders. It’s not a silver bullet, but it certainly reduces the harm and creates community stabilization,” says Smith.
Residents, who fear their children will be recruited by gangs, also welcome the project.
“This is a big problem. The [gangs] involve school children in drugs and prostitution,” resident Evelyn Williams told local radio station Eyewitness News.
Social disintegration, drug abuse, a crumbling education system and high unemployment make children easy targets.
Boys, but also girls, start joining gangs from the age of 11 in the Cape Flats. Last year, a nine-year-old shot and killed a person, the pastor recalls.
Since the CeaseFire Team has been operational, every shot that gets fired in Hanover Park is picked up by noise sensors that have been installed throughout the neighbourhood. The sensors send alerts to team members’ mobile phones. A map pops up, showing the exact location of the dispute.
“We rush to the scene and try to talk people down,” explains violence interrupter Colin Barends, 47, also a reformed gangster of 27 years.
It’s dangerous work, especially since violence interrupters are unarmed and get often caught in the crossfire.
But if they don’t do it, who else will, Barends says. “We treat violence like a disease. If there is a virus in the area, we work non-stop until it’s quarantined,” he concludes.

News Reporter