One Day With Gangsters
Some of us started the day with a sunrise walk, others with an infamous early surf session, while others enjoyed sleeping in. As the midday sun peaked, we were all excited to leave our hostel to start another planned activity – the Gangster Museum. Some of us took museum literally and as a rare opportunity to dress up. It wasn’t until we were sitting in the Uber when Rob told us that the museum is actually just a re-used shipping container in Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha.
One of our Uber drivers, Basil was confused and repeatedly asked if we were sure about our destination. He clearly wasn’t feeling confident about dropping off his clients in a neighbourhood known for gang violence and its high rate of crime. Indeed, Khayelitsha belongs to one of the three most dangerous townships in Cape Town, together with Nyanga and Mitchell’s Plain, but we were determined. After passing several long stretches of wild and deserted beaches, we reached the shanty towns of Khayelitsha; correlated tin homes precariously scattered on sand dunes, football fields inhabited by cattle, and then our destination, an area of RDP government housing; small and sufficient brick bungalows where our tour would take place.
Turning a few corners around the township, our driver delivered us to the museum. It was a small, dusty plot of land with a resting area and the museum itself. The outdoor resting area used old advertisements on the floor as a carpet, old tires as chairs, a slab of wood coloured to serve as a chessboard, and beer bottle caps used as chess pieces. There were three men engaged in a tournament laughing a joking. Behind this DIY board game, there was the shipping container as expected, painted black decorated with the sign ’18 Gangster Museum.’
The museum’s name derives from South Africa’s three operating “numbers gangs:” the 26s, 27s and 28s. The sum of the numbers equals 81, which when reversed, is 18 – an age when youngsters transition into adulthood and are commonly confronted with the harsh consequences of joining a gang. Reversing the number from 81 to 18 also symbolizes the hopeful parting of an individual’s way from the dark to the light side.
Wandisile, our lively guide, greeted us. We began with a walk around the neighborhood, and even though Wandisile was the one telling us about the area, he was not the only one walking with us; two other men casually but mindfully escorted us, one in the front and one in the back, keeping an eye on suspicious looking vehicles or potential trouble. They were jokingly introduced to us as our “safeguards.” I let out a skeptical laugh – was it a joke or did our eleven group members actually need three locals to chaperone us for security?
Our first stop was a small kindergarten. The teacher explained the educational methods she used to organize the young children’s days, which wasn’t very different from what we were used to seeing in the northern hemisphere. But I believe that they wanted to present us with a positive side of the township to soften the outsiders’ stereotypes of townships being purely gang-operated with no room for the normalities of day to day life.
As we continued our tour through the streets, we inundated our guide with endless questions. He seemed to be very popular in the community, as many that crossed our way came to greet him and shake hands.
The more observant of our group noticed a modified low-rider BMW cruise past us with five men inside, then suddenly turn back to scope us out. In the end it was a misread, but cleary we were not regulars to this area. They weren’t our only spectators; as a Golden Arrow bus rolled by, we caught the inquisitive gaze of almost all of its passengers.
Our next stop brought us to a turquoise shipping container sat on a street corner – one of the many informal businesses in the neighbourhood. The man who ran the place was sitting inside with a sewing machine repairing clothes. When he saw us, he waved and opened the caged door into his shop. We learned that his other business offerings included shoe-repairing and a barbershop. Ostensibly, the only thing he needed for all these three occupations was this one metal shack. He told us that he’s originally from Ghana. Though economic immigrants like him travel to Cape Town from all over sub-Saharan Africa seeking for job opportunities and better life, they often struggle to find it. It was promising, therefore, to see that he was well-integrated and accepted by the community.
After we finished the tour around the township, we stepped into the shipping-container museum. It was divided into two parts. The first part was a wall-display of the tragic personal story of an ex-gangster and his slow decent into the underworld, and on the opposite side of the container was the optimistic version of his life had he not gotten involved into gangsterism.
Our guide, one of the men we had seen playing chess earlier, explained that since he was a teenager he had been a troubled kid; recalling the day he was told that his mom wasn’t his mother by blood, and that a few weeks later she passed away. This was the breaking point in his life, and when he got involved in the 28 gang. And, as he began doing things that gangsters are supposed to do, he ended up in a prison.
The second part of the shipping-container and the final part of the tour brought us to a makeshift prison cell which we were locked inside to give us a brief sense of the claustrophobia, and to represent the place where our next guide and ex-gangster had spent seven years of his life. The artificial prison cell comprised of a bunk bed, a metal toilet, and a sink, with only a small amount of natural light coming from a hole in the door. Before the tour started, we noticed he had been using the top bunk to rest; this was a surprisingly desensitized attitude towards a place representing years of imprisonment. He slammed the metal door, locked it, and began to tell us his story. He belonged to the 27s and was imprisoned for seven years for a murder he had committed. Being free for two years now, he described how important it was for him to become “clean” once he left prison, especially because of his son, who was born during his time there. What made his story more real was the fact that his son was actually just outside in the courtyard.
Both the ex-gangsters who shared their stories with us expressed a welcoming attitude to have new members join their team. The museum represents a place where ex-gangsters can find relative safety in a new beginning by working with community leaders. The fact that they used to be in gangs and are not anymore was surprising to us; as far as we thought, the only way to get out of a gang was death. Despite hearing both stories, I’m still unsure how it’s possible to leave a gang. I also think that repeating the same story several times a week makes them lose interest in sharing every detail. Even though they shared very personal stories with us, it was not very personal.
After our two hours spent in Khayelitsha, it was time to say goodbye with a lot of thoughts left in our heads. The museum’s main aim is to speak out on the problem of gang influence on young people, but the sad truth is that this museum shows this harsh reality mostly to tourists and not to the people who might actually be facing the harsh realities of gang-life. But we were told that every entrance fee paid by a tourist provides one local youth to come to the museum for free. Hopefully this information gets to those who need it. One the other hand, if this museum and people who run it would like to be more influential, they might put themselves into danger by speaking negatively about gangs in the place where these gangs actually operate.
Perhaps I sound pessimistic, but I also can’t imagine what else they can do. Gangs have a lot of power in Cape Town; these few people can only make little steps towards improvement, and this is one of them.