Picture shows Nealon with grandchildren Ethan and Kiesha Petersen. By Sophie Smith.
At first glance, it’s only the faded tint of tattoos peering out from underneath his sleeves that hints at a background far from his otherwise inconspicuous appearance. A composed 61-year-old, Nealon is a veteran amongst his colleagues and the oldest member of the Cape Flats’ infamous Mongrels gang. Cape Town’s Cape Flats suburbs have been the scenery of gang wars and deadly rivalries for decades. On average, someone still dies from gang violence every five days.
Nealon, now using his background working as a mediator to prevent the violence he grew up with, is sitting in front of an office-wall full of screaming headlines feeding from Hanover Park’s prevalent gang activities. The link to his younger self doesn’t come naturally. The 14-year-old boy whose criminal career started with a few break-ins. The young man who attacked people with knives during his time in prison. Only when he starts speaking, his lips give way to a display of shiny gold applications on his teeth. He explains how he had to adapt quickly, even in the reformatory institution near Cape Town he was first sent to:
There I got very bad, because -I’ll be honest with you- reformatory is worse than jail. Because in jail guys have respect for each other, the number [gangs] is there.
“You can’t do what you want to do. But there, everybody just does what they want to do. It’s the strongest survives. (…) If you’re a weakling, they sodomise you.”
After his first dinner at the reformatory institution one of his peers gave him a knife, the only weapon to defend himself against potential attackers. He didn’t think they would come to him – a mistake.
I was handsome, pretty face and everybody wanted that. In the first night, I stabbed three guys.
″ And as I was in that place, I became like an animal. Because there, it’s all about survival.”
A long way to change
His mindset became that of sheer survival. When he was still a minor, he didn’t have to concern himself with the consequences, as he would only end up back in a reformatory institution.
“I was very fast with the knife; I was quick to stab with a knife. Before you knew it, I would’ve stabbed you already. And if I stabbed you, I stabbed to kill you. If you survive, well… lucky for you.”
Nealon’s story is almost unsettingly common here. Being in a gang more often than not is a question of safety. Between the age of 14 and 40, he continually moved in and out of jail. As the years morphed into each other, so did his sentences. In order to avoid being made “someone’s bitch” and constantly fend off attacks and rape-attempts, Nealon joined the prison gang “26″, one of South Africa’s infamous number gangs. To prove himself to the leader, he attacked someone who was considered a snitch because he was talking to the guards about the dealings of the inmates. This, he had learned outside of prison from older peers, was the best way to get a good stand, an important part of stepping into the gang’s tight-knit hierarchy.
I could’ve done it without it but I wanted to prove something to the gang - that I can stand for myself, that I can take a beating from the police.
Outside, the gang life took over most of his. Although he did an apprenticeship as a builder, got married and had children, Nealon spent the majority of his free time with the Mongrels. He still remembers the turning point for him, the moment the respect from the other gang members became unshakable. During a major gang fight with the rivalling gang, the “Laughing Boys”, Nealon attacked their leader with a net of snooker balls. After his opponent went down, he jumped onto him to hold him on the ground. One of Nealon’s friends then proceeded to chop away at the gang leader’s head with a panga, a machete used in South Africa.
The blood was gushing over me and I kicked the head to the guys and said: Here’s his head. And that solved the whole fight.
In Apartheid times, the police didn’t bother much with gang fights, he says. Although they arrested all the Mongrels, no one was charged. Nealon, the adult, talks about this without visible emotion. He talks about the man he used to be. Not the one he is now.
In 1991, at age 38, just after he had come back home from another two-year-sentence, he was charged with a long-term. He got 18 years for nine attempted murders and illegal possession of weapons because he shot at a rivalling gang in a retaliation move. An appeal turned 18 years into two for the possession of ammunition and an unlicensed gun, a wake-up call.
Nevertheless, it took a co-worker’s invitation to his local church community to have the message sink in. Reminiscing about his life during the service, he had a realisation that woke him up:
I could almost feel the wind of the bullets flying past my ears. And I survived all that.
“There were many times that I should’ve died already. Even in jail. And a voice said to me: “Listen: If you don’t going to stop, you’re going to die.”
In the dark jacket with yellow back-print that is part of his uniform, he is –nevertheless or rather exactly because of the background and the fact that he had the moment of realisation–the ideal representative for the CeaseFire program. As a “violence interrupter”, he is now supposed to promote peace and lower the violence. In a world of gangs, it needs the veteran of gangsters to calm things down.
The alternative to the gang life
That at least is the opinion of JP Smith, Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security. He says until someone comes with a better idea, he is supporting this initiative. CeaseFire is an alternative anti-gang-violence approach from the US that uses ex-gang-members with authority and the necessary credentials to mediate between active gangs. The concept uses their street knowledge and trustworthiness to find an “in” and have gang members talk things out rather than solving issues through shootings. This has proven quite successful in Chicago.
When the CeaseFire project was brought from the US to South Africa, the already established First Resource Community Centre, a local NGO in Cape Town’s notorious Hanover Park district, took over to run it. Pastor Craven Engel, who is in charge of the centre and head of CeaseFire, has worked in the area for years and realised early on that the gang related violence was one of the main issues. For the CeaseFire program itself, he chose people for exactly the background, exactly the kind of CV that Nealon carries. Then each of them had to undergo a credibility test. The judges? Active gang-members and the community. “We asked around: “What do you think of this individual? We’re planning to employ him, has he ever been a snitch in prison?””
Despite the program’s success in the US and the strong support from the city of Cape Town, CeaseFire is still met with a lot of opposition. Other initiatives, like the Community Policing Forum (CPF) who already worked with gangs in the townships before, are particularly unimpressed with the amount of funding the project requires. Avril Martin, chairperson of the Pinati Estate Civic Association, was of the same opinion when the project was initiated in 2013.
There is just too much money spent on these type of projects. Now the killings don’t stop, the project isn’t working.
She even thought that there might be a third force behind the ongoing violence. Nevertheless, she collaborated with the CeaseFire initiative during the establishing phase.
A much bigger quarrel however has been with the national police force, SAPS. The nature of the CeaseFire concept is such that it only deals with trying to lower the gang related murders. Workers like Nealon do not deal with the illegal businesses many gangs are involved in. The access they have to information relating to exactly these activities is something the police can only dream of. That is where the trouble starts.
“We have the same purpose, just from a different angle,” says Pastor Craven Engel who is leading the project in Hanover Park.
“The problem now is the information. They think they could do a lot with our information. But if we share that kind of information, we lose our credibility on the ground.”
26 will always be 26, 28 will always be 28
A member of the police force who asked to stay unnamed even questions the integrity of the CeaseFire workers. “26 will always be 26, 28 will always be 28,” he says.
I don’t see successes from their side. A lot of the wanted persons, the 10 most wanted, they are always out again the next day. (…) Maybe there are some good guys and maybe there are some bad guys. But then they should uncover the bad guys.
He believes that it is actually in their interest to keep gang-wars going instead of calming things down, to keep getting money from the project. JP Smith has no understanding for this sort of accusation. “Preposterous garbage, who comes up with things like this? Who has time to come up with things like this?”
He says that CeaseFire doesn’t just prevent wars, they also have community work and tasks outside of that. “What the person says is quite disgusting. A lot of these quarrels are about tiny things like a girlfriends or a phone, like everywhere else in the world. –Just that here they hold a 9mm against each other.” In his opinion, the question is how much value you put on someone’s life. “If you ask me, it’s money well spent. I think three Million Rand is very little. I’m sure if you added up the average cost of investigations and police operations spent, it’s probably still less.”
Alistair Graham from the city’s Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading program, tends to agree: “We looked at the salaries of social workers and of NGO workers and made the salaries of our guys similar to the average of what we saw.” He thinks that CeaseFire has achieved quite a lot in the two years it’s been running. “There has never been a project with this kind of impact before. They managed to get quite a lot of youngsters off the street through a rehabilitation program.”
Pastor Issel Simmers who also works in Hanover Park, supports the initiative. “The people that gave the critique are so far fetched that they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t live here. We welcome the program.”
JP Smith says that all serious critics have disappeared because the empirical data speaks for itself. Some of them are now even working with the program and help to expand it to other notoriously gang ridden areas around Cape Town. Nealon is in the middle of that project. He and some of his colleagues recruit and train new CeaseFire workers who will be mediating between the gangs in areas like Manenberg or Gugulethu.
Social safety net
That alone won’t solve the source of the ongoing gangsterism however. Gangsterism is a way of life that young people grow up with. Once drawn in, it is not that easy to get back out. Many are also falling short of Nealon’s epiphany. When they are in need, the only safety net to fall back on, is their gang, says JP Smith. “What you have in terms of social cohesion is the gang, there is nothing else. It’s the element that picks up people who have fallen through the cracks, the entity that gives bursaries and money when needed.”
Nealon backs this notion. Seven years ago a major heart attack left him unable to work in his regular job in building. All of a sudden he was unable to provide for his family. The temptation to go back into selling drugs was big but instead, Nealon decided to use his rank as an elder in the Mongrels gang: “He told me: “Whenever you need something, because you’ve already done everything for the camp, whatever you need, I will supply you.”” Nealon clarifies that he didn’t make a habit out of this survival mode. But the principle behind it is exactly what local Ward Councilor Antonio van der Rheede alludes to:
Our community needs to change much quicker to accept them back into the community. There need to be jobs. The whole stigma that comes with this kind of background needs to change because otherwise they will just get back into the circle.
Nealon says his motivation to work on the streets and get himself into dangerous situations comes from wanting to give back to the community he used to treat so badly. And it seems to work. The CeaseFire workers have become something like local heroes, they are role models to young kids who run after them in the street and shout: “CeaseFire! CeaseFire!” excitedly. Nealon is proud when he mentions that some of the younger children say that they also want to become CeaseFire workers when they grow up. The older kids aren’t quite as easily impressed. Nealon explains that a lot of the trouble nowadays is caused by parents liking the idea of their kids being gangsters, mentions mothers coming up with fake alibis for their sons and even one who bought her son a weapon. “Who does things like that?“, he asks agitatedly. Nealon wants a different life for his children, although he says, he never had any trouble with his sons.
“I told them: “If you do that, I will throw you full of petrol, I will burn you rather than you go to jail.”