Sipho and Lethabo (not their real names) were good friends when they started high school in 2013 at Badirile High School in Khutsong, Carletonville, west of Johannesburg.
But three years later, the pair would turn on each other. Each joined a rival gang — Casanova and Delta Force — both of which operated outside and inside the school.
Lethabo joined Delta Force in his first year of high school. He does not know why. But for four years life as a gang member consumed him. There was nothing else. He caused chaos both in and out of school. He carried a knife to school to “protect” himself and, at the slightest provocation, wouldn’t think twice about drawing it and stabbing the “enemy”.
He told the Mail & Guardian this week that there were ongoing turf wars between people who stay in the hostel and residents of Khutsong Extension 3. Growing up in that environment means the younger generations also become part of the animosity.
“If you were to ask me why we fought, I would not tell you,” he said.
“Our fights here at school would start over something stupid. Something would happen over the weekend and on Monday we would start fighting here at school. We would draw out knives and stab each other,” he said.
He had become a nuisance because of his gang-related activities, which included robbing people, he admitted.
But in June he decided to turn his life around and left the Delta Force gang.
“I got to think long and hard about my life and saw that being part of a gang would jeopardise my future. I might end up with a criminal record, which would ruin my chances of even getting a job,” said Lethabo.
But before his Damascus moment, he had enjoyed being a gang member. “I enjoyed the attention I got from girls because they knew hore bosso ke mang [who the boss is].”
Lethabo’s friend, Sipho, was part of rival gang Casanova for just over a year before calling it quits.
Previously, the gang leaders had tried to recruit him but he was not interested. But when one of his close friends was stabbed by Delta Force members outside the school last year, he decided to join the rival gang to protect his own people.
“After witnessing that, I had no plan but to join the gang in order to help them and protect them because they were younger,” he said.
“Our older brothers gave us home-made weapons and they would say we need to protect ourselves because we are not safe at school.”
Later, he would become a leader of the gang in the school. But because of the numerous fights he was involved in, he was often suspended from school, he said. This did not sit well with his mother, a single parent.
“This year I’m in matric and I could not afford to miss out on school and also I needed to be a role model to my younger sibling, so I decided to cut ties with the gang. It was not easy but had to be done,” he said.
Even though the friends have quit gang life, they say they don’t feel safe because they no longer have the protection of the gang.
On top of it, they are seen as sellouts for rekindling their friendship even though they were in rival gangs.
Principal Lucky Motlhabane told the M&G that when he arrived at the school four years ago, it was a battleground for gangs.
[Principal Lucky Motlhabane remains determined to keep knives and pangas at bay. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)]
In 2015, for example, a Casanova member was stabbed in the face by a member of a rival gang in the school toilets. He needed 12 stitches to his face.
But the rivalries peaked last year and resulted in one pupil’s death.
Sabelo Phahlindlela, a grade nine pupil, was stabbed on September 1 outside the schoolyard and later died in its sickroom.
He was a member of the Casanova gang and was allegedly killed by a member of the Delta Force gang. This came after an altercation during school hours that led to a fight after school.
School governing body chairperson Elias Mkhabela said the incident was a “wake-up call” for the school.
“It was a terrible incident and it’s something I would never want to witness … We said to ourselves that one life is too many and we will never witness the death of a child again, especially as a result of gangsterism,” said Mkhabela.
It has been a year since that fateful day and the school is proud that it has managed to turn the gangsterism situation around.
After the incident, parents met to decide that the school needed to enforce its disciplinary processes and to stop treating the issue of gangsterism with kid gloves.
“We now apply our policies and, once a learner transgresses, it does not matter how big or how serious the matter is, we invite the parent so that we resolve it. If a learner who belongs to a gang brings a knife and stabs others, we suspend them. We apply policy and that has helped the school. Things are better now. The message is getting across,” said Mkhabela.
When the situation was still uncontrollable, Mkhabela said pupils would carry dangerous weapons such as home-made knives and pangas.
The school now performs random searches, is installing CCTV cameras and works closely with the police. There have been no acts of gang-related violence this year.
Motlhabane believes that, had it not been for Mkhabela and his strong presence at the school, they would not have had such success in tackling gang violence.
“In fact I do not think without his help, his presence and his visibility the school could manage to be where it is today. He is very strong and hands-on,” he said.
The gang violence has had a negative impact on the school, and several teachers have been booked off for stress-related illnesses.
Motlhabane says three staff members have been booked off since last year, when the pupil died.
But the interventions of the school have seen several gang members reforming, such as Sipho and Lethabo. Besides its tough disciplinary measures, the school also offers counselling to gang members and alerts them to the future implications of their current activities.
Motlhabane says this kind of intervention has helped a great deal and the school is now becoming a normal teaching and learning environment.
Badirile might have managed to fight the scourge of school violence, but it’s still prevalent in many schools.
This Wednesday, a pupil from Solomon Mahlangu High School in Modimolle, Limpopo, stabbed and killed a grade 10 pupil at the school.
This latest incident follows videos that circulated on social media involving pupils from Norkem Park High School in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg. One of the videos shows a pupil carrying a gun while fighting with another outside the schoolyard. The incident led to 10 girls and two boys being suspended from the school.
Days earlier, another horrific video surfaced on social media, showing a boy repeatedly kicking a girl at a school in KwaZulu-Natal.
The incident happened last November at Siyathuthuka Secondary School in Inanda, north of Durban. Lindokuhle Dube (19) was handed to the police by his father and is currently out on bail.
The ongoing violence in schools has led to teacher unions calling for tougher measures to be implemented at schools to curb violence.
The National Teachers Union called on the basic education department to install metal detectors and employ armed security guards at schools.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union has mooted establishing special schools for habitually violent pupils.
The teachers’ union made the call two years ago — suggesting that pupils who show signs of being bullies and who are violent or aggressive should be placed in special schools to be counselled by people trained in psychology.