In 1973, Ralph Haricombe joined the Glamour Boys gang because, like other children in his neighbourhood back then, that was what he was exposed to almost daily.
Nearly half a century later, and after a long stint in jail, Haricombe and his son Sabastian are the co-founders of a project that does its bit to try to keep children in school and out of gang-related trouble.
When their home in Sunnyside, Cape Town, burned down decades ago, Haricombe’s family moved to Athlone, where a young Ralph got his first peek at what appeared to be a glamorous world in which gang members wore tailor-made suits “and it was about who was better at pickpocketing”.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the glamour had faded; gangs had become more synonymous with murder.
“If our house did not burn, and we did not move [to Athlone], my life would have been different,” Ralph reminisces.
Or maybe his fate was already sealed after his mother died when he was three, and there was no father figure around to be a positive influence as he was growing up. He went to work at the age of 13.
At 15, Ralph was caught stealing and sent to a remedial school. But a place that should have set him back on the straight and narrow only made things worse. Soon afterwards, he joined the Cape Town Scorpions, a gang that operates to this day, but is not as prominent as other gangs.
In 1998 Haricombe joined the 28 prison gang and it was downhill from there.
Years later, Sabastian looked set to follow a similar path when his father’s absence led him to seek refuge with a young boys’ gang in Manenberg known as the Naughty Boys.
Luckily a woman offered Sabastian a job working in her garden — on condition that he went to church with her. Gradually, Sabastian turned his life around and was able to reconcile with his mother, Marta.
He also contacted his father who was released from prison in 2003. Reluctant at first, Ralph was eventually reunited with Sabastian in 2008.
Today they are the founders and driving force behind the project Hope — Helping Others Prosper Everywhere — which helps provide schoolchildren with shoes. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Hope distributed 360 pairs of shoes to 19 schools.
Both men are concerned about the ongoing fighting between members of the Americans gang in Manenberg, close to where they live, and how it might affect these children.
“It’s about drugs,” says Sabastian.
Before the Mail & Guardian’s interview with the Haricombes, a young “Americans” gang member in his 20s stands two blocks away, keeping guard against anything that might spark off another shooting.
Reluctant to talk about his gang’s role in violence, he relents enough to answer two questions.
Yes, he says, he too had an absentee father while growing up. Asked what he would want to be, besides a gangster, he laughs, and says: “Nothing.”