Daniel Mpilo Richards
If someone had told me when I was 11 years old, that there existed another form of life, I would not be a gangster today.
(Gang leader of one of the most violent and largest criminal gangs in South Africa).
A 9-year-old boy was waiting outside a Lavender Hill church hall in which a group of men were engaged in intense discussion with a facilitator. The group of men were the leaders of rival gangs in that township and who, for the first time in the history of gang warfare on the Cape Flats, were voluntarily in the same room as their rivals without the risk of one killing the other – well sort of. No one was searched before entering the negotiating room. And neither the police nor the military were present or invited. The encounter was based on trust which is why no one was searched for weapons. The tension in the room was palpable every time these leaders met for discussions with the facilitator.
The facilitator and peace-builder, Dr Ruben Richards, of the Ruben Richards Foundation, during a short break, tried to make small talk with the 9-year-old youngster who was patiently waiting for someone who was in the negotiating room. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up one day,” asked the facilitator. Without blinking and with a sense of pride and confidence the 9-year-old said, “I want to be just like my daddy, a gangster.” That daddy happened to be one of the most notorious gang leaders in the room, engaged in peace negotiations facilitated by Dr Ruben Richards.
In 2012, Lavender Hill, a township on the Cape Flats of South Africa went out of control. Gang warfare between rival gangs peaked with up to six murders per day (1). Streets were unsafe as stray bullets from gang warfare had already killed innocent bystanders. The schools were closed as ninety nine percent of school learners walked to school in this township and consequently faced the risk of being caught in the crossfire of gang warfare. The NGO’s active in the township abandoned the township save for one. The township was literally in a gang-imposed lockdown which not even the police could unlock. At the time there were five rival gangs competing for turf/territory in this township which is no more than three square kilometres and home to around 50, 000 residents – an overcrowded place designed during Apartheid for 11, 000 residents. The pioneer residents of this township, like many others on the Cape Flats, were victims of forced removals and literally dumped here on the outskirts of the city (i.e. approximately 25 km from the centre of Cape Town).
The Police were unable to contain the situation. The Premier of the Western Cape Province, one of nine provinces in South Africa, requested that the President of South Africa send in the army to restore law and order. The President refused. Politically, the Western Cape was, and still is, the only Province that is not governed by the majority ruling party, namely the African National Congress. Consequently, the residents of this volatile township got caught in a political and ideological cross fire in addition to a gang warfare and the crossfire of real bullets. The pertinent question is: What happens when the army does not arrive?
Dr Ruben Richards, at the request of the community leaders of Lavender Hill, was called in to facilitate a process that eventually led to the longest cease-fire in the history of gang violence in South Africa. Gang leaders were consulted and they eventually agreed to “appoint” Dr Richards as a mediator. After a few months of consistent peace building work and trust-building initiatives with the gang leadership corps, a thanksgiving and ‘graduation’ ceremony was held to honour those gang leaders who had completed a few months of focused peace-building facilitated by the Foundation.
Subsequent peace-building initiatives in this gangland built on the trust gained by the Foundation, included theatre-based therapy linked to an anger management program. Earlier, the leadership curriculum included visual art to facilitate catharsis. Participants were asked to choose a place in the room and draw their life story on an A1 sized flip chart paper and to NOT sign their names on the drawing. Absolutely no words were allowed on the picture. Imagine the scene – rival gang leaders in an Art therapy session – perplexed by what colour crayon to use and clearly frustrated by the spatial containment of their picture, as they ran out of space on the paper to tell their story in an image format. All participants were invited to walk through the ‘art’ gallery and view the paintings/drawings of the other participants. The code of conduct was absolute silence during the walk through. Afterwards, participants were allowed to provide interpretations of the art but without asking or knowing the identity of the artist. The artists (i.e. gang leaders) were under strict instruction to not comment or defend their art regardless of the interpretation offered by those viewing the painting.
A few years later, the Ruben Richards Foundation agreed to the creation of a theatre-production which depicted its work with gang leaders. The question undergirding the play was: What happens when a gang leader makes the decision to change and wants to leave the gang? The short answer is: You get killed or in gang lingo – “Blood in, Blood out”. The play traces the life of two prison cell mates linked to a prison-based Numbers gang, providing unique insight into modern day gang culture in South Africa (2). One hundred males and one hundred female inmates under extremely tight security were ushered into a gathering room inside the prison to watch the play called “Die Glas ennie Draad – The Glass and the Wire; gang lingo for the visionary/strategist (glass) and the implementer/communicator (wire)(3).
Dr Ruben Richards facilitated a question and answer session after the play. The first question to be asked by one of the male inmates was: “So how long were they inside?”, referring to the actors who performed the play (4). Eventually, the audience was told that the actors were professional actors and neither of them were former inmates nor gang members. The next series of questions were about the ‘insider’ knowledge of the play. As one inmate asked, “So how then do they know all that lingo and the inner secrets and workings of the gang if they were not members of the gang. You only get to know those things if you are on the inside”.
Of course, the inside information was from a gang leader after years of trust-building and that leader’s quest and exploration of wanting to exit the gang. The power of the arts was witnessed that day as inmates could not believe that the performers were not gang-insiders. This conundrum for the audience provided a unique opportunity to address what is possible for the prisoners: It is possible to change one’s life? Just look how these actors “changed”. Put differently, “Is life not a theatre in which you get to play a part? Why not play the part of a changed person? Change is possible, after all. Or is a gang member and leaders condemned to “Blood in – Blood out?”
Gangsterism is a global phenomenon and manifests across all classes of society – rich and poor alike. In South Africa, it predominates among young men previously classified as coloured. It is said that one in seven coloured youth will end up in prison or at the very least have a brush with the law (5). The youth in gangs outnumber South Africa’s army by seven to one. The gang certainly provides a sense of belonging and identity but with a disastrous catch – Blood in. Blood out.
The hope expressed in the play, is that the one gang leader did make it out – alive. The other is still stuck in the gang-system. In this sense the play was real and authentic. However, the power of the play is that the one who made it out alive sits on the stage with Dr Richards during facilitated discussions, and testifies to the fact that change is possible. Getting out of the gang is possible. But it is also difficult and one must be under no illusion that the risk of death is real.
Can Art change gangsterism? Possibly not. But at the very least, it is a safe and profound medium through which to communicate that change is possible.
(1) One weekend, 47 murders took place on the Cape Flats. The murders did not make the newspapers.
(2) A review of the play as performed at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, narrated by Rashaad Allen, one of those on whom the play is based.
(3) Facebook page for the play ‘Die Glas Ennie Draad’.
(4) The play was written and performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards and Gantane Kusch. It won the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award for best production at the National Arts Festival (2015).
(5) Oxford Peace Talk by Daniel Mpilo richards about gangland and youth-at-risk
Daniel Mpilo Richards is a versatile and award-winning triple-threat actor, writer, musician and producer. He graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in Theatre and Performance and with a Masters in Film and Television Producing from Met Film School(2019) in London after having received the prestigious Chevening Scholarship. He has performed in England, USA, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Rwanda, Botswana, Zimbabwe and all across South Africa. He presented at the Oxford Peace Talks 2019 in honour of Kofi Annan and serves as the Creative Director and Trustee on the Board of the Ruben Richards Foundation. He owns a production company called DMR Productions and most recently worked alongside Nemours Children’s Hospital and the University of Delaware in the USA as an International Artist in Residency. Daniel tweets @Daniel_voila
Image Credit: Ashraf Hendricks (image rights owned by the Ruben Richards Foundation)