Lee Middleton

The Interrupter

Colin Barends is not a gangster anymore. He works as a violence interrupter on the Cape Flats. His job is to get young men to rethink their code of violence, to staunch the flow of blood, nothing more. He approaches his job with an acute understanding what it means to fall.







It’s Friday night in Hanover Park. The streets hum with the frequency of youth uncontained. Teenage boys collect towards the shadowy corners, while adolescent girls pass by arm-in-arm and children careen between the rubbish bins and clothes lines rimming the “courts”, three-storey brick flats that apartheid built. “Stop here,” Colin Barends (45) says. The electric whir of the window lowers to the cool curiosity of three boys, none older than 18, all speaking an unperturbed melodic Afrikaans as they exchange remarks with Colin. “Those three are high-risk individuals,” says Colin as we drive away. “The one’s daddy is a high flyer, the smaller one’s daddy I know from jail.” Satisfied that the boys are “quiet” for the night, he continues to direct me through the area’s maze of small lanes and cul-de-sacs, carving a mysterious path according to a map that exists only in his mind.  

Colin is not your typical gangster. In fact he is no longer a gangster, though it remains unclear to me exactly how “ex” someone with Colin’s history ever truly becomes. The first time I met Colin, the man who pulled up on a white scooter in front of a squat brick house in Bridgetown, Athlone upended my image of a high-ranking prison gang member. Moon-faced and almost bashful in demeanour, the stocky figure in a black and yellow tracksuit could have been any middle-aged guy at Vangate Mall. A scar resembling the Southern Cross arcs over his right eye, its horizontal axis deep enough to make you wonder. It’s the only visible trace of Colin’s past.

An anti gang violence initiative, Ceasefire is a concept imported from the gang-ridden streets of Chicago and started operating on the streets of Hanover Park in 2012. Colin Barrends has worked for the organisation as a "violence interrupter for the past few years.

But Colin’s past is never far behind. Especially when patrolling Hanover Park. One of Cape Town’s 1970s-era dumping grounds for non-whites exiled from District Six and other desirable city areas designated whites-only enclaves, the neighbourhood’s very name is shorthand for the violence, drugs and gang warfare that riddle much of the sprawling Cape Flats today. As the night wears on, the seemingly random nature of our route emerges for what it is: a systematic analysis that incorporates every house and street that Colin knows—either from recent intel or general experience—to be a site of potential violence. En route, he checks in with anyone who might be armed, has a score to settle or could know something about something that’s going to happen. This intelligence gathering usually occurs somewhere between asking after a child, brother, girlfriend or “mommy” (as mothers are universally referred to in this community), and punting a new job database or rehab programme. It is this unlikely combination of Colin’s constant and embedded presence, storied past, personal well of empathy and highly analytical mind that underlie his success as a “violence interrupter”.  

You can’t take the wrong guy and make him the right guy in this work

“You can’t take the wrong guy and make him the right guy in this work,” says Pastor Craven Engels (48) of Colin, whom he describes as “one of the best conflict mediators” on the CeaseFire team. A concept imported from the gang-ridden streets of Chicago (documented in Steve James’ compelling 2011 film, The Interrupters), CeaseFire came to the streets of Hanover Park in 2012. Officially supported by the City of Cape Town, its operations are delivered through Engels’ First Community Resource Centre, a Pentecostal Protestant non-profit organisation that has run social crime-prevention projects in Hanover Park since 2009. Engels has been involved in drug rehab and social work across the Flats since 2002. A response to increased gang-related violence across the Cape Flats, in particular firearm-related deaths involving gang members and civilians alike, CeaseFire’s primary aim is to prevent deadly retaliations between gangs through conflict mediation. It is all about knowing what is happening on the ground and acting fast. Generally the first on the scene of shootings, interrupters like Colin focus on staunching the flow of blood (the age-old code that blood must be “picked up”, as it is termed here). Then, with the help of outreach workers, the interrupters try to divert less senior members out of the life and into something else that is not yet entirely clear. They work according to an explicitly articulated public health model: “quarantining” violence “carriers” to halt “infection”, clinically operating from triage to prevention. However, in neighbourhoods where it is not unusual for 40 shots to be fired in a week, nobody is talking cure just yet.

“Our job is to reduce the shootings. Not to break up the gangs or stop the drugs, but to reduce the shootings—because the shootings cause trauma,” Engels asserts with conviction. “Trauma in the kids, trauma in the grandparents, trauma in the dog—and we don’t have counselling for that.” He ruefully laughs. 

South Africans on the whole exhibit globally high levels of trauma and stress due to the frequency of witnessing death and violence. According to the 2007 South African Stress and Health Study, the Western Cape led the nation in prevalence of mental disorders, a distinction that mental health professionals link to the extreme poverty and violence characterising places like the Cape Flats. In Hanover Park, local organisation Community Action Towards a Safer Environment (CASE) works to address issues of trauma in the general population. Unfortunately, the type of counselling that a programme like CeaseFire would require—the interrupters are constantly on-call, and in bad times can be witness to streams of violence and funerals that no one should have to bear—is lacking. 

Aware of this need, the charismatic Engels is attempting to find “suitable” counselling for his team. In the meantime, however, his focus remains on reducing the shootings; and for that, he exclusively hires ex-gang members. “Your wrongs is your CV,” he explains. An interrupter’s street credibility has to be beyond question. On this count, Colin, the pastor says proudly, is “in a league of his own”.


Atypically for someone with his gang and prison resume, Colin is not the product of a home soaked in drugs, alcohol or violence—or all three. Additionally, his father, John, not only was present and employed (as a driver), but also spent a lifetime preaching in the Evangelical Pentecostal Church. His mother, Cecilia, was employed in the textile industry. The eldest child, Colin spent much of his early childhood with his maternal grandmother in Kewtown, Athlone. When he was on the cusp of adolescence, the Barends managed to gather their brood of five together under one roof, moving several times between Mitchells Plain and Elsies River. Colin didn’t take well to the strict religious environment of his parents’ home, however, and by the age of 14 was running wild with the guys who would later take leadership in different splinter factions of the notorious Americans street gang.

Though the fascination that gangs held for this preacher’s son may seem unlikely to some, it must be noted that religion and gangs are two competing aspects of life on the Cape Flats, a place where the ubiquity of gangs is matched only by the superabundance of religious institutions. Revival Life Ministries is one of hundreds. In a double-sized converted garage at the back of John and Cecilia Barends’ modest brick home in Tafelsig, Mitchells Plain, a dozen or so congregants have just finished singing a hymn amplified to an astonishing volume. John Barends, a compact 60-something radiating a furious strength, hooks a microphone headset over an ear and assumes his place at the pulpit.

I felt if I’m not part of the church, I cannot be part of the family. When the gang accepted me, I thought this is what I want

“Without Christ, it is impossible to save a drug addict,” he booms. 

Drugs or God: the message constantly broadcast for the reality it reflects. Faced with a choice between the two decades ago, a younger Colin turned his back on the church and embraced the street. “You’re young, you want to feel freedom,” he says of his earlier self. Given the starkness of the dichotomy, it’s easy enough to imagine how the adolescent hunger to seize life by the throat could translate into choosing gang life for no better reason than it seems more fun. Colin takes full responsibility for every decision he has made, but certain truths emerge with hindsight.

A map on the walls of the Ceasefire offices maps the areas occupied by different gangs. Competition for territory is at the heart of the violence that Ceasefire tries to prevent from happening

“I felt if I’m not part of the church, I cannot be part of the family. When the gang accepted me, I thought this is what I want. I wanted to be accepted by people. Obviously I chose the wrong people.”

But the allure of gangs goes beyond the simple if powerful pull of belonging or the obvious youthful appeal of chaos. Taken in the context of life in the Cape Flats—whether in the 1980s or circa now—gang membership taps into a network of motivations and desires, from the practical to the deeply subliminal. For over four decades, gangs in the Cape Flats have filled a social void, providing employment, a social cohesion and a safety net for families and communities largely discarded by the state. Then there’s the glittering fantasy of cars, cash, clothes and drugs. And finally, the oldest story in the book: the desire for power and longing for respect. What young man—especially one from a community “up against 400 years of being undermined and told that we are second class, worth nothing,” as Stephen Mentor, who works with men in Hanover Park to reshape ideas around masculinity, puts it— isn’t looking for his piece of that?

Ceasefire interrupters huddle together before heading out on bike and food patrols throughout the community. Most are ex-gang members themselves


Back on patrol, Colin waits for Yaseen* in the darkened lounge of a flat in the Hanover Park area nicknamed “Die Hel”. A stout older woman in a recliner by a window mindlessly pops a length of bubble wrap while a toddler silently clambers across her lap. A half-dozen other children aged three to eight mill in and out of the bedroom, from which some light spills into the lounge.

Finally Yaseen emerges, pulling on a striped hoodie and allowing a glimpse of his skinny chest, bandaged where he was stabbed in the lungs. At 26, Yaseen is a rising junior leader in the Americans. Attacked by members of a rival gang in retaliation for a robbery that a fellow American perpetrated, Yaseen claims the rivals got the wrong guy. He seems glad to see Colin, but dismayed by the older man’s news that while he was in hospital, his gang agreed in mediation to resolve the attack on him non-violently. 

“Ja,” Yaseen exhales. This is clearly the first he’s heard of it. 

“So what is the way forward?” Colin asks. 

“Forward?” Yaseen echoes.

“You can change your life,” says the old lady from the corner. It’s the first she’s spoken since our arrival. From the bedroom where the children have all disappeared to watch TV, multiple gunshots blast repeatedly, amplified against the desires silently battling in this conversation.

“I can’t talk about it now,” Yaseen says to Colin, glancing at his mother, who gets up to leave the room. 


If you live in a working class area, you are much more likely to be exposed to violent crimes against the person such as mugging, murder and sexual crimes. Suburban life on the other hand, offers much higher risk of burglary and theft. 
(Source: CrimestatsSA -  Based On Police Records)


Yaseen then tells Colin that earlier that day while he was in hospital having his stitches removed, two armed men busted into the flat, kicking open the locked bedroom door where the children (his own and his brothers’) were hiding. Unrelated to the stabbing incident, these two were looking to “pick up blood” that Yaseen had spilled over a year ago. That is to say, they had come to kill him. 

I can’t help but think of a comment made by Jeremy Vearey, a police major general who heads Operation Combat with the South African Police Service (SAPS) Western Cape special gang unit, based in Mitchells Plain. “You want to know where your children are learning a violent way of resolving a problem? They learn it at home. The socialisation into the culture of violence comes from the domestic environment: the pernicious effects of children observing [violence], and what it does to them. The houses in Hanover Park and Mitchells Plain are much more dangerous than the streets,” said Vearey, an Elsies River native. He was commenting on the frightening rates of domestic violence plaguing Cape Town homes, which by most reckonings is a greater if less immediately visible scourge than gang violence in terms of overall impact. Nonetheless, Vearey’s general point resonates, regardless of why Yaseen’s children are bearing witness to the conflicts playing out in this home.

Colin listens intently during a briefing session at Ceasefire's offices

Before departing Colin gives Yaseen his cell number, asking the young man to contact him in the week. “I’ll babysit him now,” Colin says in the car. Having interpreted Yaseen’s reluctance to speak in front of his mother as an admission that he is planning something, Colin reckons he still has time to turn the younger man’s thinking. Between his injury and the other outstanding blood “debt”, Yaseen is likely to lay low for a while. In the meantime? “I’ll be in his space,” says Colin. 

Fortunately for Colin that space is fairly predictable, as people in these parts largely exist in circumscribed zones. Gangsters think twice before treading into a rival gang’s turf. Civilians also calibrate their movements according to gang activity, in addition to which most simply lack funds to move freely beyond commuting for work. Children in particular rarely leave their small communities, sometimes to the extent that the route between home and school—and church or mosque—defines their whole universe. Even that path can be perilous depending on how many gang-controlled turfs must be crossed to get there.

The socialisation into the culture of violence comes from the domestic environment

“I call it the Athlone-Mowbray-Kaap syndrome,” says Derek Oldjohn, one of Colin’s oldest and most trusted friends. “In the really violent townships, children will stay confined even just to a few streets depending on which gang rules,” the fellow ex-gangster with a philosophical bent observes. Vearey also notes the stifling phenomenon, insisting that exposing kids to life outside of their areas is key to shifting mindsets. “Instead of preaching, you expose them to experiences which demonstrate an alternative,” says Vearey, an ex-military man who deeply believes that policing is but a small fraction of the coordinated and cross-functional intervention needed to truly change things in the Cape Flats. “Bigger guns don’t solve this problem,” states the man at the heart of fighting organised criminal activity in these parts.


As I spend more time with Colin shuttling between different neighbourhoods of the Cape Flats and back to my own home in the city centre, what becomes increasingly clear is that the one feature common to wherever one is in Cape Town is the lack of connective tissue between that place and everywhere else. “Geographically, we have a unique set-up in terms of the mountain and the sea and the way we were designed,” notes Julie Berg, a criminology researcher at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Berg refers to “manmade infrastructures” like the Cape Flats neighbourhoods, whose apartheid-engineered intention was isolation from the white suburbs and city centre, as well as the use of thoroughfares like the N1 and N2 highways as “structural divisions”—roads designed to feed different segments of the city’s segregated neighbourhoods while simultaneously fortifying those boundaries. “How do you address that?” Berg asks of such physical barriers to integration.

Kids play in the streets of Hanover Park. Occasionally, violence spills onto the streets, making them unsafe for young kids to play on lest they be caught in harms way

In 2014, Cape Town—a city awkwardly teetering between polishing its “world design capital” image and defending its service delivery record in highly publicised battles like the “poo wars”—remains a place where islands of safety sit over faults of danger, where perceptions of safety are inextricably bound to where you are and who you are. But the ground can shift beneath any of us, at any time, for the smallest reason: a missed train, a mistaken identity, or simply a wrong turn.

Something catches Colin’s eye. It is a posse of kids barrelling down the street, nine year old, splashing through puddles. “They’re playing at being gangsters,” he comments before we drive on through an area of makeshift dwellings abutting brick houses, where cats perched on vibracrete walls stare down at men in long robes taking the night air. That is to say, a community. “No shots have been fired for 20 days,”

No shots have been fired for 20 days

Colin tells me with some satisfaction before I take my leave to head home to the city centre. Ten minutes later, I’ve missed the turnoff for the N2 and am whizzing past signs for Manenberg, Gugulethu, Nyanga: names that connote danger at this hour on a Friday night, invoking Colin’s explanation of turfs and the importance of knowing where you are and how 20-days of no shootings simply ends. Then, just as quickly, I’m out of the woods. But what if you can never leave?

Colin Speaks to a member of the community during a regular patrol.

“You see the fence here?” Criminology researcher and writer Don Pinnock nods to the tall gate separating his property from the street in Vredehoek, an affluent leafy central Cape Town neighbourhood from which vantage we are enjoying a spectacular sunset over Signal Hill. “Everybody has a fear of this contact crime, which is largely not happening in the areas where people sit with large walls. We have a thousand CCTV cameras, and this is an incredibly safe area. People in the townships can’t afford that level of security.” The stats, such as they are—crime is massively underreported in Cape Town, as is the case nationwide—support him. Although central Cape Town has a healthy share of incidents, primarily theft from cars and robberies, when it comes to contact crime in general and murder in particular, the coloured and black townships of the Cape Flats lead the nation. In those neighbourhoods, the rate of violence against young men is more than double South Africa’s national average, which is already eight times the global rate and heavily skewed to young men aged 15-29 (femicide by an intimate partner comes in at six times the global indicator). With eight of the nation’s ten worst murder hotspots in 2013, Cape Town is South Africa’s murder capital.

According to Jean-Pierre Smith, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, at least 20% of those murders are gang related. “It focuses the mind when you see what a large role gang murders play in your crime stats,” says Smith, who verges on manic in his devotion to the issue. “The murder is the evident part that gets the headlines, but it’s the criminal economy that goes with it, the guns and drugs,” he continues, describing other gang-related crime and social trauma. For Smith, an intervention like CeaseFire is just one horse in a stable that includes transforming the Metro Police from traffic cops to police who can engage in “full-blown neighbourhood policing”; support to neighbourhood watches; creation of special investigation units; youth development and schools programmes; and an expansion of Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), a safety-through-better-design effort that is in fact the larger programme in which CeaseFire is a project.

Everybody has a fear of this contact crime, which is largely not happening in the areas where people sit with large walls

Asking questions around how physical space—lighting and transport and the layout and feel of public spaces—can improve security, VPUU has slowly begun its rollout in Hanover Park this year. Researchers call the concept driving it “placemaking”. How do you make a place better? Where do you start? “A harm, say a shooting, doesn’t just come from nowhere,” says criminology researcher John Cartwright. “There’s a set of circumstances and events that led to that shooting at that time. So if you start recognizing that, you can start to think of ways of interrupting that pathway. The interrupters are interrupting at a very late stage.” Which is not to say it’s not worth doing. “But there are social interventions that interrupt earlier.”

A typical street in Hanover Park which has been described as a 1970s-era dumping ground for non-whites exiled from District Six and other desirable city areas designated whites-only enclaves. The neighbourhood's name has become synonymous with the violence, drugs and gang warfare that riddle much of the sprawling Cape Flats today. This is the atmosphere in which Colin Berrends and his colleagues at Ceasefire have to operate in.

Though CeaseFire has started accumulating data indicating a significant reduction in shootings, many criminologists and social workers take a less measured view than Cartwright’s, directly questioning the merit of gang-focused interventions. “Gangsters get targeted [but] they are the marketing front, the shopkeepers of a larger process,” says Pinnock. “Trying to target gang members is like mopping up water without turning off the tap. You’re not changing anything.” However you look at it, the Cape Flats are flooded, and with so many individuals involved, what is the cost—practically or ethically—of just giving up on them?

Colin Berrends preaches during a Sunday service at Revival Life Ministries, congregation which meets in a converted garage behind his parents' home. His father, John has always been a preacher _ a life Colin turned away from when he became a gang member. He has now become a lay preacher in addition to his anti-gang activities


A man in an orange correctional services jumpsuit is singing his heart out. Eyes squeezed shut, face uplifted and beatific, his voice belongs on stage with Aretha Franklin. About two-dozen Pollsmoor Prison inmates fill the room, singing and clapping. They are mostly radiant. It is graduation day for the eight who made it through a six-week “behaviour modification” course that Colin and CeaseFire outreach worker Clint Wildeman have co-facilitated in the prison. Topics included subjects like anger management, paradigm shifting, money management and communication.

It is time for the graduates’ personal testimonies. An inmate in his 40s, whose boxer’s physique and aura of dark ferocity stand out like a bruise, speaks first. “I’m an angry man, but the love you have brought us has changed me,” he says with a disarming sincerity. Another man in his late 30s, arms covered in tattoos, says he’s been through dozens of programmes, but this was the first that was “more than a job you show up for”. He thanks “Brother Colin” for his love and acceptance, for teaching him to “respond and not react”. All the graduates are on the verge of parole, and were selected to participate because their activity in prison gangs classified them as high risk. Certificates awarded, they break into a song: “I believe everything’s going to be alright.” The room lifts with a helium-like buoyancy, but equally palpable is a live wire crackle that one feels the slightest spark could ignite, burning it all down.

A recovering addict at Camp Joy, a rehabilitation centre. Colin has worked there as a counsellor since 2008. Before long, he was managing the facility

The concept of rehabilitation came to South Africa’s prison system in the mid-1990s. “The wardens started to be more human to us,” recalls Colin, who served his first sentence for robbery at the age of 16. For the next 18 years he was in and out of over a half dozen Western Cape prisons, for theft and robbery, for durations varying from a few months to five years. Colin’s total prison time exceeds ten years. Rehabilitation programmes and educational outreach didn’t feature much during his earlier stints, though that started to change during his last sentence from 1996-2001.

When Colin was released in September of 2001 he had no fixed intention of turning his life around. He went to stay in Masincedane, an informal settlement near Strandfontein, where his plan was to quietly start dealing drugs while he regrouped. Having been inside since 1996, he had missed the radical upheavals taking place in the gang world outside. “The gangs were changing, I was out of touch,” he says of the unthinkable merging of the previously separate prison and street gangs. The shift further fuelled the vigilante war waged by PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), declared with the execution of Hard Livings gang leader Rashaad Staggie in 1996. The economics of the new South Africa’s increasingly internationalised drug trade had created hybrid alliances that overturned old loyalties and rules—a metamorphosis brilliantly documented in Jonny Steinberg’s classic, The Number (2004)—and the gang world that Colin had grown up in no longer really existed. In this increasingly heavily armed landscape, he saw a future for himself that ended in either working for someone else, back in prison or dead. In the meantime, and of more immediate concern, he lacked a reliable supply to feed the formidable drug habit that he had cultivated since the age of 17, encompassing everything from dagga to mandrax to heroin.


A disproportionate number of youths (ages 16-25) on the city’s periphery can be categorised as NEETS —Not in education, employment or training. This is partly explained by the failure of the education system to inspire and retain learners, and the mismatch between the skills demand of an economy that’s increasingly knowledge and service oriented and the skill levels of an increasingly young labour force. The concentration of young people with limited or no opportunities in the most disadvantaged parts of the city also contributes to gang activity, substance abuse and other social problems. Finding a way to absorb this excluded cohort of the city’s youth’s into the economy and enabling access to opportunities to them remains one of the big challenges we face. As a coastal city, Cape Town will face the brunt of rising sea levels, increased wind speeds as well as changing temperatures due to climate change. Already, flooding — concentrated in the infrastructure poor areas of the Cape Flats — is a yearly problem whose effects are not limited to property damage and displacement. Flooding also presents some public health risks.

Source: Statistics South Africa (2011 Census)


The fantasy that Colin had built his life around—to work his way up through the prison gang and come out able to build his own street gang faction and control ever-larger territories—was over. “You always thought that with being a high-ranking [prison] gang member there’s privileges [and] you’ll get the same privileges in the outside world. But now you come outside and realize everyone has to hustle and look for his own thing. I realised either I have to join a street gang or change my life,” he says. “I felt quite degraded by finding myself in that situation.” With this realisation came the understanding that his first step to personal freedom would have to be getting clean.

Masincedane informal settlement is a typical warren of corrugated iron and wooden plank shacks. A combination of sewage and a slightly chemical-tinged wood smoke odour permeate the air. Dunes rise beyond the shacks, giving way to glimpses of the ocean. Colin’s old place sits at the mouth of the settlement. A tiny one-room shelter, windows and door framed by tattered canvas awnings grey with mildew: this was the unlikely site of his transformation. Although he didn’t have high hopes of truly changing his life, Colin began going to church again. Through the congregation he managed to get odd jobs gardening and cleaning, but all the while was still smoking drugs on and off. After a few false starts, in 2005 he finally locked himself in his shack for three days to detox. 

His recovery story over the next two years was no less challenging for its prosaic unfolding: he struggled, fell off the wagon, got back on, eventually got a job as a labourer at a supermarket distribution centre, fell off the wagon again, but this time enrolled in a rehab programme with a promise of a full-time job upon return to the distribution centre from a compassionate boss who believed in the importance of second chances. Today he has been clean for eight years. While explanations of why certain individuals manage to tame personal demons when so many others fail often have a ring of pat magical realism to them, Colin ascribes his achievement—to the extent that he would call it that—to a certain old-school discipline and respect deeply inculcated by the family he ran away from so many years ago. Whatever the reason, it defies a few lines of type to capture those years of struggle, self-doubt and finally a kind of peace that is renegotiated every day. 

You always thought that with being a high-ranking [prison] gang member there’s privileges [and] you’ll get the same privileges in the outside world. But now you come outside and realize everyone has to hustle

Less than a kilometre from Colin’s old shack, a row of shabby buildings that used to host summer camps now houses rehab centres. The yellow face-brick structure closest to Masincedane is home to Breaking Chains, an in-house rehab founded by Lyndsay Connolly, who works as a “friend of the courts” and runs a diversion programme to keep young and first-time offenders out of the prison system. Connolly, who got into this work because of her brother’s heroin addiction, met Colin when he was at Camp Joy. The rehab centre where he found a job in 2008, Camp Joy was also Colin’s introduction to CeaseFire’s Craven Engels, who is responsible for the place. Engels recalls immediately recognising an “atmosphere” around Colin. “I told him in a year you’ll be running this facility.” The prediction proved true, and by 2010, Colin was managing the rehab centre. “Everyone loved Colin—he’s got the story, man,” says Engels. 

Connolly agrees. Her eyes shine when she speaks of Colin, whom she credits with saving the lives of numerous young men. “He’s also a father figure for a lot of them. Most of the boys don’t have father figures in Hanover Park, but Colin takes that bit of extra time to spend with them. People don’t understand how satisfying it is for him to give back. It’s a hard thing to walk through, but people can change,” she gushes.

Colin’s own view of his progress and ability to help others is more shaded. “It’s still a long road for me, I’ll never see myself as arrived. And I don’t want that the guys get too attached, because I know for a fact I can’t really help them as they want to be helped. With the young people who are starting on this road, I can give tips and I can lead, but you have to walk it on your own.” 


It’s Sunday after church, and Colin heads to Hanover Park, where a netball tournament is in full swing. Dozens of high-school girls in bright colours run rampant, while younger kids, also mostly girls, stick by their mothers sitting courtside in camp chairs. CeaseFire encourages these events, supplying cool drinks and snacks, aware that groups of people out together keeps the streets safer. Today Colin is following up on a shooting that occurred here in the early hours. He received an SMS about it while in church. Colin’s phone never stops, which means neither does he. The woman who sent the SMS approaches. Rifqua* is one of Colin’s “credible messengers”. She informs him that the police arrested a gang member he’s been working with for the morning’s disturbance. “But he wasn’t the shooter,” she says. 

After they discuss what happened, Rifqua shows me a spray of bullet holes peppering the walls around the court where the girls are playing. On the same walls, graffiti reads “RIP” and “NYC”, the latter a reference to the Americans gang. “We’ve got innocent children here, no gangsters, they just come from that side and shoot this side and make our road suspect,” Rifqua insists. I ask what can be done. “We must put all the bosses together and tell them we’re gatvol (angry) now!” she says vehemently. When I point out that the bosses are unlikely to simply walk away from their livelihoods, she falters. “We want peace for our children. Like my daughter’s child, growing up without fatherly love because of gangsterism,” she laments. She doesn’t mention that her grandchild’s absent father was a gang leader, killed in gang-related business. Although that fact in no way negates the validity of her concerns for her neighbourhood, it does speak to the reality that few here are not somehow complicit or implicated in the system. 

“The gang scene is not a thing that jumped up yesterday,” says Stephen Mentor of Community Action Towards a Safer Environment (CASE). “You have mothers and grannies and young boys who look like they’re not in a gang, but their family connection is there for 40 years. The whole scene around gang activity, which people don’t understand, is that mothers and wives will still lie for their husbands and sons, hide guns, deny gang activity, deny children are involved in peddling drugs, because of the family history. They’ve been reliant on that activity for their financial security. And the deeper you’re in this whole scene, the more difficult it is to get out.” 

And so Rifqua calls Colin every time there’s a shooting or a disturbance, but she also will do whatever it takes to protect her family, gangsters or no.

You have mothers and grannies and young boys who look like they’re not in a gang, but their family connection is there for 40 years
A child plays in the streets of Masincedane, an informal settlement. It was while living here that Colin made the decision to go off drugs — a move that he credits as a first big step to changing his life. He now regularly counsels addicts who are in a detox programme at a rehab centre called Camp Joy

“I bet this is the safest place in all of Cape Town,” Colin says as we circle Robben Island, having just passed the structure where Robert Sobukwe spent six years in solitary confinement. When I first met him, Colin mentioned Robben Island as a place he had feared for years, but had come to dream of visiting. On the ferry ride over he tells me it’s his first time on a boat. Touring the island, he takes pictures of the oystercatchers and shipwrecks with his phone, and while the rest of the group lines up to photograph Mandela’s cell, he inspects the whole of Block B with an appraising eye. The shower area is deemed small and he expresses surprise at the wooden doors (“ours were metal”). He is impressed by the intercoms in all the single cells, which he initially mistakes for radios, triggering memories of clustering around the single speaker in the communal cells of his prison days. “They played them so quietly, you had to gather around. It was our only link to outside,” he says, smiling at the recollection.

His mood seemingly approaching something like nostalgia, I ask if he ever actually sought prison time. He struggles to reply. “It was like a second home. You had friends there. And you had more power than you had outside,” he allows. He then mentions a recent visit to old friends serving life sentences. How after seeing them, there was a part of him that felt he should stay. “Not really stay, but… it’s like I leave a part of myself there…” He says that he hopes one day to get that part of himself back: to feel whole and totally unconnected to prison life. However, his current work sustains that connection, and he doubts he’ll ever really be free of it. But he accepts the trade-off as more than his due, to the extent that when I ask if it would be worth dying for this work, he replies plainly: “If it is to save a person’s life, it can be worth it. In the gang life you’re ready to die for something that is wrong, so why can’t you give your life for something that is right? I was part of the problem so that’s why I must be part of the solution.” Perhaps it’s not so much a question of nostalgia, but, as he puts it, “There is something, spiritually, a part that I have left there. My youth.”

Although Colin willingly gave his youth to gangs and drugs, to violence and prison, he now gives everything he has left to something else. Part of that something is his new family. He married his wife, Shireen, in 2013, and welcomed his first and only child into the world this past February. He credits the birth of his daughter, Gia, with the ability to “have emotions again”. But this is not a story of redemption by love for one’s child, and if anything, the emotions unlocked by his family help keep him focused on his overwhelming drive to make things right. Once upon a time, Colin Barends’ need to be recognised and thirst for a centre fuelled choices that led him into a life of gangsterism, leaving a trail of violence and pain in his wake. Those same qualities still drive him today. The difference is they now compel him to look squarely at his own reflection, accept exactly what he sees and to move forward, constantly endeavouring to bring meaning and peace to the chaotic world he inhabits. Perhaps it is this daily act that lies at the heart of all and any true violence interruption.


Vulnerability: On the train (Salt River)


Editor: Sean O'Toole & Tau Tavengwa

Copy Editor: Janine Stephen

Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Film: Periphery Films

Infographics: Blain van Rooyen

Digital Design: Pixel Project