Gangster and statistic or a positive role model? These were the choices put before Mitchell’s Plain boys at the launch of the #I Choose campaign at Beacon Hill High School in Beacon Valley last week.
The campaign is a project of the Beacon Hill High School Alumni Society and is sponsored by the Liberty Promande branch of Vodacom and Leonard McCarthy, the former head of the Scorpions who is now with the World Bank.
Speaking to the Plainsman, Juven Rittles, founder member of the alumni society and co-ordinator of its mentorship programme, said August had been a particularly bleak month in Mitchell’s Plain where gang violence and killings were concerned.
Captain Ian Williams, spokesperson for Mitchell’s Plain SAPS, said 11 gang-related murders were recorded in Mitchell’s Plain during this time.
“There is a genocide happening on the Cape Flats and what are we doing?” said Mr Rittles. “What can be done? What can I do in my little space?”
Last Thursday the alumni society had as their guests, members of the SA Navy, the SAPS Special Task Force, Metro police, the Department of Correctional Services, the Presidential Protection Unit, a local businessman and gold medallist body builder, Jason Kleinsmith, who won the Mr Olympia title in America in 2015 and businessman Sulaiman Jacobs from Vodacom. All of them have one thing in common – they overcame considerable odds to be where they are today.
Mr Rittles, who is also deputy director of the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) integrity management unit, spends most of his free time at Beacon Hill High School.
“Our boys have stars in their eyes when they see the gangsters but here we show them positive role models, who chose to save and serve their country,” he said.
Mr Rittles hopes to take the campaign to other schools in the area and surrounds.
The guests addressed close to 900 boys, from Beacon Hill High and Grade 7 pupils, from neighbouring primary schools, including Westville, Meadowridge and Beacon View.
Fellow alumni society member, André Bruce, who matriculated in 1991 and is now a commander in the SA Navy, shared his life story with the pupils. He also told them they could take up any profession in the navy, as it was a “microcosm of society”. “
Mr Bruce was also an executive member of the Mitchell’s Plain Students’ Congress in the 1980s and 1990s, a body of student activists fighting the apartheid regime.
He was supposed to matriculate two years earlier, but was in and out of detention in 1989; and the following year he worked in a factory. Mr Bruce chose to return to school and matriculated in 1991.
Being the youngest of eight children and raised by his mother, who died earlier this year, he was raised thinking hand-me-downs was a “brand”.
“My mother, who raised us by herself was a God-fearing woman, who gave me a solid foundation. Thank God for solid, God-fearing women,” he said, adding that growing up he had three choices: become a gangster, a “kerkbroer” or a comrade. “The third choice saved my life,” he said.
Mr Bruce said: “I chose to make something of my life. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are – create your own second chances. Choose your life. I can’t tell you it is easy, nothing is easy. Everything is stacked against you. Choose to make the right choices, choose the right friends and make good choices.”
Another speaker, a member of SAPS Special Task Force who asked to be anonymous because of the security nature of his job, said he had been the smallest Grade 8 pupil but sat among the older Grade 12 pupils “because I was fearless”.
South Africa’s Special Task Force, is considered to be among the best of such units in the world. It has a formidable reputation in counter terrorism, counter insurgency and hostage rescue. The STF, like their military special forces counterparts, are internationally regarded as being deadly exponents in the art of bush warfare. They handle high-risk operations that fall beyond the scope of classic policing which require specialised skills.
“Ek was baie besig. I wanted to be with the ‘ouens’ but as time went on, I realised this life was not for me,” said the officer. “One thing I always had though was respect for elders and I had manners,” he said.
Unfortunately he could not afford to study but joined the South African Police Service (SAPS). “Like they say, charity begins at home. Similarly the decisions to change, start at home. You need to make the decisions while you’re still young,” he said. “Be careful with the tjappies (tattoos) you choose, the friends you have, where you go. Make the right choices while you are young. There’s a saying that goes, ‘if it’s easy, it’s wrong’.”
PrincipalGregory Kannemeyer said a programme specifically addressing boys was long overdue. “We expect our boys to be role models and know their place in society but we are neglecting to show them what their responsibilities are in society, within their homes and at school,” he said.
Mr Kannemeyer said awareness had to be raised that gangsterism is not a way out but rather that there are men from the community, who have made choices and decisions that are impacting their lives. “We are going to try to do this every year, network with neighbouring schools and show these young men that there are other ways out of their circumstances,” he said.
He said the programme went a long way to reducing the number of school drop-outs.
Mr Kannemeyer said there are 280 Grade 8 pupils enrolled at the school and they are working hard to see most of them matriculate. “Here at Beacon Hill High School most of the programmes are geared towards reducing the drop-out rate,” he said.
Quinton Dreyer from the Department of Correctional Services, who works at Pollsmoor Prison, begged the young men not to end up in prison. “We are understaffed and under-resourced. You spend 23 -24 hours in a cell because there are not enough personnel. There is a lot in life to see – don’t waste your time. Don’t become a statistic.”
Alumni society member, Professor Floretta Boonzaier, who matriculated in 1991 and who is from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) psychology department, said it was important to target boys at a young age about alternatives to and choices against violence. She does research on finding alternatives to violence for men. “Why is there so much violence? Not just gang violence and killings but also domestic violence and sexual violence. When you look at women who are raped and children who are killed, robberies – the common denominator is men, who are perpetrating this violence whether is against fellow men or women,” she said.
Another alumni society member, clinical social worker Jeffeynore Jordaan, who matriculated in 2000, said the campaign was greatly needed in the community. “I am happy that it started with the boys but there is a need for girls to also be exposed to alternatives,” she said.
Ms Jordaan said girls short-changed themselves and having worked with mentees, from the school, the girls also feel like there is no way out of Mitchell’s Plain. She said it is great that primary school boys were included in the campaign.
“They need to know there are alternatives. They need a sense of belonging. A lot of pupils do not have their fathers around. Many of them do not have parents and are being reared by an aunt or a granny, who say they should go work after matric,” she said.
Ms Jordaan said a lot more pupils need to be reached. Monthly programmes should be held and if the father is available, he should accompany his son to the programme.
Mr Rittles had some more words of wisdom for the boys to ponder: “People often ask what good can come from Mitchell’s Plain. This is when you put up your hand.”