Neil Moses joined the Americans gang of South Africa when he was only 21. He was tattooed, marking him for life with the gang obsessed with all things American, condemning him to a life of crime.
“The day I got my tattoo, they told me, ‘This is the day that you sign your death wish. You could die today, tomorrow. You could die anytime,’” Neil said.
The Americans are dangerous — Neil himself killed someone in a knife fight — with gang violence in Cape Town accounting for almost 1,000 killings in six months.
“When you’re on drugs, you don’t feel anything,” Neil said. “It just happens, and then it’s finished.”
Reports show there are roughly 100,000 gang members in the city of 4 million, but faced with a global pandemic, some are turning from their violent ways. Violent crime dropped by 75% during the coronavirus outbreak, and groups even began enlisting the help of gangs to help others.
Andie Steele-Smith, a pastor and volunteer for the Hillsong Africa Foundation in Cape Town, started working with gang members back in 2015 after God told him to give up his career in banking and move from his native Australia to South Africa. He built relationships with the different groups, earning the name “gang pastor” to his parishioners.
He saw the pandemic coming. Not in the psychic or even the epidemiologist way, but in the way where he saw how a disturbance like that could devastate those already living in poverty.
“We didn’t know exactly how bad it was going to be,” Andie said. “We thought it was going to be worse at this moment. Although, I think it’s going to get worse. We had to do something. We went and bought about ($2,700) worth of soap bars, initially.”
Buying the soap was one thing, but getting it into the hands of those who needed it was another. Andie enlisted the help of gang members but didn’t have them hand out the soap on their own turf. Instead, he sent them to different neighborhoods, ones where they might not receive a warm welcome.
“That seemed to be pretty cool to me, to them it seemed to be revolutionary,” Andie said. “They were all shaking their heads going, ‘We’re not meant to be here. We’ll get killed,’ or ‘You’re not meant to be here. We’re meant to kill you,’ or that kind of thing.”
We Are Starving
South Africa got hit with some of the strongest lockdown laws worldwide. Officials banned everything from alcohol to cigarettes, making it hard to get food and other essentials.
The soap helped stave off some of the coronavirus germs, but there was still a problem getting food to those in need.
“I got a phone call from two gang leaders, both saying, ‘Andie, I’ve never asked you for anything, but we are starving,’ ” Andie said. “And I just thought, if these guys are starving — they are at the top of the food chain — the rest of the community is going to be in serious, serious strife.”
Andie bought food in bulk, enlisting gang members to help distribute the goods and offsetting some of the devastation from the pandemic. The efforts led to a temporary truce, but Andie hopes the peace will last longer than the pandemic.
“By God’s grace, the team has managed to reach and serve over 50,000 of the inhabitants of these poor communities in Cape Town. If this was a music tour, I think we would call it ‘Operation Sunlight’ or maybe ‘When Love Comes to Town,’ ” Andie said.