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Cape Town's gangs: Martin's story

Martin Afrika
Martin Afrika's crudely tattooed body traces his life as a 20-year member of Cape Town's notorious 28 prison gang

Dan McDougall spent four months delving into Cape Town's violent gang culture. He witnessed young men - gangsters and drug addicts - turn to football to try to keep their heads above water. But ultimately, he explains, his journey left him despairing of a broken society, a place where those growing up in the streets and townships of the rainbow nation are prisoners not of apartheid's legacy and race, but of the true blights of modern South Africa - gangs, murder and drugs.

Martin Afrika sits before me brimming with dark menace.

"When you join the gang you can never leave - do you understand? These tattoos, these numbers in ink, they are here forever man," the 32-year-old career gangster, a member of South Africa's notorious 28s prison gang, told me.

Despite weeks spent following his life on the streets of Cape Town, and seeing him close to tears as he grappled to explain the lure of gang life, I confess that I still have an unnerving, primal fear of him.

While they play football, they're not out robbing, stealing, causing chaos around the city
Barney Stevens, MylifE Foundation

I first met Martin in his role as striker of a street football league that plays each week in the shadow of Cape Town's gleaming new stadium - soon to host World Cup matches.

Two years earlier, Martin had been nearby, sucking on a pipe filled with crystal meth - known here as tik - when he was asked to join in a game.

A new 'high'

The MylifE Foundation, which uses football to lure young men away from Cape Town's spiralling culture of gangs and drugs, was offering him another path and Martin soon found that the highs of goal scoring replaced the highs he craved from street drugs.

"Everyday when I play football, my mind doesn't go back to gangsters, doesn't go back to drugs," he told me.

MylifE's Barney Stevens, himself a former cocaine addict who now coaches the team, said: "While they play football, they're not out robbing, stealing, causing chaos around the city."

Martin Afrika
Obscenities are tattooed across Martin's body

For Martin, every inch of his bullet-scarred face and crudely tattooed body bears the marks of his past life. The top of his left thumb is gone - a twisted stump and as Martin catches my gaze, he explains matter-of-factly that it was shot off as he ran away from a deadly gang battle.

It is in this Cape Town where the developing world's townships are spilling over into the rainbow nation's first world dream.

The overwhelming scale of gang life in Cape Town is alarming.

The city has around 150 gangs, with an estimated 100,000 members. According to Cape Town's respected Metro police chief, Rob Young, gangsters and the drugs they peddle are responsible for about 80 percent of crime in the area.

"Children are left to grow up on the streets and they will grow up with the rules of the streets and that is the problem we are dealing with," he said.

Booming drugs trade

Apartheid's end has made things worse. With overmatched police constrained by numbers and resources, the gangs in Cape Town's poor neighbourhoods have grown in brutality and sophistication.

Well-armed, they have moved into lucrative rackets such as drug dealing, gun-running and money laundering.

Population: 50.1 million
Life expectancy: Men 50, Women 53
11 official languages including English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sesotho
Murders 1 April 2008 - 31 March 2009: 18,148

As South Africa opened up after all-race elections in 1994, the drug trade in particular boomed, providing a cash boost to the gangs that control it.

The reform of apartheid's brutal policing and legal system has made it easier for gangs to get guns and more difficult for police to act decisively against them.

Martin says his own gang initiation began when he was abandoned to the streets by an alcoholic mother at the age of five. He says she taught him his first and arguably only real lesson in life. Trust no one.

By the age of 10 and living in the Cape Flats, a loosely connected chain of townships which holds some of the most desolate and violent communities in all of South Africa, Martin found a new family in the gangs and graduated while in prison to the notorious 28 gang - with a history that dates back to 1906 when 28 black prisoners, incarcerated by the British, revolted.

What started as a move to defy the atrocities of the white prison regime more than a century ago is now a feared and ruthless gang that operates both on the streets and behind bars of the city's prisons.

Respite in football

Martin's life as a drug runner for his gang landed him in prison for the first time when he was just 12.

"My childhood was about gangsterism and drugs," says Martin. "It is all I ever knew. It is all I will ever know."

Almost 20 years after Martin fell under the spell of the 28s, the gang continues to recruit children from broken families who wander the streets.

Among the likely future recruits is Martin's own four-year-old son, Renauld.

He took me to meet the boy and his mother, Chantelle, a tik addict who, when I met her, was barely coherent. The cupboards are empty, the electricity long since shut off.

Renauld is left to the streets and the random care of neighbours and Martin sees no way out for the boy.

Martin said his own criminal history means that he cannot seek custody of Renauld and he despairs that his young life is already pre-destined to gangsterism.

Dan McDougall in Cape Town
Reporter Dan McDougall despaired at the gangs, murder and drugs culture

"I don't want his life to end up the same as mine, to be put out of the house at five. I'm trying my best."

Two years ago, Martin found respite from gang life through football.

"I found that I was a good player man," he says of the talent he did not know he had until that pick-up game. "I scored many goals and everyone was congratulating me. It was better than drugs."

Within a year Martin said he was winning his battle with drugs and even took part in the Homeless World Cup, representing South Africa at football in Italy.

He agreed, along with five of his football teammates, to film for us in order to help us gain insight into gangland life.

But despite his confidence that he was leaving his past behind, he was not strong enough to act as an observer.

On his third trip to film for us, Martin disappeared for nine days. He had sold the camera equipment we loaned him and spent the money on an epic drugs binge that led to his arrest.

"You don't leave the gangs. You don't leave the gangs. This mark is here forever," he told me after his arrest.

Football it seemed, wasn't enough to save Martin Afrika.

Panorama: More than Just a Game, BBC One, Monday, 1 March at 2030GMT.


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