By Loushe Jordaan-Gilbert
This story is part of a series focusing on former gang members who changed their lives for the better.
Searching for comfort and a sense of belonging, 28-year-old Nico from Bonteheuwel said his life took a turn for the worse upon discovering that his mom was diagnosed with cancer. Nico who is recovering from drug addiction is one of the very few young men on the Cape Flats, who will ever get a second chance at life. After spending a 12-year broken sentence in jail for murder and robbery, he is trying to pick up the pieces of his life.
In conversation with VOC News this week, Nico reflected on his life of crime and gangsterism. Gang-life was an easy route, he says, as gangsters prey on the vulnerable, especially those coming from broken homes.
“I had it tough from the beginning. I grew up without a father and was raised by a single mother. Looking back at my life, all odds was against me. I lived in a community where people assumed I was just another child ‘born to be evil’. My life just went downhill when I was told that my mom was diagnosed with cancer,” he said.
“I never understood why my life was so different to the others…I always felt that I was unloved and unwanted. But all that changed when I started roaming the streets and found myself recruited in a gang. They gave me a sense of belonging and a fresh start to escape my reality.”
Quickly glancing over to the VOC journalist seated in front him, Nico said he was not raised in a broken home. Even though he was confronted with many negative challenges, his mom tried her best to teach him right from wrong, a home where morals and values were of great importance.
“My mom raised me to the best of her ability, everything that has ever happened to me is all on me. I chose the parties, the crime, the girls and the gangs.”
GANGS: THE ULTIMATE ESCAPE
Nico said the trappings of gang life was enticing at first – the girls, the parties and being a high-roller. But his introduction to drugs led him down a slippery slope and made him do unspeakable things.
“They (gang leaders) eased me into everything…first alcohol, then the money, the girls, the popular life and then they gave me a knife and told me to stab someone at a club. This was the last thing I expected but I was already in too deep and they were intimidating, so I did it,” he said.
Burying his head in his hands, Nico said after his “initiation” he moved up the ladder and was given a gun.
“You don’t just get a gun, you earn it, and I did. I moved up the ranks and next thing I knew I made enemies and I was in jail for murder charges,” he added.
Spending five years in jail, Nico’s life continued to spin out of control.
“I got five years jail time and was released, but because I was so deep into gangsterism, I could not walk away. I spent a month on the straight and narrow and later found myself back with my gang, doing the exact same thing that got me in jail,” he said.
After being convicted and sentenced again, Nico realized that whenever he was sent to prison, friends were few and far between. The only person that ever came to visit him and showed a genuine interest in his wellbeing was his mother.
“In jail, I made a decision to change my life. My mom was getting sick and I was all she had. I wanted to be someone she could be proud of, so I started taking classes at jail to rehabilitate myself,” he said.
In prison, Nico was told about ex-convict Rashaad Allen, who is the founder of the Foundation for Positive Change. It was easy to relate and speak to Allen because they had similar backgrounds. Nico says Allen was fully aware of the struggles and challenges ex-gangsters and ex-drug addicts faced and this helped tremendously in his recovery.
With at least 56 murders recorded in the Bonteheuwel area since the start of the year, Nico said he could easily have been amongst those killed.
When asked what his biggest challenge is now that he has started a new life, Nico said his body which is covered in gang tattoos, still scares people and prevents him from “truly being free”.
“When I got these tattoos it was cool, but now it is only cool in my communities…it’s like a fashion statement. But the moment I go to a more affluent area, people judge me and start hiding their things thinking I might steal them.”
Nico, who is now drug and gang free and lives at one of the Foundation for Positive Change homes, said his life has never been better.
“I am a completely new person. I have a job where I make an honest living, I have a sense of direction and good people helping me recover every single day.”