South Africa: From Gang Member to Role Model

Publication Date: 
June 09, 2015

They are huddled on almost every corner, yet feel mostly invisible -- except for the stares of disgust from passersby who judge them as being inferior, delinquent or criminal. Malnourished, ill and traumatized, their days are awash in alcohol and their hours numbed with sniffing glue, the only escape from the pain of abandonment, abuse, exploitation or worse. They are the hundreds of thousands of South African youth living on the streets, desperate for a way out.

These youth have names, like Sinethemba -- whose membership in a Cape Town street gang offered dubious protection from the cycle of substance abuse, theft and violence in which he had become trapped. But it's what they don't have -- a future -- that drains them of hope, optimism and a vision for a better tomorrow.

Sinethemba lived this nightmare daily during his formative teenage years. Born to young and absent parents and effectively abandoned by his extended family, he began drinking at the age of 13. First arrested for robbery at 16, he was back on the streets within five months -- this time, with the "credibility" of gang affiliation.

"I didn't have any family to stop me," he says. "And the gang gave me a sense of belonging. It supported me financially and made me feel safer out on the streets. I felt powerful and respected -- no longer a 'nobody'."

Sadly, this power and respect came at the expense of others, and -- had it not been for outside intervention -- the rush it provided fueled what might have become an increasingly violent and criminal existence with an inevitable end. But, thanks to a prison outreach program offered in parallel with the life-skills and vocational training programs provided by Salesian Life Choices, Sinethemba -- like thousands of other homeless and at-risk youth living in impoverished communities around South Africa -- found his own way out of despair. He found a new sense of belonging.

Based on the Cape peninsula, Salesian Life Choices believes that four building blocks -- family stability, health, education and leadership -- are critical for South Africa's youth to survive and thrive. As such, they offer comprehensive services in each of these areas with a vision of empowering youth with the knowledge and skills they need to lead stable and productive lives.

Today, Sinethemba says he has become "the role model I never had. I want to be a leader and a good father one day." He is studying electrical engineering and theology, and works directly with youth involved in substance abuse and gang activity.

Salesian Life Choices is but one of many Salesian-run programs around Cape Town and throughout South Africa that focus on homeless youth. In fact, since 1910, the Salesian Institute has been providing shelter, education and workforce development services for hundreds of young men and women at risk each year -- helping them break the chains of poverty and despair once and for all.

"Salesians living and working in South Africa tailor programs specifically to meet the needs of youth in the communities they serve," says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. "Homeless and hungry girls and boys are not able to focus on educational pursuits or achieve their full potential until their most basic needs are met."

"And, we know from experience that education empowers homeless youth with the knowledge and skills they need to secure decent employment, rediscover their dignity, and pull themselves out of poverty," he continues. "That's why the Salesian Institute's Youth Projects initiative is so crucial to the future of South Africa's children and young adults."

The Institute's Youth Projects consist of five main programs -- an outreach program, a hostel for homeless youth, a learn-to-live education program and two workforce development programs. The projects are managed by a diverse team, some of whom live on the premises to support youth in the hostel and outreach programs. This holistic and comprehensive initiative begins with providing for a child's most basic needs, and "ends" when that child has successfully completed school, learned a trade, and secured long-term employment.

For more information about this important work, please visit the Salesian Institute's Youth Projects website.

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