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South Africa: The Secret Life of a Violence Interrupter

“He got shot through his ears,” Khiyaam Frey says. It’s a late March day in Hanover Park, a rundown suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. Outside, nothing much seems to be happening. A few road workers are building new sidewalks; the occasional shirtless youth strolls down the otherwise empty streets. A few miles west, Table Mountain looms, looking as placid as the neighborhood. In his boss’ sparse office, Frey, forty-five, leans his tall, lean body back in an office chair, sits stock-still, and explains why the peace around here is a brief illusion.

He’d know. He’s a professional violence interrupter, and here in Hanover Park, he’s on duty twenty-four hours a day.

Violence interruption is a specialized form of community health work invented fifteen years ago. Frey, a lifelong resident of Cape Town, is part of a web of interrupters that stretches across seven countries on four continents. Each place uses the method perfected by that first organization, Ceasefire, in Chicago: they stop violence by communicating with the people who commit it. In Hanover Park, a community of 54,000, that means Frey, four other interrupters, and their boss, Pastor Craven Engel, deal with 1,600 active gang members, of whom they estimate about 300 are likely to kill. When one does, they work to avert retaliatory shootings and full-on gang wars – counseling the victim’s family, trying to recruit the shooter into an inpatient rehab program for violent perpetrators, and often setting up phone or in-person meetings between gang leaders so they can peacefully resolve each killing. Worldwide, most interrupters, like Frey, have credibility with gangsters because they were once gangsters themselves.

The previous few days haven’t been easy. On Wednesday night, a gang member shot and killed a guy named Tio. After spending the night at the hospital with the victim’s family, Frey has been working on brokering peace between the shooter’s gang and their rivals. The effort offers insights into guns, violence and how to manage both.

“He wasn’t a gang member,” Frey says about the dead man. Tio lived here in Hanover Park all his life; he did nobody any harm. “He was a soccer player.”

At eleven p.m. on March 18, Tio was outside his house when a member of a gang called the Mongrels walked by. That gang member (who interrupters have identified, but whose name they decline to disclose) had recently decamped from another gang to join the Mongrels, one of the most violent groups in Hanover Park. They’d been sure to test the newbie’s loyalty by sending him out on assignments. This was his second errand; he was out on bail for the murder of another enemy of the gang. This time, the hitman failed to find his intended target, a member of a gang called the Americans. So – in a move that interrupters couldn’t immediately pinpoint as consistent with gang orders or purely impulsive – he shot Tio eleven times in the face instead.

Pastor Engel, before conducting the funeral that Saturday, would shake his head and wish aloud for a closed casket. Frey has seen his own share of horrors. Recently, he says, he happened to be on scene when a gun-wielding gangster threatened to shoot a taxi driver. Frey stepped between the two, trying to get the enraged gangster to stand down. He succeeded at averting a killing, but “Blood was splattered all over me,” he says, coming from the driver’s scalp after the would-be shooter struck him.

Even when he’s not working, violence is never far away. “I witnessed how they shot someone dead in front of me.” Last fall, one man shot another in an open field in the neighborhood. In the chaos of screaming adults and shocked children, Frey says, “He did the last six shots in front of me. And I was so traumatized that I asked Pastor if he couldn’t give me a furlough for a few days, because that wasn’t something nice to witness.”

Arguably, that isn’t the worst he’s experienced. In late 2013, he was arrested after a gang member fleeing police threw his gun near Frey. “They didn’t even find the gun on me, they found it twenty meters away from me,” he says. “It was like they were framing me.” He knew that snitching would violate one of the most basic rules of street culture and cost Ceasefire the trust of the community, though. So he bit his tongue about who the real owner was – and endured thirty-five days in jail. Out on bail, he’s still waiting for the case to be resolved.

* * *

When Frey and I sit down in the Pastor’s office – the day outside clear and quiet, the air broken by no sound – he says that South Africa is “not really” open to more gun control. The topic doesn’t even seem to interest him much. Quickly, he shifts into discussing a girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered on Thursday, the day after Tio was killed, in a case that may have involved no guns at all. “Most of these South African gangsters are on what is possible,” he says. “If it’s not selling drugs, it’s planning armed robberies. Some of them will do other things, like getting girls and abusing them….”

For a moment, it sounds like a digression. But his point — that the availability of weapons here isn’t the root of the problem — makes a lot of sense. American gun control supporters sometimes point out that the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership on Earth (101.5 guns per hundred people), and the highest rate of homicides by gun among all developed countries (9,960 people killed annually). South Africa has only 6.94 guns per 100 people, illegal guns included. Yet South Africa ranks right behind the U.S. for homicides, with 8,319 gun murders in 2012 according to the same UN dataset. That’s 17.03 out of every 100,000 people in South Africa, compared to 3.2 per 100,000 in the US.

As Frey sees it, it’s not really about the control of guns. It’s about the humans who want to use them. As he says, most of these South African gangsters are on what is possible.

Frey’s own route to his current position was a path through violence. An ex-gang member with multiple convictions, he says he can manage the largest beat of any of the five local interrupters because he was once a well-known gang leader here. Now forty-five, he left gang life behind years ago, becoming active in a local mosque and raising a family. Ceasefire, started here in late 2012, hired him for his deep connections and credibility with most local gangs.

Frey says he talks to violent youth “like a father,” concerned not about evil but how the disease of violence has afflicted them. His compassion extends far enough to let the young criminal who framed him go. “I met him,” he says, in the visiting room at the prison. “I told him: ‘You must know this isn’t my gun. So why didn’t you tell the cops it was yours?’ And I wanted to hit him, but Pastor said no, I must leave him.” He did.

Besides, he says, the situation is broader than any one player – and this is why enhanced gun laws wouldn’t work. “The gun in this case of mine, this comes from the Phillippi police station,” he says, naming a community area near Hanover Park. (Officials at the police station could not be reached for comment regarding the origin of the gun associated with his criminal case.) Frey says it is an exemplar of how economically-motivated corruption can trump regulation: “You must ask yourself the question now, how did the gun come in the community? So one of these cops, they have access in the gangs, and they are on their payroll…. So, if you go back to the pay rate of a cop, he’s paid once a month, and maybe he’s got problems by his home, about furniture, rent and water. So he must steal now, and then bring it into the community.”

Perhaps corruption, too, is contagious behavior. But perhaps that doesn’t matter much to Frey. His critical role is to avoid more senseless deaths like Tio’s by talking to the Mongrels and the Americans, ensuring they don’t shoot anyone else in retaliation for this killing.

So far, the plan to do that is as far as anyone has gotten. The mediation wraps up a week later, with Pastor Engel writing in an email, “They will just discuss their conflict and… discuss a way forward.”

But Frey, at the point, isn’t available to talk. There has been another shooting and he’s busy averting the next gang war.

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