How education was used to make gangs on farms a relic of our past
The misty woods in the hills near Wilderness hold dark memories of violence.
Ten years ago, unemployment, lack of interest in education and poor social conditions, compounded by alcohol and drug abuse, led to fighting between the children of labourers at various logging farms in the Outeniqua mountains.
Domestic violence spilt into the streets and at least two farms experienced serious gang rivalry that regularly escalated into bloodshed.
In 2007, farmers around the village of Touwsranten decided to intervene, and they began by approaching Dr Chandré Gould, a resident of nearby Hoekwil with an impressive record as a senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme of the Institute for Security Studies.
“Most of my work over the past 25 years in one way or another has been about preventing or responding to violence, whether that’s interpersonal violence or state violence,” said Gould, who was also a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“When I was approached by the commercial farmers it just made perfect sense for me to be involved in my own community in preventing violence and bringing whatever knowledge and skills that I have to bear.
“It’s part of what I’d committed to generally. In most of what I have done I have regarded myself as an activist. I believe that positive change is possible and that individuals can help to make that change.”
In 2008, she helped to set up the Seven Passes Initiative to tackle the outbreak of violence among young people, and today it has become a distant memory, replaced by stories of academic achievement.
“If we are going to address violence – criminal violence and all other forms of violence – we are going to have to make homes, families and communities safer places for children,” said Gould, who wrote a book last year recounting interviews she had done with robbers, rapists and men who had spent most of their adult lives in jail.
“All of the men I spoke to had experienced more violence in their lives than they have ever perpetrated,” she said.
“Intervening early to support children’s cognitive development, life skills development and education is the best investment we can make in the long-term development of our country and the best investment in preventing violence in the long term,” Gould said.
Shannen Buys grew up in Touwsranten and is among an increasing number of young people from the area who are passing matric and going on to a tertiary education.
With a BCom from North-West University in her back pocket, she returned to the community and is now involved in workshops to teach positive parenting techniques.
“Seven Passes plays a big role in the community. They help with education and they help with the school, where they provide class assistants, and they started the after-school classes,” Buys said.
“Now we have started with the parenting course. We are trying to reduce poverty and unemployment. We help kids to be hard-working from a young age and teach them how to achieve their goals.”
Gould, Buys said, had a loving family, and wanted the same for other households. “She helps people to get to the top. She is one of the people who encouraged me to move forward and to achieve something in my life.”
For her part, Gould said that as a white South African she felt compelled to use her skills to help her fellow citizens.
“It is our responsibility to use our social capital, skills and networks to contribute to national development and community development,” she said.
“White South Africans have all experienced privilege in our lives, and continue to be privileged. Sharing the resources that come from access to quality education, and sharing our networks of contacts who are also able to leverage resources, is our duty as much as it is also a privilege itself.”
Seven Passes was a collective undertaking and “only possible because of the collective energy and dedication of a number of people”, she said.
“The ‘real heroes’ are the staff of Seven Passes, our volunteers, members of our board and our donors who make this possible, and the members of the community who contribute to and support our work,” said Gould.
Seven Passes sponsors nine teaching assistants and has set up a choir and kickboxing classes. There are reading groups and a primary school feeding scheme, and every afternoon more than 100 children flock to its homework classes.
Touwsranten is catching the attention of academics as far afield as the UK; Reading University is involved with the University of Cape Town in studying the efforts to improve parenting in the community.
Amelia King, one of the mothers attending a positive parenting course, said the project was unifying and revitalising the community.
“There is something big happening and I think that’s what the community needed – a boost. Seven Passes is giving that to us,” she said.
Her friend Aphinda Ramba said: “Maybe in the future Seven Passes can stop the drugs, because that is the biggest problem, the drugs.”