CAPE TOWN - Having a job is what middle-aged women, who have been locked in gangs and drugs for over a decade, hope will be the key to their freedom and independence.
Two women from Manenberg, an area notorious for its gang culture and crime, share their story as a plea for an opportunity to take their lives in a new direction.
In a tale of love and war, Najuwa Isaacs, a 42-year-old mother of three, was only 19 when she had a crush on a guy who presented an entry into a world she is now desperate to leave behind.
“I was crazy about him back then, not knowing he is a gangster, we got involved.
“We always used to sit at a pub in the backyard, always with music playing, every week we went there and got comfortable with each other.
“Then I met another guy and fell in love with him more but the first one didn’t wanna (want to) leave me alone.
“I had to make a decision and when I made the decision, one didn’t like it so they pulled a gun on each other. That incident resulted in a gang fight that lasted between seven and eight months.
“I had to take myself away because both gangs changed me. The one who was in love with me went to jail, then they came after me.”
She said the memory still haunted her to this day, “when I look at people who lost their children in that gang fight, it is still not nice for me”.
When the man she was in love, a member of the Hard Living gang returned from prison, a meeting was held with the opposing gang to call for peace, she says, and this allowed her to return home.
The rest of life as an indirect gang affiliate like for many other women, consisted of “keeping guns, hiding bullets”.
“These are things expected from us that could land us in jail. I was in prison once”.
Prison she also described as a “hell” like no other.
“It is horrible in the female prison. If you are inside, you are locked up at a certain time, woken up to be counted three to four times a day. You are always inside. Some women act like men. Women call themselves ’broekies’ en ’skirtjies’, they couple up, make tents, people get mothers and fathers inside etc.”
She said while “everything is free, there’s space for no one”.
“There are plus minus 100 people in a room and in the court cells, people mostly sleep on the floor”.
Isaacs is now single so she says her ties with the gangster lifestyle is over.
“I am done and I won’t go back. My baby’s father wants me back. I don’t wanna (want to) get involved with him. He slept with my oldest daughter and I saw it and that made me write him off. He has no respect. I can’t see why he wants me back. I believe no gangster that a woman gets involved with has respect for her. I don’t think there’s love. It’s death or prison,” she said.
Parallel to the demanding lifestyle in a gang, Isaacs has held several factory jobs and is willing to do anything just to work again.
“I can’t change my past but I can start over. I just want to work so I can provide for my children and live my life in peace. It doesn’t matter the job, it’s about being independent and standing on my own two feet,” she said.
Fourty-year-old mother of four, Christine Jacobs is always tired of life in a gang.
“My children are 24, 18, seven and three. One of my children died in a car accident, they knocked him over when he was five,” she said.
Her own father was shot when she was five, so she was raised by her grandmother, Jacobs said.
In a story that almost mirrors that of Isaacs, it started with a crush but she was just 16 at the time.
“He was a gangster, 17 at the time. So we used to dance and that’s how I got into drugs and that’s how I ended up in prison for shoplifting.”
She says the relationship didn’t work out but she ended up dating another gangster who is now in prison and she has been clean (off drugs) for two years.
“I've changed my life now that he is in prison and I'm looking to God. Its hard now that I am off drugs because I am still around people using but I thankfully I don’t get the desire anymore.
“I want to work and be a better mother for my four children. I have looked for work but haven’t found anything. It’s difficult when you have a criminal record because people judge you, but all I am asking for is a chance to prove myself and start over,” she said.
Community worker Valerie Olifant from Helping Hands Manenberg, says she has known the women for a very long time and could see their desire to change, even though it was not easy in their circumstances.
“The unemployment rate is very high, so it is already hard for many people in our community. These women are trying their best to leave the situation they are in and I can see it through their involvement in my soup kitchen. They will see me busy and come willingly to help me peel potatoes and so on without me even needing to ask, so I really see that they want to change their lives.
“Poverty is the main thing driving them in these situations, it’s a survival thing, it is tough where we live.”
Olifant added that the other challenge was the easy accessibility to drugs.
“Despite this, I can see them trying, Christine has even gained weight again, they are putting in the work to get themselves out of the situation, they just need support.”
Olifant is calling for assistance to help provide the women with employment opportunities.
She can be contacted on 062 630 1825.