Jerome Jacobs is clean cut and articulate, but underneath his gray track suit, his oilive-toned skin bears the scars that are a testament to his years as a gangster in South Africa's notorious Cape Flats. During the apartheid era, these sprawling townships were a dumping ground outside bustling Cape Town for those of mixed race, known as "coloureds," whose problems fall between the country's divided black and white communities.
The letters "YDB" - the sign of the Young Dixie Boys - are carved into his right thigh. His back and shoulders are pocked with almost a dozen healed stab wounds. A fresh scar on his torso marks a less-than-month-old bullet wound.
After five years in the gang, during which time he ran drugs and guns and killed at least three people, Mr. Jacobs says he wants to turn his life around. He is recently engaged and says he's found God. But he knows it won't be easy. "If you join up with a gang, there's only one way you can get out, and that's in a coffin." Jacobs says.
South Africa's government, faced with combating a nationwide rise in violent crime, is just beginning to turn its attention in earnest to the decades-old problem in Cape Flats. Newly initiated programs work with community groups to unify poverty-alleviation programs, policing, and correctional services in areas with heavy gang activity.
"Gangsterism has become our No.1 priority," says Denise Brandt, head of communications for the Cape Town police. "We're now trying to address the problem in a unified way, coordinating social services and policing. Otherwise you're just dealing with the incident of violence."
Under the complex racial hierarchy of apartheid South Africa, the best areas were set aside for whites, the worst for blacks. Still other areas were devoted to the coloured people who were a living reminder of frowned-upon interracial mixing. They have European names and speak Afrikaans, the local dialect that evolved from Dutch settlers, but their tinted skin placed them somewhere above blacks but below whites.
The Cape Flats townships, located on a barren, sandy strip more than 15 miles outside Cape Town, were among these designated coloured areas. Today, they remain segregated almost exclusively along racial lines.
Street gangs, composed of unsupervised youths whose parents work miles away in the white-dominated city, first appeared in these areas around 40 years ago and rapidly became well-organized criminal units. They set up drug, extortion, and international smuggling rings and built networks in neighborhoods, prisons, and schools.
Today, an estimated 150 gangs, sporting names like the Americans and the Hard Livings, operate freely in the Cape Flats townships. Their battles over turf and dominance have turned the area into a near war zone. Uzi and AK-47 assault weapons and hand grenades are common tools of the trade, and an estimated 70 percent of crime in the Cape Town area is believed to be gang-related. Local newspapers estimate that more than 100 people have died in the violence this year alone. In 1999, the last year for which the police released crime statistics, 399 gang-related shootings were reported.
The underfunded and understaffed police struggle to retain a presence in the Cape Flats. In Mitchell's Plain, one of the epicenters of the gang wars and home to the Young Dixie Boys, only 15 officers patrol an area that is home to 1 million people - including an estimated 20,000 gangsters - during any given shift.
To stretch their station's resources, the police have begun implementing a number of community-oriented programs. They have established a well-organized neighborhood watch and initiated contact with anti-gang community groups and churches - attempting to broker peace between gangs, help those like Jacobs who want to leave gangs, and keep younger kids from joining them.
A Community Policing Forum, composed of a number of government departments and community members, was launched in June to try to open lines of communication between the community and government. "For the first time, we're trying to address the root causes of crime," said Hendrik Burger, director of the Mitchell's Plain precinct.
But in a community where gangs have infiltrated almost every aspect of life and touch almost every family, tackling gangsterism is a difficult project.
Gang members say corruption is widespread even among those who are supposed to fight crime. They say they have police on their payrolls and that guns confiscated by police or relinquished to community groups often find their way back to the streets.
There are also indications that some community groups founded to address gangsterism instead have become part of the problem. Several members of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), a predominantely Muslim group, are being tried on murder, drug running, and urban-terrorism charges. The group is alleged to run a mafia-style consortium that removes gang leaders to takes over their turf. Core One, an organization begun by a local pastor to broker peace between gangs, allegedly became a mechanism for inter-gang cooperation.
Those who remain dedicated to fighting gang activity in Cape Flats say that young people must be given an alternative to gangsterism and be shown that behind the money and glamour is death and self-destruction.
Jacobs is among those who have devoted themselves to such efforts. With five other former gang members, all from different gangs, he has set up a youth group at his new church. He wants to give Cape Flats youths an alternative by telling them the truth about life on the streets.
"I'm sorry for what I've done and ask God for forgiveness. In some cases, I had choices, but I still killed people because I wanted to prove myself. The more blood you shed, the more respect you have," he says. "I wants kids to know that this is no life."