How a bullet led to the unlikeliest of friendships

"You better pray before you die," said the skinny young thug, as he jabbed his gun against the head of an off-duty policeman.

The thug, Jacob Mayema, and his friends had cornered officer Christopher Mgobese in a dark field near one of South Africa's rough slums.

The gun went off.

Thus began a tale not of death and destruction, but of forgiveness and hope.

Not only did the policeman survive the gunshot; he later accepted a tearful apology from his attacker. Today the two are friends, even jamming together on trumpet and drums.

Theirs is a remarkable story of reconciliation that comes from the land where Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - albeit amid controversy - pardoned hundreds of apartheid-era crimes in exchange for confessions.

Now, a nation grappling with one of the world's worst violent-crime problems is building on tribal traditions that uplift both victim and perpetrator. The result could be a model of how to integrate such "restorative justice" into a legal system.

Not that the two men's reconciliation was easy. Nor is restorative justice simple to implement - or often very popular. But with 85 percent of young South African offenders heading back to prison within six months of their release, there's growing support for anything that works.

The restorative-justice program that helped reconnect Mr. Mayema and Mr. Mgobese has recidivism rates of just 20 percent.

The stories of Mayema and Mgobese began long before that pivotal night in 1994. After seeing his politically-active father killed in front of him, Mayema - a trumpet-playing churchgoer - joined Mr. Mandela's African National Congress. But the self-defense group that they formed within the ANC turned into the independent "7.65G" gang, named after the guns they created out of car parts. "We did so many bad crimes," Mayema recalls.

Mgobese, meanwhile, was a decorated policeman during the white-run apartheid regime. He is of the Zulu tribe - which made him a prime target for Mayema's gang of mostly Xhosa tribe members. After being shot that night, Mgobese fired back, hitting his assailant, who was captured and sentenced to five years in prison.

At first, Mayema could only think of killing Mgobese as revenge for putting him in prison. But then the inmate encountered Khulisa, a group that works with juvenile offenders whose name in Zulu means "let the child grow." Sessions with counselors, creative-writing assignments, and time to reflect sparked new empathy for his victim. "What if he was the only one who had a job in his family? What would they do if he died?" the convict said he asked himself. He could relate because his mother supported him and his five siblings.

He also realized that gang life is no good. "With crime, you end up in prison or crippled or killed," he says. He says that, with Khulisa's help, he soon realized he had to ask for forgiveness after his release.

"When a perpetrator says they're sorry, it can act as a kind of deterrent," says Khulisa staff member Elza Stander, adding that an apology enables the perpetrator "to see the pain they've caused."

But it's often hard for the victim to forgive. Mgobese still has a bullet in his neck from that night. When Ms. Stander first approached him about reconciliation, he recoiled. The idea grew on Mgobese, however. "In my family, everyone would come together - and work things out," he says, bringing his large hands together in a sign of unity. In fact, the traditional African principle of ubuntu, or unity, is still strong today. It dictates that families or communities join together to support victim and perpetrator - and return "wholeness" or "balance" to the group.

In 2001, Mgobese agreed to a meeting. In a room at the police station, many of his policeman friends stood behind him. Mayema was called in, shaking with fear. He fell to the floor in front of Mgobese, asking forgiveness. With a stiff handshake, Mgobese assented.

Trust came slowly. When Mgobese invited Mayema to his house, he thought the cop was going to kill him - until Mgobese put his gun away. "Thank God he survived," says Mayema today.

The policeman's family is still skeptical. Indeed, many people in countries with "restorative justice" efforts - such as New Zealand, Britain, and the US - argue it's soft on criminals. But with prisons full, Britain is increasingly allowing judges to shorten jail terms for offenders who've apologized to their victims.

While even supporters acknowledge that reconciliation can't always be achieved, there's growing momentum here for such efforts. All South African probation officers are now being trained in restorative-justice techniques. The national prison service adopted restorative justice as an official approach in 2001, although implementation has been slow.

Much of the reconciliation is being spearheaded by non-profit groups, which are increasingly gaining government funding. Khulisa, for instance, works with 1,000 of the 50,000 juveniles in detention here. After several high-profile reconciliations, it and other groups are getting scores of letters each day from inmates who hope to apologize to their victims.

As for the two men, the former inmate started a brass band that has performed as far away as Norway and France. He and Mgobese played together at a performance for pensioners. The former thug also talks to gang members, trying to get them to change course.

Mgobese is revered by his police colleagues who respectfully call him, "Nduna," or "governor."

Inspector Alfred Rasilingwane clucks in amazement at his longtime partner. "Sometimes big situations," he says, referring to the shooting, "make for big actions. And that is good."

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