In his early teens, Zuko Mabene (19) embarked on a brief, violent journey into gangsterism. Witnessing the loss of a loved one forced him to question who he truly was and helped him to reject the persona that had gained him notoriety in his community.
Zuko was born in Cape Town and grew up in Samora Machel with his parents and his younger brother. When he was two years old his mother died.
“I was too small to fully remember my mom passing away, but what I can remember is that community members took turns to take care of me and my brother when our father was at work.
“When I asked my family what happened, they only said that she was sick. She started coughing and she lost weight. They told me how she had died but not what had killed her.
“I saw my dad as both my mom and dad. He took care of us. He was really good at it. I did not miss having a mother figure in my life.”
Zuko’s father remarried a few years after Zuko’s mother died.
“I started having a mother again when I was in Grade 4. I was surprised when I saw her for the first time. Traditionally, there is a specific kind of dress that you wear as a woman when you are married. So, I was shocked when I saw her because my dad never said that he was going to get married. Our father had gone to the Eastern Cape to find a wife.”
Zuko describes the relationship with his step-mother as challenging. He recalls instances in his childhood where her actions toward him and his brother seemed difficult to understand.
“She did not do things for us, like help us with our homework and other similar things I believe mothers should do.
“Sometimes we would come home from school and the door to the house would be locked. She believed that we were stealing food and clothes and bringing them to our friends without permission. My brother and I would sit outside and wait sometimes for hours before she came home. My younger brother would sometimes faint from hunger.
While he was growing up, Zuko’s family barely made ends meet and they fell short of the basic necessities needed to survive. This was particularly bad when his father lost his job as his step-mother’s erratic job selling insurance policies only provided the family with an irregular income.
“My parents would ask for food next door. Sometimes we would go to bed after having just bread and tea. We were poor. My dad would tell us we are going through a fasting phase, and because fasting is a common practice in our church we would believe him. Now that I’m older, I realise what he was doing. He told us a story so that we did not realise that there was no food.”
When Zuko entered Grade 7 (13), he became fascinated by gangsterism. Gangsters were well-known and feared in the community and he watched brutal gang fights where he grew up.
“Every day, we would see people get stabbed in the community. After school, everyone in the community knew that the gangs would fight. It would be so quiet; the streets became quiet before fights would start. The gang members would run out of school and plenty of guys would come from Philippi with shirts on their heads. They would have mostly knives, hockey and golf sticks.
“From an early age, every time there was a gang fight I would run to watch it. The whole community would watch at a distance, it was exciting to see all the blood and the techniques they used in the fight.”
“We grew up fighting with sticks, so they would use golf and hockey bats in the fights - not guns. Guns were rarely used. If someone had a gun they would hesitate to use it and maybe shoot in the air first as a warning shot. The gang members were all young and the only way they could leave the gang was when they became men culturally (they went to the mountain). Gang members would respect that.”
Zuko thought that by being a gangster it would elevate his social status in the community, a community in which he went mostly unnoticed.
“I did not feel seen or noticed by anyone, not at home and not at school. Most of my peers were gangsters and I could see the bond they had among themselves. I also could see they were admired, they had status after each fight.”
“I thought that if I do this and become a gangster I would become a cool guy. The girls would like me and the guys would respect me. I was just a ghost at primary school. This was my chance, so I decided to join.”
While Zuko was keen to sign up as a gangster and get a taste of the popularity he craved, his mentor kept warning him.
“There was a guy at school who showed me the ropes of the gangster lifestyle, but he always said, ‘don’t do what I do. You should stay in school. You are smart. I’m not smart. I don’t have a future.’ He never did his homework and he rarely came to school.”
Despite this advice, Zuko went ahead with his plan.
“I was not much of a gangster inside. Every time we had to fight before school ended, I would start shaking because I was scared and nervous. I would not be able to concentrate at school.
“We fight, I think, to prove our manhood and to keep our territory. We did not sell drugs or use guns. This was just an act to prove our pack was stronger. To prove ourselves as young men.
“I never chose to fight in the frontline, but the time came where I needed to prove myself in front of members of the gang. It was during a fight with a rival gang that I stabbed another boy.
“I felt weird, I saw blood on my hands. Everything was in slow motion, I could hear him calling out for his friends. I was in a state of shock, no emotions whatsoever.”
Afterwards, the realisation of what he had done kicked in and Zuko began to worry.
“At home, I prayed that he did not die. I had a period of self-reflection and asked myself, ‘is this who I am? Do I like doing this?’ But at the same time, I asked myself, if I stopped, then I would just go back to being a nobody.”
The boy Zuko stabbed fully recovered in hospital and when he returned to the community he stopped being a gangster.
While the incident provoked feelings of guilt and anxiety about the boy’s wellbeing, Zuko gained the popularity and acceptance he craved among his peers.
“It felt good. I felt like a guy. Everywhere I went people knew me. If a guy from a different area saw me he would cross the street and I would think to myself, ‘he is showing respect’. My community was finally acknowledging me.”
But his life as a gangster abruptly came to an end, Zuko recalls his last fight.
“Sipho and I had joined the gang at the same time. However, Sipho had progressed through the ranks much faster than me, due to his ruthlessness in fights.
“That day I thought I should be on the frontlines together with Sipho. The fight began and I heard a sound behind me. It was Sipho, who had been hit on the head by rival gang members throwing a rock.
“My first instinct was to run as fast as I could. But for a split second, I thought about my friend. I tried to get Sipho to run with me, but he was so disoriented. I thought about dragging him out of danger but the rival gang was just so close to us. I made the decision to save myself and I left him behind. Sipho was killed in that fight, they took a shovel and split his skull.
“Despite the death of other people being such a norm in my life at that time, I felt very sorry for my friend. I felt guilty about Sipho’s death. I felt like it was my fault.
“The other hard part is that the other gang members did not speak to me, I think because I left Sipho to die there. If I saw the gang members, they gave me the cold shoulder. What hurt me the most was that no one spoke about what had happened. No one understood that my survival instinct had kicked in. They actually blamed me for Sipho’s death.”
The distance his gang members put between themselves and Zuko coincided with growing community resistance to gangsterism and ultimately led to him giving up the lifestyle.
“A neighbourhood watch was formed, and known gang members were arrested. Eventually, gangsters lost their grip on the community.
“I also came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t gangster material. I was afraid of dying and I did not want to hurt others.”
Zuko has come to the realisation that the chapter of his life as a gangster taught him invaluable lessons. He discourages young people from adopting that lifestyle.
“Reflecting on it now, I ask myself, ‘was it good? What did I take out of it? Nothing good.’ I was actually a bad person then. What we did was bad and it had serious consequences. Young kids say to me it’s cool to be a gangster, but I tell them it’s wrong. Any opportunity I have I talk to young people in my community to tell them it is not worth it.
“I was trying to be like others, and I was trying to live like them. If I could travel back in time I would change that part of my life. There are other ways to be cool. I feel like now I’m the coolest person I know. I do good and I am focused on pursuing a career in media studies.”
When asked for his last remarks, Zuko concluded, “I think in our communities we witness brutal violence from a young age. It becomes our norm, we develop the perception that we can only be seen and respected if we join them. We become desensitized towards the pain of others. Our parents are too busy trying to survive and we lack the guidance of adults to assist us to question right from wrong. We lack the wisdom of elders, and as groups of youth without hope, we find our own answers. Many of them are the wrong answers. My plea is that adults need to be more vigilant even when they are stressed. We need your guidance in our lives.”
Zuko is a Leaders’ Quest participant.