From whiz-kid of crime to successful business owner
Now victim of the township trap keeps others from falling in
Sihle Tshabalala is the exception that proves the rule that crime inexorably sucks in disadvantaged young men.
A self-described whiz-kid, he matriculated at 16 then found the only career path available to him in the Cape Town township of Langa was crime.
"I put together a group of four and we robbed businesses and did cash heists," said Tshabalala, 36. "I was arrested and spent 11 years in prison. I taught prisoners maths and English and kept them motivated."
When he was released, having become a high-ranking member of a prison gang, he taught himself coding, and now he is at the helm of a successful business that helps youngsters find a different path in life.
He says he is a "perfect fit" with new research from Stellenbosch University and US psychologists that found more than half of all young men in Cape Flats townships admit having committed at least one violent act.
The academics analysed data on 906 men aged 18 to 29 from Khayelitsha and Mfuleni, and found one in five were gang members and one in three had been arrested.
"These findings are not surprising in these post-apartheid neighbourhoods characterised by widespread poverty and limited educational and employment opportunities. Young men who report being involved in a gang are more than twice as likely to report ever being arrested," said the authors.
Tshabalala was not surprised. "Prior to 1994 we had role models in the townships, from professors to doctors," he said. "After 1994, all of them left for greener pastures and the only people left behind are gangsters and drug lords. Kids grow up exposed to ill-gotten gains and bling."
After his release, Tshabalala founded non-profit company Quirky 30 with a former fellow inmate, Mzimkhulu Duda. They teach school dropouts to code. Of the 100 they have trained in the past five years, 75 have found work with digital companies.
At the height of his criminal career, aged 18, Tshabalala said he owned two cars, rented a flat in the Cape Town CBD and wore designer clothes.
"I have always been a whiz-kid. I started school at the age of four and finished matric at 16 with good grades but I had no aspirations of going to university," he said.
After being released from prison, "the first thing I did to turn my life around was to quit the prison gangs". Then he bought a second-hand computer and taught himself coding.
Today he employs nine people and international donors have given millions of rands to the project. He intends to build a facility that will accommodate more than 400 students on a property he has bought in Langa.
The only remaining links to his past are his tattoos and a criminal record. He has been invited to speak at conferences in France, Brazil and Mauritius.
Said Duda: "I went to prison with only Standard 9. I learnt everything from Sihle. I am now the MD of the company and I have never reoffended."
The Stellenbosch study, published this month in PLOS One, found that SA had the highest rate of incarceration globally among men below the age of 35, at 173 per 100,000.
The researchers found that although hunger and unemployment levels were generally high among the men they studied, those living in better-off communities with more formal housing were "more likely to report ever being arrested compared to those in less-advantaged communities".
This may be because the communities were heavily populated by people who had migrated to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape, a factor that limited their bonds to their new neighbourhoods.
The psychologists said: "Two of the 18 communities with the highest rates of arrests are located in a relatively new township. Prior to any migrant arriving, the government provided paved roads, access to electricity, housing and in-home water.
"Because this township has the most migrants, residents are likely to have fewer ties to the community. Although households may have more infrastructure, the lack of long-standing family ties, along with the difficulty in obtaining employment, may contribute to a high risk of arrests.
"Over 30% of the young men in the current cohort living in the townships of Cape Town . have been arrested. The substantial variations in arrest rates across communities suggest that community-level programmes are needed to establish pathways out of risk.
"These findings warrant the need for community programmes as part of crime prevention strategies to address social problems such as widespread substance use and gang activity."..