International Women's Day: I was a gang member, now I work for change for women in South Africa 

Former South African gang member Welcome Witbooi talks about his violent past and how it is possible for men to change

Fact File
  • Every six hours A woman is killed by her intimate partner in South Africa
  • Every 26 seconds A woman is raped in South Africa
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I joined a gang because of the sense of wanting to belong.

My father would tell me that I would amount to nothing, every single day. I thought being part of a gang would give me status.

Guys in the gang would applaud me for abusing and hurting people. You hurt people to show strength. You hurt people to show how powerful you are. You can’t show weakness.

There is a process of brotherhood, something that you didn’t have at home. You feel that you’re part of something, recognised and protected. When you’re in a gang you have enough to eat, you have clothes, they look after you.

Gangs do not have any respect for women. Women are seen as non-existent parts. When men need to show their strength and domain, they would sometimes be requested to rape women in order to prove their power over them. And the women are afraid to talk out because they might be killed in the process.

My role was more to get involved in robbery kidnapping and assault. My nickname was Day Walker.

I went to prison for violent robbery. In prison it was much more difficult. Your crime was nothing compared to what others had done, so you had to prove yourself all over again. You had to become the abuser again, even more violent and aggressive. It was quite a horrific experience, but it was what prison culture expected. It was a man eat man world. Either you eat or be eaten. Prison is a process of survival.

Inside, I got involved in the One Man Can programme and then I started to see my life differently. I asked myself if I really wanted to grow old aggressive and angry all the time, and abusive to loved ones. The trainer asked me ‘Welcome, what do you want your life to be like?’

I knew that the longer I stayed in the gang, the more this thing will consume me, so I decided to get out.

I did a lot of introspection and knew in order to change, I needed to move myself away from gang activity. I needed to understand that I could be a loving man and a provider.

Now I know what it is to be a man, and that one man can walk away from violence.

Since leaving prison I have been a training assistant for One Man Can working with the Sonke Gender Justice organisation for the past six months. Sonke, which is supported by UK aid, supported me outside the prison and assisted me to build that character.

Now I go out there and show young boys that they don’t have to be like the old Welcome, because the new Welcome is much better. Right now I have an opportunity to address gender-based violence on a broader scale. Men who have changed need the opportunity to share their stories.

Governments need to go out there and understand why a boy does the things that he does. They also must try to provide support systems to assist him as soon as he comes out of prison. If there are no support systems in place, assist him to put those systems in place. When I got out of prison, I didn’t know what it was like to have a bank account. I had been away from society for 15 years and so many things had changed.

If we could get world leaders more involved, men can learn to respect women. We will be able to make a difference.

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