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South Africa: How to Love a Very Difficult Job

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Outreach workers Urshwin Engel (left) and Albert Matthews (center) pose with Khiyaam Frey (right) in front of the Ceasefire office in Hanover Park, Cape Town, South Africa. Image by M. Sophia Newman. South Africa, 2015.

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Abdulraghmaan Ruiters says he felt a psychosomatic burning pain during an unpreventable gang war in Hanover Park. Image by M. Sophia Newman. South Africa, 2015.

Would you go to prison for your job?

Imagine yourself in an overcrowded cell at South Africa’s notorious Pollsmoor Prison (the institution that once held Nelson Mandela). Imagine that, despite having no desire to be an active gang member, you must rely on one of the violent gangs that controls the prison to protect you. Imagine that you knew you could beat the false charges against you by informing police of the real perpetrator’s identity—but that speaking up would imperil the mission of the organization that employs you.

Would you stay in jail for the good of the work your office does? Or would you snitch to save yourself?

For many people, that’s not a hard question. The average workplace’s morass of banalities and burdens, if much less rough than a prison cell, can do plenty to alienate workers. In one recent survey, just 29 percent of American workers reported satisfaction with their jobs. In another, one in four said they don’t trust their employer. Internationally, the situation is worse: A 2013 Gallup poll of 94 countries found that, on average, only one in eight workers is actively engaged with a job. In South Africa, where unemployment is chronically high, that figure is even lower—just one in eleven.

If people don’t like, trust, or want to do their jobs, it’s tough to imagine they’d endure imprisonment to maintain them. But for Cure Violence, an organization that runs a violence prevention program called Ceasefire on four continents, job satisfaction is typical—despite work that can be stressful and even traumatic. For one worker, devotion runs deep enough to survive imprisonment.

Khiyaam Frey, 45, is one of five reformed gang members working as professional “violence interrupters” in Hanover Park, an impoverished and gang-ridden area outside Cape Town, South Africa. His work follows a model imported from Chicago, where Ceasefire was founded: Like other violence interrupters, he tries to prevent killings by communicating with prospective perpetrators. Day to day, this can involve careful meetings in secure locations to mediate peace agreements between gang leaders, convincing violent offenders to exit gang life via a six-week inpatient rehab, and attending the funerals of slain gangsters, where, his boss, Pastor Craven Engel, notes, the living become “soft targets” for enemy gunfire.

If it sounds like a tough job, that’s because it is. Interrupters witness and sometimes suffer extreme violence; a few years ago, one in Chicago got shot. In Cape Town, Frey said he’s been caught in the middle of a fistfight (“his blood was splattered all over me”), watched one man gun down another (“he did the last six shots in front of me”), and has weathered the frustration of an unstoppable gang war that killed 15 in December 2014. In conversation, he makes no secret of being stressed.

Nonetheless, Frey sat through 35 days in lock-up on false charges that arose directly from his employment—without doing the one thing that would have served him at Ceasefire’s expense, and without losing his enthusiasm for the job.

Marcus McAllister, who works with Cure Violence, as an international trainer, said Frey is both exceptional and typical. “I did two trainings in South Africa,” he said, adding that, among the organization’s affiliates in seven countries on four continents, they were “among the quickest to get it” and have done exemplary work. That said, McAllister points out that engagement with the job isn’t rare. “I’m sure you could find someone who, for one reason or another, is not enthusiastic, but that’s not the norm. The norm is the reverse.”

Chicago program manager Angalia Bianca can back up that claim: she said since joining Cure Violence in 2011, she’s often volunteered with the organization all evening—after putting in a full day in the office. “Because I love what I do, I’m still in the streets,” she said. “Like last night, I was out in the streets, in a suit, from 5 to, like, after 10 at night.” She doesn’t stop at home, either: “I lay in my bed with my phone and I have my laptop and my tablet, and I’m on all three different [social media] sites, and I’m constantly interacting with high-risk youth until I get tired… And I’ve never been happier in my life.”

McAllister said many employees feel the same way. “This is not just a regular job." The organization relies on recruiting people, typically former felons or gang members, with credibility that will permit them to work closely with prospective killers. Job-seekers, he says, sometimes tell him that “if they got this job, we would be saving their life.”

Frey’s life seems to have been saved before his work with Ceasefire began. Hired in 2012, he’d been retired from active gang membership for years. His 2014 trip to Pollsmoor wasn’t his first, he said, but “I wasn’t planning on that anymore.”

The charges that took him there had little to do with his own actions, he said. Rather, they arose in the aftermath of a shooting in early 2014. Frey responded to the scene to find two other interrupters already present. By phone, his boss, Craven Engel, asked him to go to the hospital where the victim had been taken. As he walked there, “there was three guys walking with me,” young men he didn’t know. “And when we come to the main road, I told these guys the cops is coming,” he recounted. “So, when I crossed the road, the cops stopped them, and then they came running over the main road past me…. one of them pitched a gun on the corner,” a few meters from Frey. “And the cops stopped me and… they arrested me.”

In jail on an illegal weapons charge, Frey used his connection to his former prison gang, the 27s, to identify the real owner of the illegal firearm. But he never shared the information with the police, even though it might have gotten the charges against him dropped.

On the streets, his silence was critical.

Frey explained, “If our credibility is put down here in the community, then no one would trust you anymore.” Engel agreed: The organization’s work hinges on gang members trusting the violence interrupters who urge them towards peace. The ability to upend certain standards of street culture—like the entrenched use of violence—is made possible through careful observance of other street codes. Among the most basic? No snitching. To rat someone out to the cops would mean reduced success at averting gang violence, and maybe even increased risk of violence toward the interrupters themselves.

Frey could be silent and accept false charges, or speak up and sacrifice his organization’s mission. “It was very stressful,” he admitted. He endured multiple postponements in his bail hearings, and, because of his past, had no guarantee he’d receive bail.

***

Why stay in a job that puts you at risk of physical assaults, trauma, and even imprisonment? Why not quit Ceasefire, and then handle the case?

Frey considered it. When he first got arrested, “I talked to Pastor about quitting, and about how could it be possible that I must face a case.” But in some ways, the choice is simple. “There’s only so many jobs for the population that’s doing it that they’re gonna feel good about,” said McAllister. In Cape Town, Engel called the job an ennobling alternative to “digging ditches,” or the few other jobs open to undereducated men with felony convictions. He said the financial benefits are hard to beat, too. Interrupters earn 12,000—15,000 South African rand per month ($1,000—$1,250), a higher wage than they’d otherwise receive.

But with workers worldwide disengaged, why are these employees working until exhaustion—or, as Frey says, feeling “like a father” to clients?

It may be because Cure Violence does a particularly good job meeting employees’ “core needs,” as described in recent research: a physical need for rest, an emotional need to feel appreciated, the need for mental focus and control over how work gets done, and a spiritual need the research authors describe as “doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.”

In Cape Town, all those conditions seem to be met. The hours are long, but interrupters work autonomously, rarely seem to rush, and spend much of their time with colleagues and clients who respect them. They’re succeeding, having dropped murder rates in Hanover Park significantly in the two years they’ve been at work while making use of specialized knowledge they’d otherwise have little use for. And, McAllister said, “We all consider this God’s work.”

Yet stress runs high—Frey’s colleague, Abdulraghmaan Ruiters, described suffering psychosomatic pain after a gang war broke out in Hanover Park in December 2014. McAllister, speaking shortly after state budget cuts shuttered several Chicago programs for four months, said the most profound stress for many interrupters comes from funding issues beyond their control.

Coping methods aren’t always healthy. Asked about stress relief, Ruiters chuckled and immediately mentioned Mandrax, an illegal drug formerly sold in the U.S. as Quaaludes. In Chicago, Bianca, a recovered addict, seems compulsive and over-involved.

Others remain prone to relapse into violence. In Cape Town, one interrupter was terminated after consuming alcohol and socializing with high-risk clients in ways that violated organizational rules. Even Frey says that in certain circumstances, he might use his gang connections to get enemies gang-raped or killed (“Pastor [Craven Engel] wouldn’t know”).

The Cape Town group occasionally takes three-day camping trips to relax, but little other help is forthcoming. Cape Town manager Ray Swartz said he’s looked in vain for counseling that would fit the needs of men experiencing ongoing trauma. The head office in Chicago, now shuttered by state budget cuts, adds little insight. Sixteen years after Ceasefire was founded, McAllister admitted he’s not well-informed on post-traumatic stress and called it “something we’re dealing with going forward.”

***

Frey is dealing with stress right now. Seventeen months after his arrest, his case remains unresolved.

Amazingly, during his prison stint, he added forbearance to protective silence. Although angry enough to consider hitting the real weapon-owner or getting his former gang affiliates to beat the young man on his behalf, he held off: “Pastor said no, I must leave him.”

Bad feelings about the cops linger, though. He said that they targeted him because of his Ceasefire work: “It was like they were framing me. Because they want me to pin these guys [the real perpetrators], and our work is to help these people.”

“They knew that they unlawfully arrested me, they knew,” he said, and added that the case against him is weak. “There was three cops who arrested me, but… there was only one [police] statement,” and the gun seems to have reached gangsters’ hands via a cop’s side hustle selling stolen weapons, he said. (Cape Town police did not respond to attempts to verify details of the case.) Soft-spoken despite everything, Frey expressed mild optimism: “Maybe my case can be withdrawn, as my lawyer did say.”

It’s clear that a return to prison would be a tremendous blow and a terrible repayment for his work. But it might ultimately prove no bar to the Ceasefire mission. In Pollsmoor, he never stopped working: “[Inmates] are all interested in the program of Ceasefire. They asked a lot of questions. So I sold this program of Ceasefire to them.”

(This article was updated on June 8, 2015, to reflect a correction on the cause of termination for one of the interrupters.)