Transformed lives: Ronald Abels (right) with his cousin Markie Davids  |  Photo: Nicky Elliot
Like many countries in the world, South Africa is plagued by gangsterism that feeds crime and suffering and weaves a powerful drug web throughout society. At times, the problem seems unsurmountable. But Thislife Online has met two Cape Town men who offer hope that, given the right intervention, transformation is possible. Meet Ronald and Markie, now trying to save children from their own former fate. By SHIRLEY FAIRALL

RONALD ABELS (39) committed his first armed robbery at the age of 16 and by the time he reached his final year of school was a ‘top’ gangster in his community, a South African township called Capricorn Park. Ronald’s mother was a single parent and he was brought up largely by her parents. Today he is the father of two girls and lives in the Cape Town suburb of Kirstenhof

‘I was quite a switched-on kid. I taught my older brother to read properly, and my older sister to tell the time. My brother went to live with another relative when he was six but my sister and I lived with our mom’s parents.

When I was little I wanted to be a policeman but when my hormones kicked in, I noticed the gangsters attracted the coolest girls and decided to become the greatest gangster of all. So at the age of 15 I started fighting with the oldest boys in my school, Lavender Hill High. I was trying to make a name for myself because your name is all that matters as a gangster.

top gangster

It wasn’t long before I was noticed and took over an existing gang. I committed my first armed robbery in grade 11, then started selling drugs. I wasn’t taking them at that stage – my thing was alcohol and partying – but I was making money.  By the time I got to grade 12, I was one of the top gangsters in the Lavender Hill community.

When I hit 20, I was living what I thought of as the high life. Then the first white missionaries came to Capricorn. I’d never seen a white person up close before and suddenly this white English woman walked right up to me and just hugged me. I didn’t understand why! Later, when I got to know Julie, she told me when she noticed me standing there in my fake leather jacket and gangster attitude, she simply saw someone who needed love.

Ronald Abels: ‘I became a gangster because they attracted the coolest girls’  |  Photo: Nicky Elliot

That was the first time someone had hugged me. I loved my grandparents. They were good to us and looked after us well, providing everything we needed, but they weren’t affectionate people.

Julie and her husband Mike had a Christian home group in Muizenberg and I started attending. One Friday night they invited me for supper, but when I arrived they said they had to go away for the weekend. They handed me their house keys and said I should spend the weekend there. Again, they’d taken me by surprise and I didn’t understand how they could trust me.

double life

My first thought was that I’d steal everything of value, but I was so completely captivated by their love and trust that I didn’t even smoke cigarettes in their yard. I wanted to please them. I quit the gangster life and converted to Christianity, went to church and tried to be a good guy. But eventually I took up alcohol again and started living a double life. I realise now that I was just subscribing to a set of religious rules at this stage and Jesus had not yet become real to me.

I’d done a lot of damage as a gangster and there were still old grudges against me in the community. When you first become a gangster you think you’ve got it made. There’s money, fame, girls, excitement. And then the bad times come. You’re always fighting other gangs, always trying to hang onto power, always living in fear. I was arrested about five times. I was never convicted but I was always guilty.

‘As a gangster, you’re always living in fear,’ says Ronald. ‘Eventually I reached a point of hopelessness.’  |  Photo: Nicky Elliot

Twice I escaped plots to kill me. The first time I was hijacked and held captive over a weekend while I was made to dig my own grave. I persuaded them to let me join them when they were smoking tik [methamphetamine, or crystal meth] and they started to see me as one of them. The second time, I refused to go somewhere I was supposed to be and someone else was mistaken for me and shot dead.

The worst thing is that you have lots of ‘friends’ but you’re always lonely. Sitting around drugging, everyone would talk of the good old days. Not me! I was waiting for the good days to come. I always wondered what I was doing there, always wished for something different. This was how it was for 14 years of my life. Gangsterism is a constant, exhausting, stressful hustle, day and night.

smoked the profit

Once I started living my double life, I quickly spun out of control. I started smoking tik and hid away from all my church relationships. I reconnected with my old gang for protection and went back to selling drugs. I made money but smoked all the profit and couldn’t buy drugs to sell. I lost my swagger and my friends and couldn’t even work for other drug dealers because I’d smoke all their profits too. I became homeless, hanging around drug houses and sleeping wherever I could. Everyone was tired of me. I worked for food and stood in soup lines. I was a wreck.   

Eventually I reached a point of hopelessness. I remember sitting in front of a pile of rubbish thinking there must be something more. In that moment of utter despair I heard a voice softly say, ‘Ronald, it’s time to go home’. I believe it was the voice of Jesus.

Capricorn Park, where Ronald escaped two plots to kill him  |  Photo: Leentijie du Preez

I walked to my childhood home. My sister was still living there. I had to fight and beg to be let in: they didn’t trust the family’s drug addict. Unbeknown to them, and even to me at that stage, I’d been released from the desire for the druggy gangster life. I was filthy, had lice, stank and was exhausted. It took about three baths to get me clean. I slept for days. As I recovered, I joined a local church. The first time I’d converted it had been to the idea of Christianity. This time I included Jesus. Now I was in an active relationship with Him. That’s when it got real for me.

That was six years ago. I’ve never felt lonely since. I realise I was always looking for love. Jesus fills me completely. He’s the one I count on. He always has my best interests at heart.

here to help

I was educated up to grade 12 but I had no skills. After school I’d done security work on and off. I met a white man called Paul du Preez who had decided to live in Capricorn township to play a part in post-apartheid reconciliation. He offered my cousin and me R50 each to go to a computer class. My cousin refused the money. Five years later, drugs killed him. I went to the class and it turned out to be a lifeline.

Paul invited me to join the Church of the Holy Spirit (CHS) in Kirstenhof, and eventually I did. I just pitched up one day and said to the minister, ‘I’m here to help’. I’ve been there ever since. For the first six months I was an ordinary member and then I interned for three years. In 2016 I became the church’s full-time Missions Developer.

CHS has invested heavily in me. When I arrived, all I had to offer was the computer course Paul had paid for. CHS sent me to college and then bible college, then a member of the congregation paid for me to get certified in project management. I’m so grateful.

Life can be jagged in Capricorn Park  |  Photo: Leentijie du Preez

I co-founded Future Life Ministries in mid-2016 with a Malawian man called Dave Chippa who used to stand opposite the church looking for work. Future Life does many things but its main mission is to help people understand that Jesus exists, that He can be their friend and they always have full access to Him. One of its sub-ministries is Future Talk, a year-long discipleship course for kids in grade 7. At the moment we’re offering this course in the townships of Capricorn and Westlake.

It aims to address the identity crisis our young people face today, which I believe is the reason for drugs and gangs. They don’t know who they are. The media tells them what their lives should look like and they’re under so much pressure to conform that they have no space to think for themselves.

We talk with them about where they belong and about real-life issues: relationships, sex, drugs, gangsters, porn and internet safety. We give them real tools to navigate life and teach them how to develop and live their goals. We help them adopt good values and make space for them to be teenagers without pressure.

deadbeat druggie existence

These days I find it hard to believe that I was ever part of the world of gangs and drugs. Now that I’m out of it, I can see how many people it kills. Eight months ago my cousin Markie was shot. [Read Markie’s story below.] His brother Clint had been killed and now it looked like it was his turn. I wanted Markie to have the life I’d found instead of that deadbeat druggie existence. I rushed to the hospital determined to get him out of it and have been mentoring him ever since.

In contrast to my previous life, these days you’ll find me at home in Kirstenhof or spending time with my two daughters who are aged 12 and 15, my mother, and my girlfriend who is an American missionary living in Cape Town. My daughters live with their mom, who left me shortly after our second daughter was born because I was too deeply into drugs. She was right: it was better for our children. One of the greatest gifts Jesus has given me is a restored relationship with them, and I love being able to offer them a secure home when they’re with me.

I read, watch television, go to movies, normal things. I’m never afraid. I’ve been told that I’m regarded as a symbol of hope in Lavender Hill now. They say that if God could change me, He can change anyone. I agree!’

Future Life Ministries has five ministry programmes: Future Talk, Future Stars, Future Hope, Cross Life and Sisterhood. It’s helped by a large team of volunteers and reaches hundreds of children, teens and young adults across the Cape Flats.

Giving hope and purpose: the Future Life soccer and holiday clubs
You read Ronald’s story, now see what happened to his cousin Markie Davids (34)
Markie displays his gang tattoos: ‘I felt I owed the gang after they gave me gifts.’  Nowadays, he says, ‘I’d rather earn my money honestly.’ |  Photo: Nicky Elliot

‘I grew up in Overcome Heights near Muizenberg with my mom and my brother Clint, who was four years older. I never had a relationship with my father, but I liked my family of three. Life was fine until everything changed when I was 15. My mom took a job as an au pair in Table View and could only come home once a month. Clint had moved out by then, so I was left to my own devices.

I was easy prey for the local gangsters and drug dealers. They had money, flashy cars and they wore all the cool brands. They became my role models. With my mom being the only earner there was never money for cool things and of course I wanted to be cool. Then they started ‘sponsoring’ me by giving me branded clothes and shoes.

They would invite me to hang out with them. They’d take me to parties and say that I should smoke tik [crystal meth] so that I could stay sober. By the time I realised I was addicted, I didn’t mind. Everyone around me was addicted so it was okay. Then they’d ask me to look after their drugs and I was happy to: I felt I owed them. I joined their gang, JFK (Junkie Funky Kids), and it wasn’t long before I dropped out of Lavender Hill High School. No one noticed.

make excuses

The gang hung out at my house but when my mom came home they’d stay away. When she’d ask for my school reports, I’d lie and make excuses. Finally at the end of the year she found out I hadn’t been going to school. I promised I’d go back, but I never did.

My mom used to put money into my bank account. When she eventually found out I was doing drugs, she sold the house and sent me to stay with Clint. My brother was a nice guy, a real family man. I loved him but there were too many rules at his house. I’d got used to doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I saw that my cousin Ronald was dealing in drugs and I knew how to do that, so I went to live with him.

But then Ronald became a Christian and moved away so I stayed with the drug dealer he used to work for − a woman − and carried on. I thought drugs were fun and I loved the easy money, though I smoked it as soon as it came in. I was in and out of Pollsmoor Prison for dealing. Dagga [marijuana] is easy to get there, so there’s no opportunity to get clean. But I was tired of going to prison. I was released from my last stint in January 2018. Ronald came and asked me to stop the drugs. He offered to pay for rehab. I said I’d do it, but not immediately.

Markie’s childhood playground, Capricorn Park   |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

A couple of weeks later I was walking by a shop in Overcome Heights with two friends. Suddenly there was a loud bang and I saw everyone running from a young kid who was shooting at me. I tried to hide behind a fridge on the pavement, but he shot me in the back. He was a rival gang member, about 14 years old.  

I dropped face down but he turned me over, put the gun in my face and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened: he’d run out of bullets. Everything froze. A second guy appeared, put his gun in my face and pulled the trigger. Again nothing happened. I think his gun jammed. I had thought I was going to die for sure. In that moment, I realised I had one chance to make things right with the guy upstairs. I said, ‘God, if you really exist, let me survive.’

vowed to fix my ways

Unbelievably, a third guy appeared, put his gun in my face and pulled the trigger. Unbelievably, again nothing happened. I lay there bleeding, now believing for sure that there was a God, and that He was protecting me. I vowed to fix my bad ways if He’d let me survive. In hospital they discovered that the one bullet that did fire that day had broken a rib in my back, gone through my lung and broken a rib in my chest.

As soon as Ronald heard what had happened he came straight to the hospital. He had just one question: ‘Okay cuz, are you ready to give up drugs now?’ Ronald put me back together. I really appreciate everything he’s done for me.

The old Ronald and the new Ronald are completely different people. I went to stay with him when I got out of hospital and he took me to his church, CHS in Kirstenhof. I did an Alpha Course and that’s where I finally learned who God and Jesus really are. I was counselled by the church and, after a three-month preparation course, I was baptised in July.

Markie’s baptism at Church of the Holy Spirit in Kirstenhof, Cape Town. Due to the drought, rather than immersing Markie in a pool as he usually does, Reverend Gordon Crowther and his assistant Brendan Fox poured a bucket of water over him!  |  Photos: Salem Etaka

I love what Ronald is doing in young people’s lives with Future Life. He often invites me to talk to them and I’m very happy to warn them how gang members catch them, and explain how they can escape that life. Kids these days feel so bad about themselves that they’ll do anything for approval from anyone. What I realise is how quickly they’re influenced: it just takes one person with a bad idea and they follow.

Way more people than before are now being killed by drugs and gangsterism. One gang boss kills another gang boss, now the entire gang must be wiped out. I don’t think it will ever change because there’s so much police corruption. You can buy everything if you have money. A rich guy will be back on the street within an hour of being arrested.

first job

I’d rather earn my money honestly. I start my first real job next year in a holiday lodge where I’ll be responsible for maintenance. Before I got into drugs I often used to do odd jobs for people. I enjoy being a handyman, so this job should suit me.

I’ll be close to my mom which will help us build our relationship. She’s sponsoring me now. She’s a Christian too and is proud of me and excited for me. Sometimes she cries and apologises for what happened to me but nobody else made me live that life. I take full responsibility for it.

Today, I’m glad I got shot. I like testifying about God. It’s such a small thing in comparison to what He has done for me.’

As nature intended: Ronald and Markie  |  Photo: Nicky Elliott
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