Drugs, money and gangsterism are not 'glamorous' – reformed gangsters


Growing up in communities where young people's lives are plagued by poverty, drugs and gangsterism, the youth have few role models and little motivation to rise above their circumstances.

These are the words of some reformed gangsters who got caught up in the fast life of money, drugs and theft.

One man, now 46, says he came from a good home and was not exposed to car theft, hijacking and the love of money – but these were things that would later become his life.

"When I came back to Eldos [Eldorado Park] from private school, I would see children openly smoking and being rude.

"I knew it was wrong but it seemed so normal," says Byron Edwards*, who started stealing car radios in his late teens.

Through "networking", Edwards was introduced to hijackers, and when he "woke up", he realised he was in too deep.

"It spiralled out of control – hardcore," Edwards says.

A nagging conscience

Over the years his reputation as a gangster and the person who would "engineer a move" grew. He was the go-to person if an order for a car came in and he would plan every detail on where and how a car would be hijacked and delivered to the person who wanted the goods.

This was the persona that he had to keep up, Edwards says.

He was also involved in the hijacking of trucks for the goods they were transporting and moving stolen cars across the border.

And while his conscience nagged at him, for years he pushed it aside.

Questions and thoughts about his life choices would pop up when he was alone, but he ignored them.

"My life was about making money, there was a time when I was a millionaire.

"I became notorious and popular and with that came the cars, girls and clothes," Edwards says.

It was a selfish life and not as glamorous as it seemed. He constantly had to look over his shoulder, sleeping with one eye open.

Shot and left paralysed

"We would never know the outcome," he says about hijacking, adding that he would go to church for prayers for protection if he knew he would be involved in some sort of crime.

Sometimes he would be paid hundreds of thousands of rand, other times nothing.

While in the world of crime and gangsterism he could never express his true self, he says.

He began to tire of that life. He recalls standing and looking at his feet one day and thinking about his life. He knew he wanted to get out.

A few weeks later, the one thing he was able to use to express himself honestly and proudly, was taken away. He was shot and left paralysed and could no longer play soccer.

He continued with his gangster ways but knew he had to stop.

"I was tired of it, I wanted to start doing what was right," Edwards says.

"Now I'm happy, there's nothing to miss from that life. Money doesn't matter anymore."

Unseen dangers and consequences

A man who spent more than 18 years of his life selling drugs says an underprivileged life fuelled his decision to sell drugs.

"It was a life of money, drugs and fake friends," Baden Jacobs* says.

He knows that he was a role model to younger boys because of his fast cars, wads of money, expensive clothes and many girlfriends.

"They think that is the life but they don't see the dangers and consequences that come with it," says Jacobs.

He was constantly wanted by police, received numerous death threats and was hated by the elders in the community for his lifestyle and for destroying the lives of others.

Being popular among others in the community didn't make his criminal activities easier, although he says it was easier to sell drugs a few years ago because there weren't as many shootings and killings over turf as there are now.

Paying their dues

He wanted to get out of the fast life, his world started becoming smaller while his enemies' camp was growing.

When he was arrested and sent to prison he lost "a lot along the way".

Bribes and legal fees aren't cheap, Jacobs says, and he realised that he was spending more on fighting to stay out of jail than he did on living his life.

Both men are giving back to communities to pay for their deeds. One of them works at a faith-based rehabilitation centre and the other motivates young people from his community.

"I didn't like being labelled as a gangster.

"I had to get out, I didn't want my only way out to be in a box (coffin)," Jacobs says.

* Not their real names.

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