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I'm Xola

When I was younger, I used to think Hope is for other people, not for me. I would look at the madness around me and say to myself, is this all there is to life? I grew up in Samora, Cape Town , where I spent my youth as part of a gang. We would smike drugs and abuse alcohol, to the point where I was unrecognisable to myself. I was arrested for being in possession of a firearm. After 9 months in prison I made some critical life decisions that altered the direction my life was taking. I enrolled myself in a number of courses, including The Message Enterprise Programme, Since leaving prison, I've started working at the Mess Cafe, a business initiative of The Message. I've been trained as a barista, hoping to one day become South Africa's very best. I mentor young boys that were previously orphaned or on the streets and now stay in a half-way house in Salt River.

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Heroic. Glorified. Respected. This was my perception of gangsters in my neighbourhood in Crossroads growing up. The recognition and freedom I missed in my relationship with my abusive father was found in the wrong crowds. I was arrested for armed robbery, murder and other serious crimes at the age of 17 and found myself within the confines of Drakenstein prison. This was a turning point for me. I committed my life to God and starting searching for ways to grow and empower myself in spite of my surroundings, completing life skills courses and reading as much as I could. Still I had a nagging fear of what would happen once I was released from prison. Where would I go? The Message SA job readiness and entrepreneurship programme caught my attention and on completion, I helped facilitate it in the prison. Since leaving Drakenstein I’ve been working with The Message teaching the same principles to others. I also mentor young boys in resource scarce areas like Khayelitsha. It hasn’t been an easy journey but I love what I do. My dream is to run my own enterprise and empower young people.

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I was born and raised in Gugulethu, a place notorious for gangsterism and violence. I went out looking for validation and acceptance on the streets and started doing the things I saw well-known gangsters do in order to get recognition. I joined a gang and became a drug dealer at school In 2008 I had a wakeup call when I was arrested and sentenced for robbery. Realising there was no turning back, I decided to empower muself in prison and immersed myself in every training programme available. IU met the Message Trust team and completed their business and job readiness course. I had fears of not finding a job once released because of my criminal record, but they offered me a creative media internship. I have now been working at The Message for over a year and did a design course at Learn 2 Earn in Khayelitsha. My vision is to own a graphic design company and to encourage young people to embrace opportunities instead of wasting their lives on the streets.

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It wasn't supposed to end that way. What started as a planned hijacking turned into intoxication, robbery and a series of horrible events. I was 19 and had been drifting in circles of alcohol, drug abuse and carelessness for years. After being arrested I suddenly saw my life with new clarity, recalling the milestones where things had gone wrong. I needed to gain control of my life. I pleaded guilty. It was one of the darkest times of my life. My father passed away while I was in prison. My biggest desire had been to reconcile with him. I couldn't get out on parole under normal circumstances due to the nature of my case. In spite of this darkness, I felt myself being shaped and developing an inner strength. God gave me a promise for my life and I've been holding onto it ever since. I connected with The Message Trust and now serve on the team as Soft Machine manager. I have a beautiful family and my greatest desire is to be a good father to my 1 year old son.

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Growing up as the youngest of 5 children, my oldest brother, Gerald, was my role model. He was a member of the 28's. He would give me his firearms and money for safekeeping while he went out drinking after heists. I loved soccer and started playing for Santos at the age of 13, but when my brother was murdered by fellow gang members and my stepdad was shot returning home from church, my life fell apart and I turned to the gangs. I was driven by anger and a desire for revenge. I was arrested in 2004 for armed robbery and became a member of the 28's in prison. I moved between a member of the 28's in prison. I moved between 6 prisons during my 9-year sentence. When I returned to Drakenstein prison I decided to finish school and came in contact with The Message Trust. I enrolled in their 2 year enterprise programme and committed my life to God. I made a promise to use the energy I channelled into destruction and to do good instead. Today I work with City Mission, a partner of The Message Trust. I run a football intervention programme in Hanover Park, teaching young men and educating them about the dangers of crime and gangsterism.

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We all wear masks. I used to wear the mask of gangsterism, leading hundreds of young men down a path of destruction. When I was just 11 my parents divorce led me to become part of a gang. Eventually I was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in a correctional facility. I was a broken young man and I was still caught up in gangsterism. I recruited many young guys and I had a very negative influence over them, even commanding them to stab others. One night I was lying in my bed and a voice told me to go to church. This sparked a journey of transformation which included me getting in contact with the Message Trust. I shared my vision of seeing young people rescued before they fall into gangsterism and crime. I knew my life was going to be used to proved a positive influence on young people. We've designed a curriculum called REFOCUS, which we believe is going to reach youth at the core. It's my mission to influence young people away from destruction and into freedom.

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Money, fame, power. I had it all living as an influential gangster in a luxury house in Table View, Cape Town. I got involved in gangsterism as a teenager and would often steal cars for entertainment. I was arrested and sentenced to 5 years for car theft, but that didn't stop me. I dropped out of school and got involved in armed robberies. Things started falling apart when I was arrested again for a cash transit heist. I joined the 26 gang in Pollsmoor Prison. My friends deserted me, my house was repossessed, my cars were written off in accidents and my father fell ill and passed away. I ran out of money to cover my legal fees. It was the darkest hour of my life. I was fortunate to have a mentor who believed in me. My pastor came to visit me in prison and encouraged me to make positive life decisions. After regaining focus, I started encouraging others in prison to do the same. Once out on bail I chose to further my education. Today I serve on TheMessage Trust team a s a mentor and encourager to inmates in Drakenstein prison.