by Gasant Abarder (30 December 2016)
Cape Town – Magadien Wentzel has a spring in his step and a smile on his face. It’s a far cry from the man I featured in the Friday Files about 18 months ago. Then he was ready to give up and was even contemplating going back to prison.
In July 2014, Magadien had been out of prison for 12 years and on the straight and narrow for 16.
But the former senior-ranking member of the 28s prison gang, who was the central focus of Jonny Steinberg’s book, The Number, was battling to find his place in society after turning his back on the gang.
But mostly, Magadien was seeking redemption for his wrongs.
When we spoke Magadien, 56, kept repeating that he wanted an opportunity to prove his worth.
When that opportunity came knocking, Magadien was ready.
Now it is evident that Magadien has found his purpose.
His confidence is back and, as we make our way to Mariam’s Kitchen for breakfast, Magadien, wearing a red T-shirt with a large print of the crest of his beloved Manchester United, starts bickering with Liverpool fans.
It’s all friendly banter though and I can’t help thinking how just 18 months ago he may have withdrawn or could have reacted very differently.
It all started changing for Magadien shortly after that first Friday Files profile, when I connected him with the former University of Western Cape convocation chairperson, Brian Williams.
Brian was putting together a peace ambassador programme to intervene with youth at risk of gangs and drugs in the Kensington and Factreton area. It didn’t take much persuasion on my part for Brian to include Magadien in the programme as one of the trainee peace ambassadors.
It was a turning point for Magadien. His life experiences proved invaluable to the programme and his peers.
However, when he graduated from the programme in October last year, he would make a decision that would change the course of his life.
“When you introduced me to Brian Williams, I was very sceptical. People make promises and then they disappoint me. But I thought let me listen to what this guy has to say.
“He actually showed me quite the opposite. He kept his word and invited me to the peace-building training.
“At the end of the training each of us had to select a project. I didn’t know what to do.
“Most of the people were from the Factreton and Kensington area. I was one of the only people in the group from outside the area. I had to come up with a project that would benefit society and the people.
“I thought long and hard and then got a call from a woman from Khulisa Social Solutions in Joburg. She told me she had a colleague in Cape Town, Jesse Laitinen. I had a meeting with them and agreed to check it out because I had nothing to lose by volunteering my services.
“I started facilitating some workshops for the homeless like peace building, anger management and restoring dignity. I was the new guy on the block and the guy that was in charge felt a bit threatened because he thought I might come and take over his space.
“We got a contract from the City of Cape Town and were able to employ some people. I was asked to be a supervisor and thought it couldn’t be that hard to supervise homeless people. My style differed from other supervisors: I would talk to them, didn’t rush or threaten them and I listened to their stories to see where I could help.
“I thought I should set the stage for them so that they could perform. I called in a few guests to speak to the group to expose them to people from all walks of life.”
It was during one of these sessions, with me as Magadien’s invited guest as the then-Cape Argus editor, that The Dignity Project was born.
Magadien was instrumental in its conception.
He opened my eyes to the possibility of linking homeless people’s skills with jobs and improving their lot and roles in society.
I spoke to the group of homeless people for a few minutes before being completely engrossed in their stories.
While we were writing about The Dignity Project in the Cape Argus, Magadien was hard at work creating a garden off Roeland Street on what was nothing more than a vacant lot with a gravel surface.
Today it’s a vibrant food garden that employs the homeless. The fresh produce finds its way to the plates of patrons of leading restaurants and hotels in the Cape Town CBD.
“I brought you in and out of that The Dignity Project was born. From there the project really grew because now people saw the homeless in a different light.
“They saw that people cared and the project went from strength to strength.
“That was one of the things that I wanted to turn around: why must people beg? It’s not dignified to beg and it’s not a nice thing. It’s not a nice thing for people to have no shoes and no clothes. I know how that feels.
“When I was there when I was released as a changed man, society turned its back on me. There were a few individuals who I could call on and say I need this or that – but not for myself, for the projects I was involved in.”
Last week Magadien hosted a Christmas party for poor children with donations from friends and acquaintances he has met over the years. In the more than a decade I have known him he has never asked for anything for himself, but always for things that would help young people at risk.
During that first interview Magadien’s health wasn’t great. He had just recovered from a serious bout of pneumonia and looked haggard and frail. Today he looks younger and as if several burdens have been lifted from his shoulders.
Relations with his family have improved too. Magadien beams with pride when he talks about his seven grandchildren, although he worries about the eldest who is at risk of being drawn into a gang.
“It’s my approach to life. I don’t believe in governmental laws, I hate it. I hate any law except the universal law. Universal law says what is up, must come down. If you put bad in you get bad out. If you put good in, you get good out.
“It has nothing to do with religion, it is just life. What I’m putting in with my grandchildren, I am seeing the returns. It’s not about buying expensive presents but it’s about making time for them.
“What makes me feel better is that when you are happy with what you are doing and you are doing positive things, then you become more positive. I wasn’t in distress and I wasn’t angry. As a matter of fact, I was happy.”
But there’s more positivity on the horizon for Magadien in 2017. Next year, a film based on his life and the book, The Number, is due to be released on circuit. Magadien spent a month in Durban as an on-set adviser a few weeks ago at the behest of award-winning director Khalo Matabane.
“When Khalo came to me for the first time, you must remember by then he was the third guy who said they wanted to make a film about me. The other two I don’t know where they disappeared to but they disappeared.
“When Khalo came to me I listened and my exact words to him were, ‘Okay, I’ll see if it materialises.’ It took him six years and I only believed that it was happening when I got the message from him that I was booked on a flight to Durban where they wanted me to assist and advise on set.
“Only then I knew the film was going to become a reality. It’s about my life and that’s why I was there to advise and see that everything is on point.
“You must remember that the condition to agreeing to this film is not about sensationalism or big bucks. My interest in making this movie and being part of it is that it must be an education tool.
“My job is to see that this film is used to build the community. It’s one of my requests. Even if it has an age restriction, they must cut out the hardcore scenes to make it acceptable for schools.”
Life is still a challenge for Magadien but he is looking forward and not back.
When he turned his back on the gang, he signed his own death sentence because it was an act that was punishable by death.
But 18 months ago, Magadien was more worried about dying of boredom.
There is no danger of that now after he has tasted the rewards of devoting his life in the service of others.
The past year has given him the self-belief that he can make a difference. But more importantly for his own sense of self-worth, he has realised that society needs him.
“My belief is that you can only release yourself from poverty if you give your children the opportunity to become successful. That is the key that will take you out of that hokkie or crowded house.
“One thing that I can honestly say is that 2016 was the best year of my life. For the first time, for one year, I could do good for a whole year – even if society didn’t notice.
“One thing that I, Magadien, am proud of is that for a year I could dedicate my life in the service of the homeless and see how they grow, see how some of them change their ways, see how some of them move back to their families, and see how some of them – through my intervention – could reconcile with society. “There are no words to comprehend how I feel. I proved yet again to society that I could make a difference if given the opportunity to engage.”