Welcome Witbooi

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Summary: Welcome Witbooi, a former gang boss turned human rights defender and philanthropist, manages campaigns meant to divert young people from gangsterism, crime, and drugs in the Cape Flats and Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2018 Witbooi formed BrightSpark Foundation SA, an organisation that promotes the social welfare of underprivileged communities, offers diversion programs, and encourages young people to build their communities and not to destroy them. His work has not been easy: Witbooi had the courage to renounce gang membership, which has bloody consequences in the world of gangsterism. He quit a life of wealth and power to run an underfunded organisation. Living a humble life and often at risk of revenge attacks from gang leaders, Witbooi vows to continue his line of duty, saying “There is no going back.”

Profile: Welcome Witbooi was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but raised in a Cape Flats community called Valhalla Park. At a very young age, he became a gangster: “Just like any other boy, I wanted to belong, and growing up without a present father was difficult. At the age of 12 I joined the street gangs and thought I had found my place, but I was wrong.”

Starting as a runner delivering drugs to customers in the Cape Flats, Witbooi ran out of luck when, at the age of 17, he was arrested in possession of a gun. He was convicted for extortion, attempted murder, and armed robbery, and “I did 14 years at Pollsmoor Prison, one of the world’s most deadliest and dangerous prisons.” In prison, Witbooi rose through the ranks to become a top gang leader.

In 2009 Witbooi was crowned Major Colonel before becoming a First Star General of the 28’s Numbers Gang, the highest and most powerful position conferred to a gangster, commanding authority inside and outside prison. He was ostensibly in charge of over 2,500 inmates, including some of the most hard-core criminals; he made thousands of rands daily from illicit prison deals. No one thought that one day he would renounce a practice that sustained him and fellow gangsters to become a human rights defender.

But Witbooi became introspective about his life: “Seven years into my leadership,” he says, “I was faced with a very difficult choice. The question that came to me was, ‘If I were to be a father one day, what kind of father will I be, especially to a girl child?’ This initiated my change and so started my exit from the numbers gang while in prison.”

So in 2010 Witbooi publicly renounced his membership. To renounce membership from a gang group normally invites murder by other gang members inside or outside prison, for such an act is considered treasonous. He reasoned with prison officials to transfer him to a less dangerous prison. The negotiation was tempered by the fact that he had helped one of the influential council members how to read and write some six years before.

Witbooi moved on to consolidate his ideas toward a more humanitarian cause. First, he attained a certificate in adult education and began teaching fellow prisoners lessons on life skills and taking care of HIV/AIDS orphaned children in jail. That marked the beginning of his humanitarian journey.

Upon his release on parole in July 2012, Witbooi committed to serve boys and girls from falling into the trap of gangsterism, drugs, and crime in the Cape Flats and Johannesburg. He founded the Heart and Soul Foundation and later called it BrightSpark Foundation SA—a nonprofit organisation that discourages young people from falling prey to what he suffered as a youth. “The main reason I created this foundation,” says Witbooi, “was to provide the youth with opportunities to make better life choices by choosing education and not join gangs or become part of criminal syndicates.”

Currently, BrightSpark Foundation SA has 522 beneficiaries, four projects, six youth- and community-based programs, and four primary initiatives that support vulnerable communities. It has established a School4Life home that houses and cares for 15 vulnerable girls and 12 boys; an APC (Academics, Physics, and Communication) Academy; an AfterCare program that supports, educates, and mentors 63 children from grades 7 to 12 on a daily basis; and an Adopt a Family South Africa Initiative, which feeds and supplies food parcels to 244 families on a monthly basis. The organisation has two lead facilitators and one director.

“These programs are demanding,” says Witbooi. “And without government funding and only relying on small donations, the success of this project needs strong leadership. We spend a lot of money on both operations and various community-based projects/programs, and guess what, we do not receive government funding.”

Witbooi commends the work of his colleagues, adding that without them the organisation could not have reached this height: “What keeps BrightSpark Foundation SA above water is the tenacity of its team and the love they have for the work they do, and not forgetting the very few people who support this foundation financially from time to time.”

As both the director and fundraiser for the foundation, “I’m no longer ashamed to ask for help. In fact, I’ve come to realize the importance of asking. Doing this kind of work requires that I humble myself, step up, stand in my truth, and hope that the next person sees my heart and decides to give from a place of love.”

Witbooi travels around the country, educating young people about the dangers of gangsterism. His experiences are powerful: “In order to ensure success for my work, I had to cut off people that I once knew in my past, walking away from environments that do not speak life into the work I do with youth. I had to change the way I see things and people, and every day I get up early in the morning to do my work, there is healing from my past.”

Not surprisingly, he also faces risks: “The risks are mostly people-driven. Not everyone supports the work I do, and that often makes things difficult. . . . I was lucky to get out of gangsterism alive. Like that of so many others, my story could have ended very differently.”

Welcome Witbooi persists in his new life. As he admits, “There are days when I feel like giving up, but then I’m reminded as to why I’m doing this work. I have three daughters, and creating a safe South Africa for them and many others is key in the work I do.

“Besides, there’s no turning back now.”