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News > History & Politics > Capetown crime gangs: couple’s mission to save addicts

Capetown crime gangs: couple’s mission to save addicts

The Times covers Pete Portal's (Sc 98-13) journey from a promising career in TV production to rehabilitating gangsters and drug addicts in Manenberg

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The following article was published in The Times in August 2019:

A brightly painted blue house stands out on a bleak street in one of Cape Town’s most violent neighbourhoods. More unusual, though, than its cheerful colour, or its well-tended vegetable patch in a road strewn with litter, is the family who call it home.

Moving to Manenberg from middle-class south London a decade ago was a leap of faith for Pete Portal, a committed Christian “with good intentions . . . but very naive”. Yet opening the house he shares with his South African wife, Sarah, to gangsters and drug addicts seeking a cleaner life remains “probably the best decision we ever made”, he said.

It is a brave one. Rising crime has prompted the recent deployment of the army to try to stem the bloodshed in Manenberg and other areas of the Cape Flats, a muddle of old neighbourhoods and shanty towns on the outskirts of South Africa’s second city where drugs and armed gangs hold sway.


Above: Mr Portal listens to the former gangsters’ stories JACO MARAIS FOR THE TIMES

“The reaction is usually to lock these guys up, but the truest response we can find to being white and privileged in a segregated city in an unequal nation is to move towards them and embrace them as family,” Mr Portal, 34, said.

He studied theology at Edinburgh and then King’s College London but is unhappy at being labelled a missionary. “We are just trying to close the gap between what we read [in the Bible] and what we do. But it is a calling, for sure.”

Sitting among half a dozen young men, all of them wearing the battle scars and tattoos of Manenberg’s gangs, the bespectacled Mr Portal switches from English to Afrikaans, speaking with the distinctively thick accent of a local. He and his wife have divided their modest home in two, with up to six of their young guests at a time living on one side with a full-time supervisor. The Portals and a spaniel called Heaven are next door.



Tensions can quickly rise in the men’s comfortable but close quarters as they learn to work through their differences with words, not weapons. The side-effects of going “cold turkey” to get off drugs do not help.

Mrs Portal, 30, is the most effective at breaking up fights. “I can stand between two people with knives and I know they won’t stab me,” she said with a smile.

On the wall of the snug sitting area is a chart with agreed goals — “Learn to speak in a healthy way” and “Be more in control of my emotions” — along with a list of challenges. Counselling, prayer, football, board games and training in carpentry are part of the road to recovery. The sound of gunfire from the gang warfare that can claim more than 40 lives in a weekend is a constant reminder of what they are trying to escape.

Despite their proximity in age the gangsters refer to Mrs Portal as “mum”; they also call one another brothers. The couple have adopted a “re-parenting” approach to rehabilitating the men, a model borrowed from a Christian British woman, Jackie Pullinger, who has spent the past half century using the technique with triad gangsters in Hong Kong.


Above: The area is plagued by violence, with police forced to call in the army recently before venturing out on patrol MARCO LONGARI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Childhoods in the Cape Flats are too often cut short by violence, drugs and neglect but healing “is best done in family”, the Portals believe, providing the sense of belonging many teenagers seek from gangs.

Mrs Portal, a graduate of war studies, had ambitions to support child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, she is doing the work barely ten miles from the leafy suburb where she grew up. She used money inherited from her mother to buy the house in Manenberg, where the couple are known as “the whiteys”.

There have been successes but “more guys don’t make it than do”, Mr Portal admitted. They promise no quick fix, and turning to Christ is not compulsory.

Requests for help come daily, often from mothers of young addicts or gangsters themselves, but space is limited; it costs about £400 a month to house each man. The couple’s Tree of Life church community runs a pre-school for children with addicted mothers and a home for teenage girls at risk. The whole endeavour costs £200,000 a year to run. Ninety per cent of funding comes from churches and individuals in Britain.

Having such a violent, broken society on the doorstep of one of the world’s most beautiful cities is, Mr Portal believes, the legacy of its apartheid history and “an inconvenient truth” that Christian communities in Cape Town are reluctant to acknowledge.

Joey, 24, moved in with the couple eleven months ago and said there was no going back. He became addicted to crystal meth from his early teens, and was a hardened footsoldier for Manenberg’s Clever Kids gang for years.

“These people love a person beyond love,” he said. “They always see the good in us. Knowing that I belong and that I am loved gives me the strength every day to move forward.”

Pete Portal will be holding a talk at Tonbridge School as part of its Tennant Lecture Series in March 2020.
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