I am not my history. The ex-gangster with new goals
Mario van Niekerk was eight years old when his family fell apart. His father died in a gas explosion, and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. Van Niekerk was angry, alone, and without mentors. At the age of 11, a gang in his community offered Van Niekerk the sense of belonging he was yearning for. In trying to forge a family, he lost his childhood. Years later, when Van Niekerk became a father, he saw himself in his son’s eyes. He couldn’t allow his child to grow up the same way he did. Van Niekerk knew he had to end the cycle of gangsterism.
“When I started my own family, I realised that I needed to be a positive influence in my own community,” he says. Van Niekerk believed sport, soccer in particular, could provide the youth of Heideveld with a sense of kinship. He formed Great Commission United (GCU) in 2001 to provide kids with a positive channel for their needs. With his knowledge of gangsterism, its roots and effects, Van Niekerk appealed to the community for change. But because of his history, they didn’t trust him. As the organisation grew, Van Niekerk demonstrated that reformation is possible. When children join the programme, their past isn’t questioned. At GCU, they are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions. With support and forgiveness, the kids are given the opportunity to take a new path in life.
“Soccer creates a community and a safe place,” Van Niekerk says. “I can see how the kids who go through the programme are different.” The initiative, a Laureus Sport for Good project, doesn’t only focus on sport. They provide assistance with schoolwork, offer career advice, and renovate schools. Van Niekerk’s work and own life are testament to the possibilities that arise when people are given hope. “There’s always another game,” he says. “There’s always a second chance.”