A shot of redemption from an ex-gangster


All Simphiwe Thunzi wanted was to fit in. Blinded by what it would take, the teenager turned to a life of crime. During his involvement in theft and handling drugs, he was shot at on numerous occasions. Thunzi risked it all to be a part of something. But his efforts backfired. At the age of 17, he should have had his whole life ahead of him. Instead, he was caught for armed robbery and sentenced to 18 years in jail. In Drakenstein Prison, Thunzi had to formulate a plan for survival. Joining the notorious Numbers Gang, he became one of the top smugglers behind bars. By that stage, almost everyone had lost faith in him. Almost.

“If it wasn’t for a good friend of mine who showed me the possibility of calmness and clarity, I never would have seen another way of living,” Thunzi says. Amid doubts and suspicion, his friend, Vuyo Nyabaza, stayed by his side, motivating him to reform. When Thunzi was released, he had to find, yet again, a way to fit in and survive. His saving grace turned out to be a cup of coffee – quite a few in fact.

At the Gangstar Café in Cape Town, Thunzi got a job learning to make and serve coffee. The people who work here all come from difficult backgrounds, but have found a place of redemption. “A gang is our past but stars are our future and present,” Thunzi explains. Everything is transparent here. “People all around the world come not only for the coffee but to hear our stories,” Thunzi says. One cup at a time, he’s working to show that a better life is possible.

“No child grows up wanting to become a criminal,” Thunzi says. Yet it’s a life kids are forced into daily. Without positive guidance or options to create a future, it’s easy to go down the wrong road. But it’s never too late. “We have the power to turn our lives around,” Thunzi says.  This barista shows that second chances are possible when we believe in the good of people. He’s taking the first step by encouraging every person he encounters. “Inspire others, even if there’s no one to inspire you,” Thunzi says.