For many young people in South African communities where gangsterism is rife, their lives are not reflective of the promises made by democracy. Street gangs provide support structures, a network of relationships and an understanding of identity, especially among male youths.
What makes street gangs so dangerous is their ability to “prey” on the fragility of the youth that find themselves stuck between living in extreme poverty and with unfulfilled promises made by the state. These include adequate education, access to basic resources and employment.
Gaining control: Gangs as providers for youth needs
Gangs in South Africa use the act of providing for community members as a way of gaining control of the community. As a result, they become powerful role models by propagating a lifestyle of wealth vested in their activities. With that, they target the youth, whose economically often unstable family backgrounds enhances their vulnerability.
In addition to the family, other social institutions such as churches, schools and the state have contributed to the formation and maintenance of gangs as these more often than not fail to adequately provide for the needs of young people. Essentially, gangsterism is fuelled by a combination of low economic status, deteriorating social bonds and social structures, inequality and status frustration.
Beyond law-enforcement: Understand and address existential draw of gangs
Past gang intervention strategies have primarily been based in law-enforcement techniques. While these may continue to have limited application, they have failed to undermine, negate or ‘eliminate’ criminal gangs (as is their stated intention) (Buthelezi 2012).
Reasons for this are that not only do gangs see these Anti-crime units and organisations as other gangs – like it is another form of oppression and imposition on their turfs, as these efforts involve the use of violence and force, from the state much like the apartheid government, the obvious response would be to retaliate. These efforts also only focus on confiscating weapons and drugs and disarming the gangs as opposed to engaging with the ontological draw of gangs – gangs give meaning to the realities in which young people live.
There are many factors that have been attributed to young people joining gangs, the obvious factors include poverty, absent fathers, family members that were or are gang members and lack of opportunities, just to name a few. All of these are highlighted in many academic papers and research and generally tend to paint a similar picture for all gang ridden communities.
The mistake, however, that many academics make, including myself, and NGOs and the state, is impose their idea of what needs to be done in these communities. However, very little time and effort is spent on understanding and exploring how non-gang-affiliated youth and young gangsters in these communities perceive their needs, their environments and what they think would help in addressing gangsterism in their communities.
Recognising and empowering youth as active social actors
In his book titled Gang Town, Don Pinnock argues that punitive measures have limited success at a community level, especially when dealing with young people and children.
He further argues that the main reason for the failure to contain gangs is the failure to engage young people and children that are involved in gangs on a personal level with respect, openness and an awareness of the various influences that work together to make young people and children join gangs and commit crimes.
When trying to develop programmes or strategies that are aimed at children and youth, it is important to note that young people are social actors. This means that young people are able to understand their environments and contribute to their development.
There is a need to empower the youth in gang ridden communities by giving them the opportunity to be active participants in shaping their environments – as opposed to only seeking to eradicate the crime problems associated with gangs.
Rather than being passive recipients or participants, young people need to be given the chance to actively contribute to the development and implementation of interventions and programmes that are aimed at them.
Don Pinnock further argues that when looking for solutions to youth involvement in gangs, the rights guaranteed to young people under the Constitution need to be restored. These rights include:
- The right to a safe environment
- The right to a usable education
- The right to human dignity
- The right to family – care and shelter.
These rights should not merely be ‘adorned’ on paper; they are a requirement for the development of children and youth.
Interventions need to address the needs of young people
Interventions should essentially be aimed at meeting the developmental needs of children and youth that are not being met, instead of only seeking to eradicate the crime problems associated with gangs. In order to understand what those needs are, conversations need to start taking place with young people in disadvantaged communities.
There have been and still are programmes that meet some of the needs of the youth. Examples include the New World Foundation in Lavender Hill and Conquest for Life in Westbury which offer computer skills, dance lessons and sports activities after school, thus keeping young people busy during the week and on weekends. However, keeping young people busy, temporarily does not guarantee material ‘wealth’, protection, identity or belonging - and those are some of the needs that gangs seem to fulfil.
‘Making the Number positive’ (i.e. addressing the needs that are fulfilled by gangs) requires a collaborative effort from the youth, the community, the private sector, families, schools and the government to develop programmes that will adequately equip young people with the necessary skills to become active members of society. Opportunities need to be created in their communities in order to fulfil the needs that gangsterism has been fulfilling so far.
Charity Monareng and is an intern at GIZ South Africa and currently doing her Research Master’s degree in Criminology at the University of Cape Town. Her thesis is a comparative analysis on youth involvement in gangs in Lavender Hill, Cape Town and Westbury, Johannesburg. She has a background in Criminology, Social Development and International Studies and is passionate about youth and community development. She firmly believe that it is important to empower people so that they can be drivers of their own development.
The introduction of this article has been revised from an earlier version to be in line with UCT regulations on referencing and using content that had formed part of Charity's thesis.
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Calix, K.R. 2013. Wie is ek? Coloured identity and youth involvement in gangsterism in Cape Town, South Africa. Unpublished Senior Honours thesis. Stanford University.
Howell, S. 2015. X marks the spot: Community responses to tik and gangsterism on the Cape Flats. Available www.savi.uct.ac.za/news/x-marks-spot-community-respnses-tik-and-gangsterism-cape-flats [2016, March 8]
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Van der Merwe, M. 2016. Book review: Don Pinnock’s Gang Town wakes you up to a cold reality. Daily Maverick. 8 July. Available www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-03-28-book-review-don-pinnocks-gang-town-wakes-you-up-to-a-cold-reality