Gangs and youth – Insights from Cape Town

Gangs and youth – Insights from Cape Town – Understand

Fixing the gang problem means solving the adolescent problem, says Don Pinnock in this introduction to gangs and youth. [Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development]

A tale of two cities

Cape Town is essentially two cities. One is beautiful beyond imagining on the slopes of Table Mountain, the other one of the most dangerous cities in the world where police need bullet-proof vests and sometimes army backup.

Here gangs of young men rule the night with heavy calibre handguns defending turf for drug lords, dispensing heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, cannabis and fear. In both a historian and a criminologist, I am interested in the crimes they do and the crimes done to them, why it is so and how it came to be like this.

In a single year ending in March 2015 more than seventeen thousand people were murdered in South Africa. This is higher than some countries at war. Around 600 000 other violent crimes were reported, including attempted murder, rape, robbery and assault.

The country’s murder rate per 100 000 is 34.3 per 100 000 (in 2016/17), one of the world’s highest. In Cape Town it’s much higher at 51.6 . This number masks the city’s huge internal disparities. In Nyanga, it’s estimated the murder rate is above 200 per 100 000. In 2012 contact crime in the Western Cape was 1 852 per 100 000. Much of this is attributed to gangs.

This is a brief overview of what is seen to be a gang problem in the city, followed by the underlying reasons and, finally, by a number of proposed solutions.

What is a gang?

Any formal or informal ongoing organisation,  association, or group of three or more persons, which has as one of its activities the commission of one or more criminal offences, which has an identifiable name or identifying sign  or symbol and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity. 

This official definition from South Africa’s Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA) is so broad that it’s almost unworkable. Mostly the police simply ignore it unless there have been multiple convictions. 

My definition of a criminal gang (there are other types of gangs) is, on the one hand, simpler, on the other more embracing:

A gang is a group of people with common interests who come together with common criminal purpose.

There are some general things we can say about such gangs:

  • They’re an urban phenomenon found in most cities throughout the world where there’s crowding and low income.
  • They’re mostly found within particular types or urban structure: tenements, low-cost neighbourhoods and squatter areas.
  • They’re generally in areas of relative (not absolute) poverty
  • They’re mainly a male youth  phenomenon.
  • They’ have to do with identity.
  • There are often parental attachment issues.
  • There can be connections to mental & physical health issues.
  • There’s almost always a drug connection.
  • There are very often education issues – high percentages of gang members have dropped out of school early.
  • There are often, but not always, links to a criminal economy.
  • They have a bad rap and use it

They can be structured as:


which are highly structured and bureaucratic with centralized control systems.                         


which tend to have fluid nodes and supply chains. These are harder to take down.                        


which buy and sell illicit products and services and are generaly fiercely territorial.                       


which are family-like and work through reciprosity and blood loyalty and display membership through ceremony, clothes and tattoos.

For many young people, gang membership is a rite of passage into manhood and the urge for this type of associations is very old and embedded in many traditions.

It is a time of anticipation for something other – a longing for magical transformation and a rejection of the mundane. It demands ritual space, a time when a child needs to find the unknown man and woman inside themselves. It’s a time when we become obsessed by heroes, performance and ritual.

Why are there gangs?

Cape Town is an enigma. It’s one of most spectacular cities in the world and also one of the most violent. In 2015 there were over 2 000 murders – an average of six a day.

If the media is an indicator, this is a city drenched in gang violence. But are gangs at the heart of this violence? Police calculate that 11% of murders in the city are due to gang violence, the rest are domestic violence or the result of shebeen brawls.

But there are still a lot of gangs, and we need to explore why. One of my early discoveries was that Cape Town doesn’t have a gang problem so much as a youth problem of which gangs are one of the outcomes. Fixing the gang problem means solving the adolescent problem.

In 2016 nearly half (49%) of young people aged 15 – 35 were unemployed. In January 2017 South Africa had the highest recorded youth unemployment in the world. Half the kids who start school don’t make matric and 3.4-million aged 11–24 are not in education, employment or training. In Cape Town that figure, at last count, was 317 000.

Around five million young people are living in a household where nobody has a formal job and 26% are in child-headed households. The conclusion is that a huge majority of these young people are on the streets with nothing to do. And trouble follows idle hands. 

Social disruption and family breakdowns

Central to the gang problem is opportunity difference and family breakdown. The old working class areas were socially integrated neighbourhoods with extended families which exerted high levels of social control.

Journalist Brian Barrow captured the sense of community this way:

Children everywhere. Shouting, laughing, whistling, teasing, darting between old men’s legs, running between fast-moving buses and cars and missing them by inches with perfect judgement. Poor, underfed children but cheeky, confident, happy and so emotionally secure in the bosom of their sordid surroundings. Everyone loved them. To them, it seemed, every adult on those busy streets was another mother, another father.

In the 1960s and 1970s Cape Town restructured along racial lines. All communities deemed non-white were ripped out and relocated to the Cape Flats. District Six is now grass and rubble where the social centre of the city used to be.

After 1994 Cape Town was recast as a world-class neoliberal city. This approach requires that the city is made safe and profitable for investment. Problems were largely pushed to the periphery and bad neighbourhoods remained bad neighbourhoods where poverty continued.

This was compounded by massive in-migration from rural areas – a nightmare for the city’s planners. In the past 22 years some things have got better for some but worse for many and many toxic environments remain.

What was the impact of these changes of on parents in these socially churned-up areas?

In search of role models

One of the biggest indicators for male delinquency is absent fathers. They may be absent emotionally, abusive or simply not there.  Around 60% of births in the Western Cape are to single mothers. So, in the absence of role models, how do young men assert their masculinity?

The dominant masculinity in movies or on billboards are affluent, light-skinned or African heterosexual men and not achievable for most. Yet such masculinity is held in higher esteem in areas of major gang activity than elsewhere. Their hyper-masculinity swings between being the super-hero of a Hollywood blockbuster and a useless, socially despised ‘skollie’.

Respectability is out of reach, but they’re able to approach the desired values of toughness, success and control through crime.  And gang bosses – with flashy cars, beautiful women and obvious power ­– are the role models.

It’s hard to be a young man in a low-income, high risk neighbourhood.

Mothers and epigenetics

Something else to consider is bio-social adaptation to environmental stress which begins even before a child is born. Its mother is IN an environment and IS an environment. Her nutrition, chemical intake or stress levels are signals that effect an embryo’s development.

Hyper stress or drug use by a mother can lead to an overdevelopment in the developing child of its dopamine system and an underdevelopment of its serotonin system.

Dopamine neurotransmitters are the ‘seeking’ system for things like exploring, foraging or sex. It prompts you to ‘go for it’. It raises levels of impulsive action, aggression and desire for reward. Gaining the goal is experienced as pleasure. The serotonin does the opposite – it cools you down, regulates emotion and behaviour, and inhibits aggression.

The effect of this altered balance kicks in, particularly, during puberty. There’s a direct relationship between dopamine highs and aggressive behaviour. Lower serotonin/higher dopamine means lowering of inhibition, increased impulsiveness, public spectacle hyper-masculinity and a greater predisposition to engage in violent behavior and lower overall resilience.

There is also a problem of early emotional attachment. Resilient youths seldom offend or resort to violence. Emotional resilience comes from loving attachments and safe surroundings.

Children growing up where that is absent have trouble making sustaining emotional connections. They have problems with their own feelings and the feelings of others. They carry feelings of shame and anger which they generally hide with bravado and, often, violence. They’re edgy and lock their emotions in a psychological vault. They are drawn to others like themselves without empathy, sympathy and caring.

These kids often turn to violence and aggression because they know these are a reliable method for reasserting their existence. Aggression gets them what they want. ‘I hurt others therefore I am.’

How about education?

In 2016 around 800 000 pupils sat down to write their final matric exams. That was about half of the number who had started school 12 years earlier. That means nearly a million young people failed to achieve the first rung of almost any career. A survey of grade six pupils across South Africa found that in 75% of schools, between about a quarter and half of the learners were functionally illiterate.

One third of young people in the Western Cape under 25 are not in education, employment or training. Most of them are on the streets with nothing much to do. These kids are essentially being socialized into failure.


Cape Town is awash with drugs, from cocaine and heroin to chrystal meths and nyope, a low-grade heroin cut with anything from rat poison to chlorine.

Their clandestine, illicit, syndicate-driven use is destroying families, causing epigenetic problems in mothers, fatherlessness, raising levels of violence through turf wars, wasting police time chasing dealers and users, clogging courts and overfilling prisons.

The only sensible solution seems to be to follow the Portuguese example: decriminalize and institute systems of harm reduction.

Are there solutions?

The answer to the question is: of course there are. But we need to first ask what we mean by solving the gang problem? If we mean solving crime, that’s a big ask. 

What I’m more interested in is to figure out how to solve violence and hopelessness among young people who, as things stand, have no alternative.

Helping young people live meaningful, resilient lives

Most members of gangs are young people – particularly young men who are seeking an identity; who have with little money yet need stuff in high-density urban areas; and who have time on their hands and plenty of adolescent edginess and energy.  

The real question is not so much about gangs, but what can we do to help young people live meaningful, resilient lives in environments that favour development of gangs, crime and violence?

It is pertinent to ask: Which young people? All adolescents have the tendency to push the boundaries. While for many youthbad behaviour is limited to adolescence, there are others whose risky behaviour becomes life-course persistent due to epigenetic stress,  attachment problems, fatherlessness and high-risk environments. It is these about whom we need concern ourselves.

Rethink Education

South Africa spends a huge amount on the roll-out of education but, for most kids, the education system is dysfunctional.

There tends to be a false dichotomy between hand and mind work, with craft skills less valued. Some people work best as mind workers, others as craft workers. It’s not a statement of intelligence but of aptitude.

If young people feel the skills they possess and interests they have are not valued, this might explain the high school dropout rate.

Rethink family & community

The first 1000 days from conception create the cognitive groundwork for the rest of a person’s life. A solid grounding at this stage has been proved to bring down violence and aggression levels 16 years later.

That’s why implementing the Early Childhood Development  Policy is so important.  Loving attachment is essential in forming resilient children. Resilience is what helps young people succeed in life and avoid gangs, drugs and early childbirth.

Rethink policing & prisons

Containing is what needs to happen when young people fall foul of the law.

The first stop is policing and it’s not doing too well. We need to know what policing can’t do. They cannot – and should not be expected to – solve the gang problem. Their job is to contain it until it’s solved by other departments..

Meanwhile this is how policing could be improved:

Re-educate police officers prone to violence or corruption.

  • Improve the quality of new recruits and quality of training.
  • Reintroduce professionalism and pride by employing only the best person for the job.
  • Improve police management to curb corruption.
  • Simplify grievance procedures so communities can report corrupt officers.
  • Reinstate promotions based solely on merit.
  • Establish an independent, specialised anti-corruption unit.
  • Make the Independent Police Investigative Directorate truly independent.

Rethink prisons

South Africa’s prisons are failing for four reasons:

  1. They fail to change and often entrench criminal behaviour;
  2. They damage people who are already emotionally damaged;
  3. They ‘cook’ crime by housing large numbers of criminals together; and
  4. By not expunging an ex-prisoner’s record for many years, they stigmatise and make returning to crime the only option.

The solution is to transform prisons into schools of industry that turn out artisans and deal with the very real psychological problems of the people in their care.

If prisons are to be effective they must heal the damage done by society and provide skills
to reintegrate inmates back into it.

Reclaim the neighbourhood

The way neighbourhoods are structured has a direct influence on gang activity. Blocks of flats with poor street access favour gang activity because of poor community surveillance.

Any restructuring of neighbourhoods or rebuild plans need to incorporate space for extended families and have verandas for informal community surveillance (one of the reasons District Six worked as a community). We need to value and support grandparents: they are the anchors of any community.

Reduce the flow of illegal drugs

Around 120 000 young people in the Western Cape could be using some sort of illegal hard drug. What we have to do is reduce the harm they can cause – especially to young people. To do that, we need to understand why kids take drugs. One of the main causes of drug taking is sadness, a failure to fit in and the absence of loving relationships. 

We need to decriminalize drugs, set up support centres and treat drug-taking as a physical and mental illness. We have to stop stigmatizing and jailing drugtakers.

Why we need to decriminalise drugs Positive effects of decriminalisation
  • Criminalising drugs hands the trade to illegal syndicates.
  • It is in the interest of syndicates to get customers addicted.
  • People who use drugs excessively don't use them because of the chemicals in them but because of sadness, hurt, loneliness.
  • Stop the turf wars.
  • Collapse the drug syndicates.
  • Disincentivise international drug tasks.
  • Hugely reduce the prison population.                                                                                                                    

To resist the lure of gangs, young people need to be resilient. Resilience is having or developing competencies in spite of a high-risk context.

Build personal resilience

Resilient kids are active, affectionate, good-natured, humorous, confident and competent. They handle frustration and anxiety, ask for help when they need it and can withdraw from stressful situations and postpone an angry responses.

In high-risk environments, gang formation is a form or resilience. They build friendships and give meaning, albeit often at high cost. Young people in gangs are telling us what they need: affirmation, exciting ritual, acceptance and respect from peers and a significant adult. They want re-fathering, re-familying and re-attachment in order to feel valued, wanted and respected.

The most successful programme would be almost like a gang but would take young people to a different place.

In an organization I started called Usiko, we took young, high-risk youths into the wilderness (which scared them). We linked them to male mentors who took them through certain rituals that required both bravery and trust.  It’s what I call resilience construction. These are the elements.

The key process in such a programme is described by psychologists as desistence or turning point effect. A discontinuity in relation to daily life.  This is what the progression of the programme looks like:

More information

Much of what you’ve read here is taking place at the Chrysalis Academy in Cape Town. Check out their website at:

You can also find these ideas and many more, plus a toolbox for teachers and parents working with adolescents, in my book Gang Town.