Gangsterism is a horrible scourge in society that has led to the untimely death of many young people. I write this with tears in my eyes after reading yet another article about an innocent child on the Cape Flats in Cape Town recently perishing in hospital after being caught in a crossfire between two local gangs engaged in a shootout, indifferent to the possibility of harming innocent passers-by. Community members are often afraid of standing up against gangsters out of fear for their lives and the lives of their families, and so the violence continues, with local communities under siege.
Gangsterism is often characterised as antisocial, menacing behaviour with gang members engaged in violent, criminal activities. The peddling of drugs is also a key element that all gang activity revolves around. While gangsterism is a nation-wide problem in South Africa, the province often most affected by this scourge is the Western Cape. According to quarterly crime statistics, published in August 2020, out of 63 gang-related incidents that occurred over a three-month period in South Africa, 59 transpired in the Western Cape. Although the Anti-Gang Unit – which is a division of the South African Police Services (SAPS) – was established to effectively curb gang-related violence, they have only been mildly effective, with many communities still severely affected by crime connected to gangs.
My family and I live in a neighbourhood plagued by gangsterism, which has drastically impacted our quality of life. At times I feel infuriated that something as simple as walking to the local shop or waiting for a taxi or bus to commute to work or university can be the very activities that put my life danger. There are daily tales of shootings that occur in my community and my neighbours and I have become accustomed to hearing the sound of gunshots at the weekend. It’s a sad reality that many people who live in under-resourced communities have to live with.
According to a 2020 study by South African gang researcher, Dariusz Dziewanski, there are around 130 different gangs in Cape Town, with approximately 100 000 members. People join gangs for many different reasons. Often, young people from under-resourced communities try and escape their tough socio-economic conditions and toxic home environments by trying to find a familial sense of belonging in the gangs they join, with leaders giving these youths a false sense of purpose and brotherhood in the initial stages of their joining the gang.
There are a number of ways that gangsters pressure young kids to join their associations, these include: peer pressure and offering protection to these young people and their families if they join the gang, threatening to harm the youths and their families and offering them money for what seem like small tasks. Furthermore, every gang has an organised hierarchical system, with members carrying out different roles. The ‘teenies’, ‘runners’ and ‘youngers’ are people aged between 12 and 18 who are mainly used to carry and transport drugs and weapons, with the ‘elders’ and ‘leaders’ responsible for running street operations and acting as the ‘thinkers’ of the entire organisation.
Many people are unaware of that fact that gangsterism is not only an antisocial activity that young men engage in, with exclusively female-led gangs on the rise. According to Dr Don Pinnock, researcher at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Criminology Centre, many women-led gangs are becoming an increasing problem in South Africa.
It is extremely hard to leave a gang once you’re a member, with many gangsters losing their lives after declaring that they no longer want to be aligned to the gang or any of their violent, drug-peddling activities. Even when former gang members do successfully disassociate themselves from all gang-related activities, they often struggle to re-integrate themselves into society and find stable employment, which sometimes leads them re-join the gangs they had struggled to disentangle themselves from.
A thesis written by Jane Kelley, Assistant Director of Policy and Research in the Department of Community Safety in the Western Cape Government, notes that people often decide to leave gangs after waking up from the false belief that the leaders of the associations they belong to will support them. Others leave after reaching a turning point in their lives prompted by religious experiences. To completely move away from gang life, former members require the support of their families and need to regain the trust of their community members. Furthermore, there should be a network of community interventions provided to help these people with job-readiness training, drug rehabilitation counselling and similar initiatives to help these individuals holistically integrate themselves back into their communities and become positive, contributing members of society.
I believe that in under-resourced communities where there is a high risk of young people joining gangs, neighbours should stand together to give young men and women a sense of belonging. Local government officials and community members and activists should actively help to ensure that there are places of safety that young people can visit after school to participate in extramural activities that would likely keep them busy and out of the clutches of gang recruiters while their parents are at work.
No matter how challenging your social circumstances are, do not join any gang because once you’re in, it becomes extremely challenging to leave. If you have close friends who has suddenly become interested in gangsters, try and inspire them to dream big and to focus on their ambitions without getting involved with dangerous gangs and their activities.
It is never too late to change your life and to help transform the lives of others. As community members, let’s watch over our young ones and give them a sense of belonging. Let’s encourage our communities to start reading clubs, chess clubs, to host after-school study sessions and community sports clubs. Giving young people a sense of communitarianism will make them less likely to look for a sense of belonging in gangs. People standing together and helping young people realise their potential is one way that communities can be transformed from ‘gang lands’ to societies where hopes and dreams reign supreme.
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Tell us: What do you think can be done to stop the rise of gangsterism in South African communities?