In any discussion about gangs, we first need to know what we’re talking about. That means we should begin with a definition. A Western Cape gang project defined them this way:
A gang is a group of people with shared identity who meet continuously with common purpose. If that purpose results in antisocial, illegal or violent behaviour and is harmful to others, the group is a criminal gang.

There are two sentences in the definition for a good reason. Reading newspapers or listening to the way police describe a gang, you’d think that all gang members are criminals. According to the definition, however, a gang may be a group of people who meet regularly and have a gang name, but if they don’t do anything illegal they’re not a criminal gang. It’s only when they do things that are anti-social, illegal or violent that they’re a problem. The definition was written this way make people – and especially the police – realise that not everyone in a gang is a criminal.

Of course very often gangs do become involved in criminal activities like selling drugs or running protection rackets. They also become involved in gang wars over turf’, the area they call their own territory. The really big problem with gangs is their violence, which can traumatize whole communities and make people afraid to leave their homes after dark. This has a crippling effect on positive community activities.

Not all gangs are the same

To understand gangs, we have to know the difference between them. Here are some of the main types:
Corner kids – these are really playgroups formed by young people who live in a certain block of flats, around a particular open court or a nearby street corner. Like their older brothers, they usually give their group a name, such as Como Kids (after Como Court) or Third Street Kids.
Warrior gangs – these are made up of young teenagers, mostly still at school, and it’s all about being cool, being seen and being well regarded. In Cape Town they are generally Xhosa-speaking and in recent-migrant areas like Khayelitsha. They often take drugs like tik and have a knife tucked somewhere.
Merchant gangs – these are the gangs that are most written about in the press. As their name suggests, they are in the business of making money. Very often they sell drugs, run protection rackets for syndicate bosses. They have a love affair with – and know a lot about – handguns. When gang fights break out over ‘home turf’ or deals gone wrong or girlfriends they are a huge problem and often bystanders get hit by stray bullets.
Girl gangs – these are gangs who either support the male warrior or merchant gangs or run their own operations.
Syndicates – these are not gangs themselves but use gangs and run illegal operations. Often they are at the heart of protection rackets, illegal trading and smuggling drugs, abalone, shark fins and stolen goods. Some are local and some are foreign nationals.
Prison gangs – these are the most violent gangs, known as Men of the Number because of their names: 26s, 27s and 28s. They are over 100 years old and were confined to prisons until the 1990 when they became represented on the streets. Most merchant gangs now have allegiances to a number gang. They have complicated rituals and they love tattoos.

Why do young people join gangs?

Gang members are usually young men and less often women searching for a sense of belonging, respect and identity. Gang members want excitement, acceptance, prestige, companionship and opportunities. The men use gangs to strut their masculinity and sex appeal. They also seek financial wealth, protection from violence and an ability to provide for their family.

Many young people join gangs because their future seems bleak and hopeless. They have no opportunities for a good job or income. They see gang members in their neighbourhoods becoming rich, feared and respected and so they see them as role models.

Children are drawn to gangs because they see gangsters as ‘movie-type’ heroes. They might start stealing for fun or because they’re hungry. This can soon lead to robbing people and breaking into people’s homes. They become attracted to gang activity and may be used to sell and deliver drugs for the gangs. It’s inevitable that they’ll become more and more deeply involved in crime and gang activities.

Some young people find an alternative ‘family’ in a gang. The gang gives them a sense of belonging. For this reason, when engaging young people about their membership, you should never talk badly about their gang. It’s their way of life and they will defend it, sometimes with violence.

The consequences of joining a gang

Once a young person joins a gang, it’s extremely difficult to leave. Once you’re ‘in’, you know too much. If you leave a gang, you’re exposed to harm from your former gang members. Other gangs might target you when they realise you no longer have gang protection.

To join a gang, a young person must usually perform a ritual of initiation or a rite-of-entry. This generally involves antisocial actions and could include violence like stabbing, shooting or rape. In South Africa, many young people have been initiated into gangs through car theft, assault, armed robbery, drug dealing and murder. For many, these acts are seen as simply being a way of life. Many get arrested, go to jail and end up with prison records that damage their future chances in life.

At first, gangs seem fashionable, cool, prestigious and young people feel powerful belonging to a gang. It seems easier than studying for five years through high school and then having to look for a job where you work from nine-to-five o’clock every day. In the present economy even with matric school leavers can’t find jobs.

Once young people become part of a gang, however, life is tough. In some areas, young people don’t have a choice. Those who don’t belong to a gang are at risk of being killed by the gangs in their area and in neighbouring areas. Even going to school can be dangerous because the gangs work there as well. Safety is never certain.