Gangs in the Western Cape are not a plague on our communities, they are the communities, says Nathaniel Roloffis.
Cape Town - Gangsterism in the Western Cape is too often discussed solely in oppositional terms in the heat of violence and conflict. This tendency constructs a narrative that separates gangs from normal society. While the attempt to remove this violent behaviour from our acceptable social norm is a natural reaction, it excludes many of the truths about gangs, including their reasons for existence and their multiple roles in our society.
Gangs in the Western Cape are not anomalies. They are largely organised reactions to the constructs of the societies in which they exist. There are records of similar gangs in almost every nation in the world as affected societies struggle to develop and wrestle with issues of fairness and equity. No country among South Africa’s fellow Brics nations has managed to avoid gangsterism completely.
The prevalence of gangs in an economy and social system like South Africa’s is not unique. However, there are manifestations of the gang culture in the Western Cape that are. Much of these manifestations are direct holdovers from the apartheid era and the trauma suffered from the segregation and forced removals of communities to the Cape Flats.
The result of this displacement, only decades later, reveals the long-term effects of the apartheid regime.
Brazil has one of the most prevalent gang cultures in the world, as a result of similar segregation of rich and poor, and lack of social supports and infrastructure. However, in reconstruction efforts, Brazil built intentional social structures that actively engaged some of the racial, cultural and economic barriers.
To better understand gangs in the Western Cape, it is important to note that “coloured” communities have large, tiered, hierarchical gangs. These gangs are primarily economic, territory- and security-based. But they perform more functions than that. Due to the manner in which the townships designated for coloureds were created, they also function as somewhat important social-support structures. Often a large portion of the community relies on the gang to mediate disputes, punish trespassers and provide groceries, rent, transport and security. Gangs have the potential to function as one-stop governments for their disenfranchised communities. This is often as a result of the failure of the existing government’s social and economic structures to include vulnerable communities long ago.
The black youth gangs in the townships of the Western Cape have two tracks. The one we hear most about is the youth mob model. In Nyanga and Gugulethu they are called the Vatos and the Vuras. These two high enrolment gangs are not economic in nature, have nearly no structure or hierarchy, and perform a basic security function for those involved. The Vatos and the Vuras make up a small part of the violence we know to exist in the black townships, but are very high profile because of the weapons they use (largely knives and pangas) and their high numbers. The principal murder we encounter in the black townships comes from the older informal cliques. These cliques are usually involved in various illicit activities, such as ATM fraud, stick-ups and drug distribution, opting to spend most of their time at a single shebeen. Some of the outrageous behaviour we observe from the Vatos and Vuras is aimed at impressing some of the shebeen gangs so they might be recruited and begin working. However, there is usually little crossover between the youth gangs and the adult ones in black townships.
All of these types of gangs exist throughout the world. The mistake many countries are making is the same that much of South Africa makes – the vilification of youth. These gangs are not a plague on our communities, they are the communities. The matric student is the drug dealer. The church-going youth is also the one helping to stab a neighbour at night. We cannot wish this away, but must take responsibility for this culture, engage it, and provide healthier and more attractive alternatives to coping with the immense challenges and significant losses these youth face every day. We must offer opportunities for them to build themselves up and construct realistic expectations for what success requires. We must look toward inclusive activities rather than attempt to extricate or isolate them from the values we expect youth to keep.
Gang and youth violence can often be a salient litmus test for the manner in which a nation deliberately builds social mobility. South Africa needs to ask itself honest questions around deliberate equity and opportunity if it intends to stem the consistent gang-related violence. It is not a problem that many countries have ever been successful at policing away. The real problem is in the development of the nation, and that task rests on all of our shoulders. Politicians, civil society, police and non-governmental organisations should be focused on inclusive growth, not punitive measures.