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No easy escape for Cape flats women

Women in the Western Cape are recruited and initiated into gangs most commonly through a romantic relationship. They say the lifestyle is ‘all or nothing’, as their loyalty is constantly tested. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency

Women in the Western Cape are recruited and initiated into gangs most commonly through a romantic relationship. They say the lifestyle is ‘all or nothing’, as their loyalty is constantly tested. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency

Published Jan 14, 2022



CAPE TOWN - The joys of motherhood have to take a back seat for women in gangs who feel trapped in a lifestyle that demands absolute loyalty and prioritisation, even over one’s children.

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Refusal of this large unwritten expectation is also not an option, as it's “all or nothing“ when you are a part of a gang, with the risk of harm or death always looming because of what you know.

While direct female gang membership is not typical, their romantic relationship with a gangster is their entry into the gang life.

A 42-year-old unemployed mother of four from the Cape Flats who has been dating a gangster for 20 years says her children not living with her is a consequence of gang life.

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“I have four children, two girls aged 8 and 12, and two boys, 14 and 16.

“My boys live with their grandmother in Johannesburg and my girls live with my mother so I see them every day.

“It’s the second year they haven't come to visit, because of Covid, but we speak often over video calls.

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“We made the decision for the boys to move away because we felt it would be better for them.

“All the kids their age here today are gangsters, what would have become of them?” she said.

“Of course I would rather be living with my kids, I miss them, but the environment is just too hectic. It is a consequence of my choices.”

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She was 21 when she started dating her long-term boyfriend.

“He is the only roof over your head, he brings home the money by selling drugs or delivering them, checks out guns and gets paid to put food on the table.”

Of her role as his girlfriend, she explains: “I must look out for him, watch his back. When they are shooting and the cops are looking, I have to help him hide. I must get food from his mother in another gang’s territory and it’s hard to get there because I also get harassed.

“The other gang knows that I'm his girlfriend, they throw us with stones, so I must run.

“It’s been almost 20 years of the same thing – keep guns, keep bullets, hide outs and stuff like that.”

The couple live in one of three gangster houses in a small street, which is in their gang’s territory. The two-bedroomed house is shared with two or three couples in each room.

The women also have domestic chores that involve cooking, cleaning and washing clothes of gang members.

“You can’t refuse, you must ’staan uit’, whatever you’re asked, you must show them how loyal you are, otherwise you are like a fake, ’skibenga’, you’re not fit to join the gang so they’ll just sleep with you, mainly just use you sexually. It’s either you with us or you against us, they say.

“You can't leave him, they make you married.”

She says that unfortunately her boyfriend would never leave the gang. Because of his loyalty to this gang, “he plays a big role, they need him somehow, that's what he always says and that's what they always say”.

There are good times, like big street parties, beach days and lunches, however if she could do things differently, she’d choose a different path.

“For me now that I'm much older, it's not normal really, and it's not nice, it’s unpleasant. My desire is peace, just to be with my kids and my man and be peaceful.”

Another mother of three tells a similar story, which exposes the sad reality on the Cape Flats for many.

“My late father was a member of the 26 gang, he was a general and my mom was in a Johannesburg prison.

“My dad and mom were drug peddling all the years, we never stayed with them, my mother’s sisters raised us.

“Living with my mom's twin sister, we also grew up selling drugs.

“When I matriculated I moved out of the house.

“There was this guy who worked for my late mom and dad. I got involved with him and then got pregnant. We separated so I had to leave my eldest daughter with my family. Thereafter I went on drugs, then I met my two boys' fathers and I'm still with him.”

She says only one of her three children lives with her.

“This wasn't my expectations of life today, I’m really ashamed of myself for where my life ended up.

“Life has been tough for me. I don't want my kids to grow up the way I was raised so I try to be independent. When I get an opportunity to work, I go.”

Registered counsellor Imanuella Muller, who obtained her Master’s degree in psychology at Stellenbosch University, did research on how young girls and women in the Western Cape are recruited and initiated into gangs, and what their roles and functions are in these gangs.

“The most common way for women to get involved in gangs is through a romantic connection, a boyfriend they were dating, that's how they become involved with gang activity.

“For women, there is not really a way they are initiated into the gang, but its important the gang knows they can trust you, so you will be given a task (but every gang is different) to sort of test you,” said Muller.

She added that more needed to be done to support women to build sustainable livelihoods outside of the gang.

“They need a place to stay, food to eat, education and training so they can be employable. They also need therapy, because it can be traumatic, gender-based violence in gangs is very real.

“The main thing I learned through my research is that every woman’s needs are different, so intervention has to be personalised and individual. A combination of therapeutic and practical, tailored to each woman and long term,” Muller said.

Cape Times

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