In a society that lacks opportunity for the majority of South African youth, does the idealisation of the flashy gangster and prosperous thug life inspire young boys and men to adopt the attitudes and actions that will too, in their mind, help them overcome adversity and establish their place in society? Danielle Hoffmeester looks at the societal issues that lead to gangsterism.
There had been two stabbings and a fatal shooting in one week where I live. Word-of-mouth warnings to avoid certain spots at particular hours spread. Recently again, I heard rumours of an alleged high-ranking gangster moving into my community, and of how people who had resided in the area for most of their lives were now packing up and trying to sell their homes before a gang war broke out- an inevitability, they thought. Despite a police station situated up the road from where these people live, their faith in the capability of officers to effectively prevent and combat gangsterism and its related activities, was low. Public perception within these communities are that the police are incompetent or in cahoots with gangs. As much as it pains community members to admit it, many believe that gangs rule their respective areas. It is why, when asked where a particular gang is from people typically respond with the area “they rule”. In a time where marginalised black youth (used generically to include coloured people) are feeling increasingly disillusioned with South Africa’s democracy and its empty promises of prosperity, the thought of exercising any kind of control over an area, a group of people, or trade, is enticing.
When I recently took a day trip with my immediate family to a strawberry farm in Stellenbosch, and on our way we passed a grim-looking Chestnut Place. I, being unfamiliar with Belhar on the Cape Flats despite a few of my family members residing in Extension 13, asked my mother to confirm my suspicions: that is where a particular gang and its notorious gang leader lived. My question sparked a conversation about gangs and gangsterism, in general. On this sunny day, while on our way to pick strawberries in a town that largely remains cushioned in wealth and wealth that remains racially characterised, we lamented the plight of black people whose daily hardships and stories remain absent in the everyday ‘erudite’ discussions about ways to improve South Africa. We bemoaned the unnecessary loss of lives as a consequence of gang violence, and the scarce mentions their deaths receive in mainstream media.
Disenfranchised youth and an enabling culture
Gang violence is a troubling issue in South Africa. Post-apartheid South Africa continues to be riddled with poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse – factors which impact negatively and disproportionately on the country’s black youth, making them especially easy to persuade into gang activity. The fascination and eventual initiation into gangs lull young people into a false sense of security, belonging, and power, only to ultimately end their lives. Requests for the South African Defence Force (SANDF) to enter into gang-infested areas have gone out (itself a problematic request) and is still being deliberated. Meanwhile, gang rehabilitation interventions, as noble and necessary initiatives as they are, have low impact on the reformation of those who enter gangs. Don Pinnock, in his book ‘Gang Town’ noted that proposed solutions to gangsterism are general, unworkable, and lack analytic precision. Efforts at combatting gang activity need to have a holistic and integrated analysis that includes much more than the regular response: Lock them up and throw away the key. Apart from understanding how apartheid has disenfranchised black people, and how its consequences of poverty and unemployment intersect and create gangs, it is imperative to consider and comprehend how ideas about manhood and masculinity impact boys, in particular, and how they perceive gangs, and why the latter appeals to them.
A context in which gangs thrive
Gang violence must be understood within the context of entrenched socio-cultural notions about male superiority and privilege, as well as the social impact and legacy of apartheid, political exclusion, and unemployment on generations of young black men. Within the City of Cape Town alone, the number of active gangs are estimated to be in the tens of thousands, and their missions tend to centre drug trade and armed encounters with rival gangs over territory. Their initiation rituals predominantly include murder and rape. Within a chaotic context of drugs, guns and sparse opportunities, young men seek to recreate broken social networks, or ‘brotherhoods’ which, unfortunately, legitimise toxic expressions of masculinity.
In his paper on the intersections between masculinity and gangsterism, Adam Cooper conducted 25 interviews with multiple young men on gang violence, and how they position themselves and their ideas of masculinity in relation to gangsterism. He asked the boys, aged 16 and 17 years old, about initiation practices, and was told that initiation was referred and related to displays of fearlessness and the need to prove oneself; to be devoid of fear, to be sterkbene which literally translates as ‘strong bones’. Cooper noted that sterkbene is an ongoing process that is never fulfilled; it is constantly re-enacted through violence, like killings and rapes. Furthermore, Cooper noted the marginalisation of these young men who used the gang institution to compensate for the disempowerment of their socio-historical context.
The topic of masculinity is one I revisit time and again because it affects the very lives of other, often marginalised identities, and because it is such a long-running enigma for many men. The search for identity and the definition of what it means to be a ‘real’ man is an important part of maturity for young men, especially, as they strike out to find their own place in the world. It is only normal for boys and young men to look to society for gender cues and role models to guide them through the prickly questions of gender identity, and their role to take in the world. With the ubiquity of mass communication which, problematically, portrays stereotypical and harmful representations of masculinity, it is of little wonder that manhood is equated with violence, aggression, blind bravery, and unwavering strength. The idealisation of the flashy gangster and prosperous thug life, represented both in urban music and in the homes, is what inspires young boys and men to adopt the attitudes and actions that will too, in their mind, help them overcome adversity and establish their place in society. With limited spaces of respectability open for boys to enter into, they search for alternative avenues to access respect, attention, and power.
To stunt the proliferation of gangs and halt violence in its myriad forms, we must interrogate, challenge, and change ideas of masculinity. Society must allow for and actively encourage positive definitions of manhood. SA.
Image credit: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development