It is estimated that 150 000 people belong to 100 gangs on the Cape Flats. Some gangs date back to the 1940s.
Gangsterism is a global phenomenon. It includes the formation of groups with the aim of committing violence and crime, and to defend themselves physically against violence of other groups. Gangsterism is often characterized as anti-social behaviour.
Gangs emerge from within communities themselves and this phenomenon has many root causes like socioeconomic conditions (unemployment, low-income employment, and poor living conditions) all leading to conditions of poverty and deprivation.
‘Drugs are the main currency of the gangs—peddling drugs is the most lucrative activity. But nightclubs, abalone poaching, robberies, shops and garages are run by the kingpins too—mainly to launder money. Gangsters have become the foot soldiers of a much more sophisticated underworld economy, engaging in serious and violent crime, money laundering, human trafficking, drugs peddling and arms smuggling.’ according to Minister for Safety and Security, Leonard Ramatlakane.
What types of gangs are there?
1. The scavenger gang’s crimes and transgressions are usually not planned, and this group’s members are often low achievers or school dropouts.
2. Territorial gangs are well-organized and gang members have initiation rites which separate them from non-members. Often, prospective members have to prove their loyalty to the group by fighting.
3. The corporate gangs are highly structured criminal conspiracies that are organized to sell drugs – teenagers as young as fourteen could become members. All gangs have names and recognizable symbols.
The poverty, misery, violence and lawlessness of cities led to the growth of many gangs. In particular, the numerous youth gangs or tsotsis reflected the instability of the urban African family. Parental control is largely absent as both parents are forced to work. Juvenile delinquency rates are extremely high.
How do kids become involved in gangs?
When families become dysfunctional and discordant many children choose to leave the family home, opting to spend their time on the streets where they are gradually drawn into gang-related and criminal activities.
When does a family become dysfunctional?
A family becomes dysfunctional when there is domestic violence, substance abuse, poor bonding between parents and children, delinquency or parental psychological problems present in the home. Other factors that can also cause dysfunction include poor educational level of parents, low income, unwanted pregnancies and a history of parental violence. Some families also live in communities where there are high levels of violence, poor service delivery and high levels of substance abuse are the norm.
Such communities usually have a high unemployment rate, high inequality and social exclusion, a lot of fire-arms, gender inequality and discrimination, weak law enforcement and social norms that justify violence.
A lack of open space, after care and nurturing families are reasons for kids to join gangs.
From what age are kids drawn into gangs?
In school setting learners who become easy recruits for gangsterism are those learners who are underachievers, poor learners, or have language difficulties see themselves as losers in the academic setting. These children are not nurtured at home. They are often suffering emotional, physical and even sexual abuse in their homes. They witness violence and abusive relationships between parents from a young age.
Within schools, and particularly in the Grade 4 year, the following behaviours become more and more prevalent: poor academic performance, learning difficulties, truancy, and attrition antisocial behaviour due to low self-esteem.
They can be easily approached by a gang and be recruited into the organisations. Last (2001) explains this well – here they become “someone”, part of an organisation of kids just like themselves. They have a new “family” whom they tend to spend more and more time with. Teenagers are searching for a sense of security and comfort. These gang leaders recruit younger members who are unhappy and struggling. They lure them with the promise of fraternity and brotherhood, with money, drugs and girls. They are told that the worst that can happen to them if they commit a serious crime is two years in a juvenile facility, which is a small price to pay for belonging.
Example: a child witnesses his mother being abused by her partner. He is also exposed to harsh parenting, with corporal punishment used as a means of discipline. He seeks affirmation outside the home and gets lured into petty crime by the local gang, and drops out of school.
Kids boasting with scars obtained in gang violence
How do gangs pressure kids into becoming gang members?
- Peer pressure, offer protection.
- Threaten safety of friends or family members.
- Offer money for what appears to be simple activities.
- Challenge kids to take risks.
- Attend parties where gang related activities are occurring.
- Family members already belong to a gang.
Tombs at a cemetery in Cape Town. In the Cape Flats, lives are lost daily in gang violence.
What are the consequences of gang involvement for a child?
- In trouble with the law
- Drop out of school – because of fear they will be killed by rival gang members
- Withdrawal from family.
- Risk of injury in a “jump-in” by your own gang.
- Drug trafficking/weapons.
- Involvement in “dirty-work.”
Children as young as 14 years old are being arrested for gang-related murder charges in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.
“You get chosen. They see your talent and if they see you’re good looking, you’re clever, they’ll bring you in,” he says. “If you’re disadvantaged in life, the Mafias will come to you and help you. They’ll give you everything you want just for that short period of time.” says a 17 year old gang member.
- Lose opportunity for education and employment.
- Spend time in jail or prison.
- Possibility of losing family and friends.
- Risk of personal injury.
- Risk your own family’s life.
- Endless amounts of threats, assaults and drive-by shootings.
Graffiti on the walls indicating the territory of the Hard Livings Gang, Cape Flats.
What are the early warning signs that your child might be involved with gangs?
1. Graffiti is a clear marking of territorial boundaries which serves as a warning and challenge to rival gangs. It is also used to communicate messages between gangs.
2. Youth hanging out around public parks, high schools, fast food stands, convenience stores and other hang outs for teenagers. Frequent use of public phone booths by people who actually receive calls there.
3. Increase in crime – Gang related acts such as vandalism, assaults, burglaries, robberies, and even random drive-by shootings.
Children as young as 12 have been seen with the Americans’ gang motto ‘In God We Trust’ tattooed across their chests.
One of the reasons kids are drawn into gangs, is because they grow up in dysfunctional families.
What then is a functional family?
Functional families encourage and provide:
Respect is the Holy Grail of functional families. All people in the family, brothers to sisters, mothers to fathers, parents to kids must be respectful as consistently as possible. Being considerate of each other is the tie that binds, even more than love. I think too much emphasis is put on love in general. I’ve heard of many atrocities done within families in the name of love but never in the name of respect. Just about all the things on the list come out of respect first.
An Emotionally Safe Environment.
All members of the family can state their opinions, thoughts, wants, dreams, desires and feelings without fear of being slammed, shamed, belittled or dismissed.
A Resilient Foundation.
When relationships between and amongst people in a family are healthy they can withstand stress, even trauma, and, if not bounce back, at least recover. Resilience starts with encouraging sound health, eating and sleeping well, and physical activity.
Privacy of space, of body and of thought. Knock and ask permission to enter before going through a closed door. All family members are sensitive regarding personal space and aren’t insulted if someone needs a wide berth.
Being accountable is not the same as planting a homing device on your kid or abusing the cell phone to track her whereabouts 24/7. That’s not much better than stalking. No, being accountable is (again with the respect thing) respectfully and reasonably informing people in the family where you are and what you are doing so they can grow trust and not worry.
It’s sad when people hold out for an apology on a point of pride, never acknowledging their part in a dispute. How many times have you heard of rifts in families that last for years because someone feels they are ‘owed an apology’?
A functional family will have conflict. It’s very cool when we can have an argument and get to the other side of it still friendly and satisfied with the outcome. But let’s face it, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we say things that we regret. If we can feel and show remorse for our part, quickly apologize, ask for and receive forgiveness, no harm is done. You may even become closer for it.
Allow Reasonable Expression of Emotions.
When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry at my parents and my father would walk out on me if I cried. I was determined to not do that to my kids. It hasn’t been easy. The main thing for me was to teach them to state their anger in a managed manner and to teach myself not to fly off the handle when they did. I had to learn that their telling me they weren’t happy with something I did or said could be done with respect. And, very importantly, vice versa.
Gentle on Teasing and Sarcasm.
Teasing can be OK as long as the teased is in on the joke. Same with sarcasm. A functional family won’t use either as a poorly masked put down.
Allows People to Change and Grow.
It used to be people in the family were labeled the smart one or the pretty one, the funny one or the shy one. While that’s not done so overtly any more, labeling is still something to watch. A functional family lets people define themselves. Individual differences are appreciated even celebrated. It also lets the kids become independent when it’s appropriate and come back to the safety of the family when they need nurturing.
The adults in the family need to be allowed to grow as well. A mother may want to get a graduate degree, or a father may decide to retire early and start something new. These changes merit discussion on how they will effect everyone in the family, adjustment, perhaps negotiation, but again, if done with respect every one can be satisfied.
Parents Work as a Co-Parenting Team.
I strongly believe that a functional family is one where the adults are at the center of the family, in charge and pulling together in the same direction. In a functional family parents, divorced or married, take responsibility. Kids need the assurance that a firm hand (not too tight and not too loose) is at the tiller, even if they may not thank you for it.
Courtesy at Home First.
An ounce of a well-placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is worth a pound of explanations, defensive arguments and misunderstandings.
Encourages Siblings to Work Together.
Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship and it’s a dead shame when it is not nourished. Functional parents encourage siblings to play, work and problem solve together, enhancing inter-sib communication, instead of interfering with their arguments. That way siblings feel empowered and their bond is closer when they find a solution by themselves.
Provides Clear Boundaries.
We aren’t each other’s friends. A parent is a parent no matter how friendly they may be. Our children are not extensions of ourselves, they are individuals. Do not ‘friend’ them on Facebook unless you talk about it first and they say it’s OK and they mean it.
Has Each Others’ Backs.
Part of resilience – being supportive to each other no matter what, will allow your kid to call you when he thinks he’s in trouble, like needing a ride home from a party that’s gotten too wild.
Get Each Other’s Sense of Humor.
Functional families laugh a lot. They have ‘inside’ jokes and favorite stories, anecdotes of memories shared that delight and re-enforces a healthy bond.
Eat Meals Together.
So hard to do in today’s society but research does show that communication within a family is enhanced if we take more meals together, even if it’s in front of the TV.
Follow The Golden Rule.
It’s golden for a reason. “Treat each other as we wish to be treated in turn.” It was true way back when and it’s still true now.
What Can You Do?
1. Get involved!
Become aware of what’s going on in your neighbourhood and community. When incidents occur such as vandalism, loitering and drug activity, report them to the police immediately.
2. Get rid of Graffiti!
Graffiti serves as a territorial marker to gang members. When you see graffiti on block walls, houses and sidewalks, report it to law enforcement officials, and remove it immediately, after taking photographs.
3. Parental Intervention
Be aware of changes that occur with your children such as dress changes, selection of friends, truancy, violence and disregard for persons or property. Also be aware if your child has purchased new and expensive items or if your child has extra money that cannot be accounted for. Changes in behaviour and dress can be a normal part of adolescence or an indication of inappropriate identification and association. Know the difference by being an involved parent. Parent, neighbourhood and law enforcement involvement is the only way gang activity will be curbed. Remember, this is your community–not that of the gangs!!!
4. Gang-Fighting Tips
A single call to local officials has minimum impact. To be really effective, create a WhatsApp group chat, that include concerned parents, neighbours, area security companies, ward counsellors and police included in the group. That way everyone is informed at once about an incident and neighbourhoods can be mobilized quickly in cases of gang violence, robberies, burglaries, vandalism and drug dealing.
If you’re worried about gang retaliation, keep in mind that calls to local government offices and police can be made and kept anonymous.
Police do not usually ask for your name and address unless you are a victim or a witness who wishes to testify. If you give your name and address to the police for one of these reasons and you are hesitant to have the police come to your home, inform them at the time of the call. Be sure to make this very clear to them when you call. Remember, gangs will continue harassing and threatening the community until you put a stop to it.
If you witness a crime in progress, be sure to report it to the police immediately.
How do I protect my child against joining a gang?
1. Create a loving home environment
The school and the home should be a safe place. That includes getting to school safely. Many times children feel they have no choice. They may prefer to not become a gang member but they cannot see any other way to avoid the situation. Children may be living in fear on a daily basis and see joining a gang as a solution to problems.
2. Create a safe neighbourhood
Parents must join hands as a community to see that the neighborhood is safe place for their children to play, learn and live. Children may join a gang as a means of protection from rival gangs. Children may view their neighborhood gang as a solution to the torment and threats from other gangs. If children get into trouble with law, parents must let their children suffer the consequences for illegal behavior. Protecting children from the law does not teach responsibility.
3. Take a stand as a family against gangsterism.
If a family member sets the example of joining a gang, younger siblings will follow suit just too fit in. Children may also begin to wear certain colors or other types of clothing associated with gangs. Mak sure you know the tell-tale signs of gang insignia, hairstyles, language and tattoos. If a parent notices any of these indicators it is a signal that the child is interested in a gang or has already joined.
4. Keep your children engaged and busy.
Parents should be involved in coordinating and sponsoring activities for their children. More activities and parental involvement will decrease the strength a gang has in the neighborhood. If unsupervised time becomes excessive, children will search for something to do to prevent boredom. Gang activities can fill the excess time. Parents should form community groups that can supervise children’s activities. It is also important to know where your child is at all times. Make them accountable for their time and actions.
5. Get kids involved in community work
Make sure your children are involved in sports, clubs or other activities that provide healthy risk taking opportunities. Get children involved with community work to help make neighborhoods safe. Gang activities appear exciting to children. Children, especially teens, like to take risks. Gangs provide many opportunities to take risks and find excitement.
6. Teach your kids how criminals and gangs uses people.
Kids need to learn that earning honest money involves honest work. Teach them the risks of earning fast money in the world of criminals and the hold these people then have on you. Children may be offered more money for delivering a package or being a lookout than their parents can earn in a week. The appeal of obtaining money fast can be overwhelming for children. Children must understand the risks and realize that consequences will be enforced. They must also realize that they are being used by older gang members who do not want to get caught.
7. Teach your kids the value of honest work.
As parents you have to set the example of honesty and integrity. Teach your children to have pride in their accomplishments and to legitimately earn money. Parents must encourage the system to be consistent and to support the legal system. Report related activities to the police. Encourage children to stay in school in order to be qualified for a job. Give children responsibilities around the house, encourage work ethics and encourage children to seek jobs in the community.
8. Teach your child basic life skills
Parents need to teach children how to share, compromise and take turns, how to listen to what others have to say, and how to be a group member . Children who feel valuable and important in the home will feel more comfortable with others. Since the gang may be the most active organization in the neighborhood, parents must provide the opportunity for participation in youth organizations and athletic teams in order for children to practice group skills. If organizations do not exist in the neighborhood, parents must be willing to get involved to manage them. Also, set a good example for your children when you participate in group settings.
9. Build your child’s self –esteem.
Parents must strengthen children’s sense of purpose by setting expectations for their personal behavior. Expect your children to have respect for others, to obey authority, to be honest and to do one’s best. Children may feel that they do not have a sense of purpose in life and seek gang activities to reinforce their self-esteem. Help children set realistic goals so they feel a sense of accomplishment. Challenge your children to expand their interests. Work with the school to determine what opportunities are available for children. Keep communications open with school authorities and teachers.
10. Take hands with support groups/NGO’s
Parents must develop a support group in the community that can deal with children’s sorrow or frustration. Children may join a gang to retaliate for personal injury or damage to friends or family. If necessary there are agencies and school employees who are capable of helping children to deal with these feelings of anger. Every child should have the MOBIEG application on their cell phone. MOBIEG is a helpline and support group that can help a child deal with fear, low esteem, boredom, threats and hurt.
You can do a self-test quiz to learn more about signs of gang involvement: Gangsterism quiz
You can text-chat to an online facilitator on our LIVE CHAT if you need advice and support with a child/family member that is involved in a gang. If you yourself are involved and you need help to get out – you can also talk to us.