“Murder, gangsterism and tragedy: Meet the matriculants who just kept going”
This was a News24 headline from last week. The rest of the article read like a hero’s tale, focused on telling the story of three young men who had overcome adversity to achieve the unimaginable.
“We survived… We are here today”
Reading the article I was struck by its inevitable tone. It seemed to suggest that what these three boys had experienced was just another consequence of their environment, rather than a consequence of government and policy failure. Instead of praising these young boys, who ‘made it’ in spite of their sure fate of gangsterism, why did this article not focus on what we really need to be discussing? Why is it that after 26 years of democracy we are still writing about the far too few who make it out of the Cape Flats rather than calling on the government to take decisive action?
We all know the reality of this community. It is a community that continues to grapple with structural inequality, unemployment, poverty and gang violence. The News24 article focuses on the ‘difficult time’ the boys endured, blaming it on the normalized idea of gangs and violence that have come to characterize an entire community. Nowhere does it explore why these young men had to endure this lifestyle, instead it just leaves us with the idea that these boys are now free to forget where they come from and move on. But this is not the case. The reality is that these boys will most likely return to their community, to visit their families and friends. Perhaps they will come back to help bring change but it’s more likely that they will be met by children who continue to face exactly the same circumstances from which they left and this is where I felt the article failed.
Headlines and media stories like this one only reinforce the idea that the young children of the Cape Flats will forever be resigned to a cycle of gansterism, instead of using their power to interrogate and challenge why this cycle is allowed to continue and what can be done to fix it.
Here are some facts. Fact number 1, come March 2020 the South African Defence Force (SADF) will be ending its deployment in the area. Fact number 2, the violence has not stopped and even more importantly, poverty and inequality persist. Now, I don’t proclaim to be a sole authority on addressing social issues, but I believe most would agree with me when I say that current social policies are not doing enough to address the root causes of gangsterism.
Structural violence and its effects
Firstly, while we must acknowledge that the violence plaguing the Cape Flats is directly related to the inequalities that stemmed from the political and ideological practices and policies of colonialism and apartheid, it is current political indifference that has allowed it to persist.
The social and long-lasting effects of gangsterism on the Cape Flats is one that is so ingrained in the history and identity of the community that any way to solving this issue must involve collectiveness, social organisation and promote the principles of social justice and human rights. When looking at most reports on gangsterism, it is mostly discussed as a criminal entity, which minimises its very real social and cultural complexities. Gang violence is very rarely spoken about within the context of the structural violence this community was forced to endure.
Any approach to reducing gang violence and gangsterism must be lasting and must be led by the people who understand these complexities in its entirety. This is why I believe the government must seriously consider a well-funded and structured community development approach.
Change from the ground up must be at the heart of any approach.
A key aim of community development is to build structures that facilitate democratic participation in decision-making. Lowering the crime rate, decreasing the number of murders, increasing access to education and creating employment opportunities are all ways to combat the cycle of gangsterism on the Cape Flats.
Coloured communities have long been marginalized when it comes to having their say in the economic and social development of the Cape Flats. As Steffen Jansen notes, the post-apartheid government thought the gang violence would stop once the regime changed, however their failure to address the root causes of the ongoing violence is why government’s since have increasingly focused on security measures while development of the community has been rolled back.
One community development academic, Sue Kenny, notes that social issues can’t disappear unless the “systematic inequalities” are addressed and ironed out. This is why key elements of community development, such as empowerment and human rights, must be embraced when working with the community to understand how to tackle gangsterism.
British economist, Naila Kabeer, also highlights the importance of citizenship and empowerment to enact institutional and individual change. This is why any community development approach taken by the government must empower the Coloured youth on the Cape Flats to understand their identity and own their vision for a just society.
As Steffen Jansen has argued: “gangs are products of history, identity and necessity”, and until this is directly acknowledged, we will continue having to read about the “brave” and “resilient” few, rather than celebrating an entire community who deserve far more than anything that has been afforded them thus far.
About Michel’le Donnelly
A writer and recent Master of Development Studies graduate, Michel’le’s work focuses on anti-racist and intersectional feminist approaches to addressing the social issues borne out of the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society we live in.