Cape Town Gangs: Political Dimensions

Understanding the true nature and genesis of gangsterism in Cape Town is central to the success of the recently dispatched Anti-Gang Unit. This brief looks beyond frequently cited criminal and socio-economic factors.
Cape Town Gangs: Political Dimensions

The Anti-Gang Unit

Murder rose by 6.9% nationally between 2017 and 2018, according to the SAPS Crime Situation Report. The Western Cape was largely responsible, with its 12.6% increase in murders. Of the 3729 murders recorded in the Western Cape, 808 were gang-related.[1]

In response, President Ramaphosa launched the government-led Anti-Gang Unit in November 2018. The force is trained in handling high-risk situations and is composed of personnel from the Tactical Response teams, the Special Task Force and the National Intervention Unit.[2] Police Minister BhekiCele announced a month after the Unit was dispatched that 266 gang strongholds had been searched and 119 arrests had been made.[3] ‘We are taking oxygen out of [gang] life’, Cele said.[4]

Although Cape Town residents are generally pleased with this progress, there has been some criticism around the Unit’s lack of cooperation with local communities. Deputy Chairperson of the Mitchells Plain United Residents Association argued that mass arrests of young men who are, in fact, victims of their circumstances, is not a solution on its own.[5]

Victims of circumstance

The concept of ‘anomie’ was theorised by French sociologist Emile Durkheim and extended by Robert Merton. It holds that deviance is often a response to a situation in which goals cannot be achieved through conventional behaviour.[6] This is true in Cape Town, where high unemployment has led to a self-perpetuating drug economy, filling the vacuum of opportunity.

Simultaneously, ‘social dislocation’[7] within the Cape Coloured community is argued to have created an incubating environment for gangs. Social dislocation is an effect of the community’s violent history of slavery and racism, its ambiguous racial identity (essentialised by Apartheid) and its forced relocation from District 6 to the barren Cape Flats during the 1970s. Seeking upliftment and belonging, young people are drawn into gang membership.

The abovementioned factors skim the surface of the socio-economic landscape that enables Cape gangs. But what of political dimensions?

In the Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon famously acknowledged that though gangs were often organisations of ‘thieves, scoundrels and reprobates’, when the gangster’s violence was directed against colonial authority, it became imbued with popular legitimacy.[8]

The ‘social bandit’ or ‘revolutionary’ role has been articulated by Cape gangs for decades.

The history of the number

The Numbers Gang – a prison-based gang with a web of affiliate street gangs – constitutes the largest and most feared organisation in South Africa with an estimated membership of close to 50 000 people.[9]

The Numbers derive their origin and mythical basis from the late 1800s, when two migrant workers, Nongoloza and Kilikijan, were propositioned by a nomad called Po. Now regarded the “prophet” of the gang, Po convinced Nongoloza and Kilikijan to abandon their work at the mines, where young black workers were being exploited. Instead, the three would pursue a life of crime, robbing and terrorising black and white people alike in an existence of protest against the injustices of slavery and colonialism.[10]

Each of the three men assumed a number which symbolised the crimes they routinely committed – 26 was for robbery, 27 for rape and 28 for murder. During apartheid, the Numbers and their growing constituencies continued to operate from within South African prisons. Today, they are intimately connected with street gangs which carry out their economic activities of drug trade, prostitution and theft.

Street gangs as revolutionaries

The Cape Flats street gangs – most notoriously the Americans and the Hard Livings – have roots in both the Numbers and anti-apartheid activism.

Forced removals in Cape Town saw the development of ‘urban male subcultures’ formed in response to apartheid.[11] These groups were instrumental to the struggle, particularly the consumer boycotts called for by the ANC in the 1980s. Some took on vigilante functions, responding to rising crime levels in the neglected Cape Flats.[12] Daniel Reed has described how Cape Town gangs were often founded with the explicit intention of defending their local communities.[13]

Economic need and increasing repression by the police, however, rapidly led gang members to develop criminal entrepreneurial activities.[14] Still, there was a definite sense in which gangsters adopted a ‘Robin Hood’ role, distributing some of their spoils to the community. They thus remained a symbol of the struggle in many townships.[15]

One such example is the Hard Livings of Manenburg, Western Cape. Formed in the 1980s, the gang was embroiled in theft and the drug trade. It paid rent for members of the community in exchange for loyalty, which included families allowing their teenagers into the ranks of the gang. Its twin leaders Rashied and Rashaad Staggie were known to drive through Manenburg throwing cash out of their car windows for the people. In return, residents took to the street and attacked policemen to resist the arrests of gang members.[16]

However, especially since the end of apartheid, Cape gangs have evolved from being motivated by social solidarity to being predatory institutions focused on regulating the drug trade and dominating its ‘labour market’. Monopoly over violence, often turned against local inhabitants, is employed to this end.

Gangs as primitive states

What we find today are Cape gang members in and out of prison representing themselves in a revolutionary manner, whilst reproducing the oppression against which they claim to act.

In the 2009 documentary ‘I’m not black, I’m coloured’ a former activist explains: ‘After 1994 the ANC government informed us that we were coloured. And it was a shocking revelation. For all those years of the struggle we thought that we were black’.[17] Despite being integral to the struggle coloured people were excluded from blackness at the advent of democracy. They went from being considered “not white enough” to “not black enough” and are often overlooked in ANC policies. A sense of political betrayal hangs over the Cape Coloured community, which is often leveraged by gangs. 

An interview with members of the Americans, the largest Numbers street gang affiliate, exposes the gang’s political rationalisation of its activities: ‘We were treated as second rate citizens under the Apartheid regime, and now we’re third’, ‘who’s got the money in the country now? It’s the blacks. The blacks and the whites. The coloureds have nothing’.[18]

Despite their vanguard narrative, Cape gangs are inherently conservative. Rather than challenging the capitalist and racial structures of prison and society, they reproduce the system that allows them to survive. Killing fellow township residents and rival gang members, stealing from their own, selling and pushing drugs, instilling terror and subordinating women: These are all instances of violence that are not directed against authority, and certainly not in any proactive sense of promising a revolutionary alternative.[19]

Gangs’ conservative nature is necessitated by their delinquent subculture. In order to be accepted into a gang and grow in status, members must perform brutal criminal acts such as those prescribed by the Numbers. Delinquency – as the cornerstone of gang culture – implies a high degree of stability and resistance to control and change.[20]

But Skaperdas and Syropoulos argue that it is not enough to view gangs as mere criminal aberrations or random individual phenomena. This is because they represent an organised challenge to the existing legal framework and sometimes to the state and political system itself.[21]

Gangs are state-like in their features of organisational culture, ideology, hierarchy, economic activity, de facto territory and monopoly of violence (arguably the most important characteristic of statehood). In many cases, gangs self-identify as states – the British flag is the symbol of the Hard Livings and the Americans display the US flag and identify with American culture.

But while organised crime ‘is in essence a de facto government with its own private army and system of laws’, gangs are different from states in their lack of permanent bureaucracy and social contract[22]. In the 21st century Cape, they emerge out of “anarchy” – a vacuum of authority – through coercion and rule by the gun, extending “rights” and benefits to gang members only. This paired with the limited codification of their norms and sanctions makes gangs more akin to primitive states (feudal versions) than states as we know them today.

Turf battles resemble feudal warfare, where two gangs compete for de facto control over territory.

Filling the state vacuum

Until recently, there has existed something of a symbiotic relationship between the South African state and gangs – a live and let live arrangement, to the extent that several Cape Town policemen have been exposed as accomplices to gang activities.[23]

The Anti-Gang Unit changes this, but its method of combatting gangs is predicated on the binary opposition between law abiding citizens and criminals. This approach fails to address the ambiguity of gangs as they exist in the Cape Flats – as criminal but socio-economic phenomena, primitive states and pseudo revolutionaries.

Gangs are ultimately a response to the state vacuum that has existed in the townships for many generations. Anarchy has afforded gangs the opportunity to monopolise violence and has provided them with the revolutionary invocations necessary to legitimise criminal behaviour – particularly to their own members.

The solution to gangs must therefore fill the state vacuum. This requires not only monopolising violence in the Flats, as the Anti-Gang Unit attempts to do, but offering the “carrot” aspect of the social contract: rights, dignity and opportunity. With only a coercive function, the Anti-Gang Unit has little to distinguish itself from a primitive state and may thus have the effect of reinforcing gangs’ appeal.

A more comprehensive approach would improve schools, provide after school activities and build and revamp neighbourhood facilities to target disaffected youth. Drug education and rehabilitation is critical and employment essential.

The 2018/2019 Western Cape Government Budget shows expenditure of over R44 billion in the Cape Town Metro – the largest part of which will go into health, education, transport and public works.[24] The budget could benefit from distinguishing between the Cape Flats and the rest of the city, and outlining a special budget and strategy for gang-affected areas.

Ultimately, upliftment and belonging must be offered by the South African government to combat gangs as primitive states. To this end, the government will have to exhibit an interest and establish a palpable and positive presence in the Cape Flats. The aim should be to create buy in to a nation which, until now, has only marginalised the Cape Coloured people.

Tove van Lennep

[1]SAPS, 2018. Crime Situation in RSA

[3] South African Government News Agency, 8 November 2018. Anti-Gang Unit to make streets safer

[6] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Deviance

[7]Social dislocation is experienced by human beings who have been shorn from their cultures and individual identities. This is often a result of the globalisation of the “free-market society” in which the needs of the people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation afflicts both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Isolation, purposelessness and hopelessness are features of social dislocation. (Alexander, 2015. The Globalization of Addiction)

[8] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p220

[10] Weebly, n.d. The Numbers Gang.

[11] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p227

[12] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p228

[13] Daniel Reed, 1994. Beloved Country: South Africa’s Silent Wars, Oxford: BBC.

[14] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p228

[15] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p227

[17]Mondé World Films/Chace Studios, 2009. I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured - Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope(Documentary Series)

[19] Jensen & Rodgers, 2008. Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa, p232

[20]Cloward & Ohlin, 1960. ‘A Theory of Delinquent Gangs’ in Delinquency and Opportunity, London: Routledge, p11

[21]Skaperdas & Syropoulos, 1993. Gangs as Primitive States. Papers 92-93-13, California Irvine: School of Social Sciences, p61

[22]The social contract is an agreement between the people and the government of a state. The people agree to follow certain rules made by the government in exchange for their rights being protected

[24]Western Cape Government, 2018. 2018 Budget Summary