Cape gangs: Below the surface

2013-12-08 14:00

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There are solutions to the city’s gang problems, but they’re not what you’d expect.

Gangs have been a problem in Cape Town as far back as anyone can remember.

From the Globe Gang in District Six to the Hard Livings and Americans today, the city has an unbroken lineage of youth-stoked mayhem that has plagued the poor and now threatens the rich.

Because most gang members make a living in the murky underworld of crime-syndicate capitalism, the opening up of borders and markets after 1994 provided opportunities for greater wealth and the latest iPhone.

The career choices for a youngster on the streets with almost no education have blossomed – drugs, smuggling, poaching, protection rackets, bouncer cartels, car theft, the influx of tourist dollars and much more are available.

Official responses to the situation can best be described as conflicted.

More state money has shifted into construction and reconstruction in poorer areas, but has also provided greater opportunities for scams and rackets.

Better primary healthcare has increased the child survival rate among mothers who can’t afford children. Successful attempts to make the central city safer for tourists and commerce has meant less attention is paid to the peripheral ghettoes.

Harder policing has gone hand in hand with increased police corruption.

Special police gang units were disbanded just as gangs were spreading.

Guns are everywhere in violence-prone Cape Flats neighbourhoods and urgent calls have been made by both citizens and opposition politicians for army intervention to curb violence.

There are youth violence-prevention and other programmes in some areas, but they’re a drop in the ocean.

The latest adjusted (they got it wrong first time round) police statistics for the Western Cape show sharp increases in most crimes, including murder, by up to 10%.

Between 2008 and 2013, 870 people were murdered in Khayelitsha alone.

In Gugulethu over the same period, the number was 797, while in Bishop Lavis, the figure was 282.

Many slayings will have been connected to gang turf wars.

There is, however, a different set of numbers, buried in surveys and the national census, which explain the causes of the problem and, in doing so, point to solutions.

It takes people like Gavin Miller, director of research, population and knowledge management in the Western Cape’s department of social development, to make sense of them.

He works with huge spreadsheets, cross-tabulations and complex computations, but the outcome is a worrying analysis.

The racially skewed education outputs of apartheid have clearly persisted under democracy.

Comparing the dropout rate of high school children of different races confirms this.

Across all races, just under 14% (13 000) of 16-year-olds in the Western Cape were not attending school when Census 2011 was done.

By race, 16% of these kids are coloured, 10% African, 8% Asian and 3% white. Most out-of-school youths on the Cape Flats have nothing to do and there’s a high risk of them engaging in illegal activities.

With inadequate schooling, job prospects are bleak and the statistics underscore this.

In Cape Town, only about half of young people between the ages of 20 and 34 are employed.

According to the census, over a quarter of a million – 278 512 – are not working, despite nearly one in three of them having a Grade 12 pass (the number for the whole country in this age group is just under 4 million without jobs).

In order to get a sharper picture, Miller graphed various categories together into what he terms Neets (Not educated, employed, trained or skilled).

The majority of such young people in the Western Cape are in Cape Town and comprise 13% of youth aged 15 to 34, or 199?231 individuals with virtually no prospects and a very uncertain future.

Any day of the week you can see them just hanging out. Trouble is inevitable.?But there’s a deeper and even more worrying issue that underpins both the educational and gang problem among, particularly, poor coloured youngsters.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Survey, though eight out of 10 whites are food secure (meaning they have access to a constant supply of healthy food), one in four coloured people are classed as either food insecure or very food insecure.

In the Western Cape, 16% of women were found to be malnourished, 16% anaemic, 5.7% had iron deficiency, 41% had a low vegetable intake.

This can have a negative effect on an unborn child. (Studies have found that the first 1?000 days from conception are vital in the future mental and physical success or distress of a child.)

Added to this, according to the Nutrition Survey, South Africa has the highest levels of alcohol consumption – and Western Cape the highest incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome – in the world.

The use of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy can damage unborn children. When combined with nutritional deficiencies, it’s devastating. Nearly one in five coloured boys were found to be stunted (18.6%).

Studies have found that poor foetal growth and stunting can lead to cognitive impairment. Add alcohol and drugs, and there’s a high possibility of irreversible brain damage. These problems lower a child’s ability to cope with both school and social conflict.

According to several studies, including a forthcoming report by Andy Dawes of the University of Cape Town on youth violence, impaired foetal growth may be implicated in the development of aggressive, violent and antisocial behaviour.

The ramifications of these statistics and studies are both deeply worrying and carry the danger of racial stereotyping.

The greatest concentration of youth gangs in the country is in Cape Town. There are many social and environmental reasons for this, but one of the most compelling is clearly early depravation and the failure of society to engage with the root of the problem.

The damage was done way before gangs got out of control.

The long-term solution is obvious. It’s a massive crackdown on drug syndicates – many of them foreign – a widespread campaign against the use of alcohol during pregnancy, nutritional support for pregnant women and professional help with their children in the first 1?000 days of their life.

Crucially, it also requires fathers to step forward as role models for their sons.

The alternative is a ticking social and political time bomb.

»?Pinnock is a criminologist

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