Creativity could be the route to ending gangsterism, drug abuse in the Cape


Problems of violence, drugs and gangsterism in places like Mitchell's Plain are symptoms of a much deeper problem that could be addressed through creative processes that help young people tap into a deeper source of fulfilment, writes Max-Gordon Stoffberg.

When I was a child, every time I was given a chewy sweet, I would sculpt it into an animal, play with it for a while, and then eat it. I didn't know it then, but that sort of creative freedom and energy would become a major factor in my life. And now, I believe creativity can fix broken communities.

I come from Mitchell's Plain, on the Cape Flats. Last year, there were 28 676 crimes reported. About 6 000 of them were violent in nature. Of all the crimes, 4 930 of them were drug-related. And gangsterism has become so bad people are again calling for military intervention.

I didn't grow up in a troubled community. The street I live on is quiet and peaceful, and nothing much ever happens there. In this neighbourhood, we have treehouses in our gardens, and birds sing from their cages in our homes. But the troubled communities are only a stone's throw away and there, people are powerless to escape the clutches of gangsterism, and many fall under the spell of drugs. What exactly is the nature of the evils in these places? And what are the possible solutions?

Back in 2016, Don Pinnock, journalist and criminologist, wrote an article for the Mail & Guardian about gangs and what ensures gangsterism its steady flow of young recruits.

He says that gangsterism – that manifests in violence, drug addiction, and teenage pregnancies as well – is the desperate attempt to escape the "frightening emptiness of their (the youths') lives." And that at the core of these issues is a "profoundly disturbing youth problem", constantly made worse by absentee fathers, early brain development in the womb being corroded by a mother's stress, poor nourishment and abuse of harmful chemicals, and a crushing sense of loneliness, isolation and insecurity.

Other problems aside, young men join gangs because they find in them the fathers and role models they never had, the sense of self and identity they often lack, and, quite frankly, just something to do with the one thing they all have in abundance: spare time.

If we could address these root causes, we could cut gang culture off at its source, we could diminish drug addiction, lower teenage pregnancy rates, and stop the violence.

Using creativity to tap into personal potential may be one route to achieve this. Personal potential is the untapped collection of unique gifts and talents each of us are born with. Tapping into this potential must be intentional and involve a directed effort by the individual, a controlled reaction to situations rather than a default, routine response. My research indicates that there are three elements to consider on this journey: self-discovery; creative endeavour and finding healthy role models.


Research in America looked at gangs and gun violence, and a big part of the findings related to identity. "Guns help gang members shape and convey their identity." And research by Marcelle Wijnberg and Sulina Green at Stellenbosch University, focusing on gangs in Mitchell's Plain, suggests that gangsterism is mainly about belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.

Creativity can offer the same things - and more. In trying to explore and master the art of painting, I discovered things about myself I never would have otherwise discovered. The act of seeking and fine tuning those things we are naturally drawn to and naturally good at, is a pilgrimage. It teaches us about ourselves, making us better equipped to deal with things in the world.

Creative endeavour

Using your creativity doesn't require an education or large sums of money. Both of these are challenges to youth of disadvantaged communities. Creativity only requires a good use of one's time, something which is accessible to everyone.

However, exploring one's talents does require vision, discipline, and drive. Taking little steps forward, finishing projects, getting one's work out into the community, improving on a skill, practising, practising, practising, is great for one's sense of achievement. It builds confidence and is a source of meaning and purpose.

Role models

Everywhere you go on the Cape Flats, you'll hear Tupac's music. "Thug Life", the artist's motto, can be seen tattooed on torsos, sprayed onto walls, and stuck onto rear windscreens of cars. The rapper is a massive role model on the Flats. The sad thing is, it isn't his more positive, conscious, liberating work that has so much sway in the community. No, it is his violent, aggressive songs that do. 

And who else can a young person look up to? Those people who choose a different life, cultivate skills, and make something of themselves, tend to leave the community. We need to show the youth that there are other ways of feeling included, other ways of getting the things they need.

When a person starts exploring their talents, they most certainly will find other role models. I found mine early on. Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and Isaac Newton, took me down paths that were healthy, stimulating and motivating. There are so many positive role models, so many positive voices out there, one need only find a way to bring these into communities.

I believe personal potential is the greatest untapped resource for fighting drug addiction and gangsterism in our communities. What better way exists to fill the frightening emptiness, than to explore one's self in ways that glorify beauty and expression over violence and escapism. It also offers the youth an alternative. There is potential in it, for both expression, and financial gain.

There are lots of amazing things happening in Cape Town, for example the 18 Gangster Museum in Khayelitsha, which seeks to provide a creative alternative to fighting gangsterism in local communities. However, because of the psychological segregation that still remains in the city, people are often not aware of these opportunities. More needs to be done to connect the dots and provide young people with opportunities to creatively re-imagine their future and tap into their personal potential.

Doing this can be inherently healing and positive; creating new possibilities and paths away from gang culture to healthier and happier futures.  

- Max-Gordon Stoffberg is a Bertha Scholar completing an MPhil in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business and co-founder of the social enterprise Question Mark Kaffy, an online platform allowing locals to promote their skills and talents. He has been selected for the Design Indaba's Emerging Creatives Programme, and will be showcasing his work from 27 February at the Artscape Theatre.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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