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Jeunes, culture de la rue et violence urbaine en Afrique / Youth, Street Culture and Urban Violence in Africa

Georges Hérault
Pius Adesanmi

Youth, street gangs and violence in South Africa

Amanda Dissel

Texte intégral

1This paper addresses some of the causal factors of marginalized youth who find their home and sense of belonging on the street. It discusses some of the many contributory social and political factors that determine young people’s movement to the streets, and that influence the roles they assume. In addition, it examines the link between street youth and street gangs, and their relationship to crime. The final part of this study considers how the criminal justice system deals with such youth, and explores alternative restorative judicial mechanisms.

2Urbanization in South Africa has been characterized by a history of repression and the burgeoning poverty of certain segments of the population. Poverty and homelessness among the young and old is a phenomenon, not only of the new post-apartheid South Africa, but is also becoming increasingly prevalent everywhere else. During the early part of this century, the former government policies of separate development led to the confinement of the predominantly black populace to the poorly developed rural areas which constitute only 27 per cent of the country’s land. At the same time, the migrant labour policy, which relied on the labour of men from the rural areas for the mines and other industries, contributed to the accelerated destruction of the traditional African family structures.

3The policy of confining members of different racial groups to special locations on the outskirts of the major cities, played an important role in the evolution of an urban identity determined along racial and economic lines. Apartheid laws and discrimination against non-white people resulted in holding back the economic development of people of these races.

4In spite of influx control, the Bantustan system and other repressive means designed to control society, large numbers of people emigrated to the cities driven by rural poverty. The relaxation of the pass laws allowed greater freedom of movement; and people took advantage of this and gravitated toward the cities in search of work for a sustainable way of life. Urbanization has been characterized by the development of informal settlements, single sex migrant hostels and poor conditions of living. This rapid urbanization led to inadequate housing facilities and poor (if any) provision of infrastructural facilities and social services.

5This ‘non-white’ migrant populace found that the necessity of earning a wage and adjusting to urbanized life affected the traditional family system, which in many cases failed to adapt to changing circumstances. Neither from the traditional family, nor from the Western style nuclear family, did any satisfactory urban family formations emerge. Extended family networks, and their role in extending support and discipline to members of the family, were effectively destroyed by the apartheid system.

6The effects of the breakdown of the family were most profoundly felt by children and young people. When the family becomes dysfunctional and discordant, the children leave the family home. They may either permanently abandon their home, or in some cases begin to spend more and more time on the street, which gradually draws them into criminal associations.

7Don Pinnock, writing on gangs in the Western Cape, argues that one of the reasons why the youth easily identify with street gangs is that the associations fulfil the need for a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. He argues that the traditional society provided support and a sense of direction to young people graduating to adulthood. Youth were made to feel accepted and important in the society, goals were set which motivated and challenged them to strive for social acceptance. If they failed, the community intervened to restore harmony. In the urban context, however, the importance of ritual has been submerged in the struggle for survival and young people devise their own rites of passage.

They create structures and rituals that work for them, carve their names into the ghetto walls and the language of popular culture, arm themselves with fearsome weapons and demand at gun point what they cannot win with individual respect. (Pinnock, 1996)

8Many marginalized youth found the acceptance they desired within the structure of street gangs. Others gravitated towards the emerging political groups that rose against apartheid and the government. Street culture and the involvement of youth in street gangs or political formations are not homogeneous but are composed of a variety of groups established to meet the different needs of the youth. These youth formations, though different in many respects, offer the youth similar attractions: a sense of identity and belonging through the colours of the flag of political affiliation, or the medals of honour in the gang. However, within these groupings, there is also a lot of frustration and expressions of violence.

9The groups are informed by the socio-political context within which they exist, although they do not necessarily have an overt political design. Due to the historical separation of different racial groups in South Africa, the sub-cultural formations tend to be specific to each racial group. For instance, in Westbury, a coloured community in Johannesburg, two gangs dominate. Each has roots dating back to the formation by the apartheid government of the Western Coloured Townships during the 1950s. The township is characterized by limited economic activity, poor sanitation, inadequate infrastructure, poor education, high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. The coloured community was, to a large extent, alienated from the political struggle against apartheid, since many coloureds neither identify with the majority black African populace, nor with the white minority. The political developments in the country over the last four years have virtually left them unaffected. In terms of language, culture and political affiliation, they are homeless, but identify with African Americans, as they are portrayed in popular communication media.

10Youth in this community grow up spending the majority of their time on the streets, to escape violence and/or the effects of the alcohol abuse which are prevalent in many homes. Many of such young people, particularly the males, are drawn into gangs almost through a process of natural attrition. Their parents are gang members, so they naturally take on the inherited roles of their fathers. The gangs provide members with a sense of belonging, as well as opportunities for economic improvement for gaining a sense of power, acceptance and purpose.

11The existence of the gangs revolves mainly around the supply and trade of drugs in the community, in surrounding areas, and at the higher level, internationally. Although adults control the gangs, younger members are often used to carry out tasks on behalf of the community. One gang of younger people in this area is less sophisticated in terms of its management and the scale of its operations, and its members rely on car theft, burglaries and robbery to sustain their drug habits.

12In contrast, young people in black communities affiliated themselves with political groupings during the years of struggle against apartheid. The 1976 riots against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of communication for education in the black schools was the first organized opposition against the education system which not only completely failed to provide them with a sense of belonging or identification, but also imposed on them a foreign Afrikaner culture.

13These youth perceived themselves as frontline soldiers in the struggle for social and political change, and therefore, as defenders of their communities. In fighting against the system with their stones and home-made weapons, they became the army for liberation. The struggle provided them with an alternative structure, a sense of belonging and purpose, and with a sense of identity in their new status as liberators. The young people in these political formations were often highly trained, both in political strategy and later, militarily for the armed struggle. They were also focused in their aims and highly disciplined.

14However, during the negotiated transition, the armed struggle was suspended and the political leaders called on the youth to curtail their resistance activities. It is ironic that the materialization of their goals – the transition from the politics of resistance to the politics of negotiation – from the armed struggle, to sophisticated dialogue – resulted in the marginalization of these youth. Many of the leaders of the youth movements were lost to power politics in the negotiations, and later to parliament and government, leaving a hiatus in the direction and leadership in the movements.

15When the youth movement lost its leadership role in the struggle for liberation, some of the structures attempted to redefine their purpose. Inequality and deprivation are still the primary experiences of township youth, and for many, the only way to achieve real change is through participation in collective violence. Crime and violence remain prevalent in the township. Changes in the police organization are far from complete, and the police have not yet achieved the respect and trust from the communities which they are mandated to serve. This situation has provided an avenue for those youth who had been trained in resistance politics to continue to defend the community against crime. They have taken on the role of an alternative police service or organization, and they derive a sense of identity and purpose from their policing function.

16Without the strict discipline which characterized their earlier years, many of the youth have become involved in criminal activities. These youth have been highly trained in the use of weapons and arms, which are now used in carrying out criminal activities or in fights between different groups.

17The transition from a repressive minority government to a democratic participatory one, occurred with political promises during elections of a better life for all. Yet, with the restructuring of the civil service, the failure of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, and the slow delivery of housing or equal education, the government has been slow to tangibly fulfill its promises made three years before. The expectation of an instantly improved life for all has not materialized. Employment opportunities have not substantially increased and many of the youth are still on the streets rather than in school. The majority of South Africans are impoverished, but there are quite a number of immensely wealthy individuals, and there is a developing culture of material acquisition in the society.

18During the transition phase analysts anticipated that there may be a political backlash from the marginalized youth, that the ANC would lose its more militant youth to other liberation movements which were advocating more militant armed resistance at a time when the ANC had suspended the armed struggle. The backlash, however, came as a new form of social conflict – a escalating crime wave which engulfed South Africa. In the past, violence had occurred in a political context, it was now redefined in a criminal one. It is not accurate to say that there has been a dramatic increase in crime, but rather that the violence occurring now is criminally motivated. When the political aspect is removed, what remains is the economic and material interests which are still rooted in social conflict. It is a perception of the closing gap between political and criminal violence that will give us some insight into the involvement of the youth sector in violence.

19Frustration, resulting from the non-delivery of material benefits by the government, has led many youth and adults to seek opportunities to acquire wealth elsewhere. Crime is an obvious alternative. There has been, therefore, an increase in the development of crime syndicates which specialize in the drug trade, vehicle theft and arms trade. The youth are often drawn into these organizations where they become involved in criminal activities under the protection of the syndicate bosses.

20The availability of guns below a hundred rand each has, perhaps, led to the increasing tendency towards violent crimes for the illegal acquisition of wealth. Where youth had formerly been involved in petty theft, they are now committing such serious offences as hi-jacking moving vehicles, armed robbery and murder.

21The fact that the youth are both the primary perpetrators of violence, and its primary victims, makes it crucial to find effective ways to prevent these young people from becoming involved in cycles of crime and violence.

22The solutions to youth involvement in crime must be both systemic and occur within the context of the criminal justice system. The National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) drafted in 1996 as an inter-ministerial response to crime, recognized some of these complexities. It recognizes that the non-delivery of effective social services contributes to crime and targets this as one of the areas for concern. Structural problems such as the lack of adequate housing, education and employment opportunities, which underpin the formation of a deviant youth culture, need to be addressed along with the psychological factors involved.

23It would be naive, however, to assume that development alone will provide a solution to crime and conflict. There must be a recognition that development, which involves the injection of resources into communities that are often already divided over inadequate resources, will in fact escalate the conflict. Any development has to take into account the issues of human development which underlie an understanding of the nature and trajectory of youth identity.

24The youth need positive role models in the community, with whom they can identify, demonstrating that they too can ‘make good’under similar circumstances.

25An important factor is to create a constructive mechanism for engaging young people in formations or institutions which contribute positively to the community. Members of the self-defence units (SDUs) in townships who have taken on the role of policing, could be encouraged to participate in community policing forums, to enable them assist in shaping the direction of policing in the community.

26The skills of these young people need to be developed to prevent them from being frustrated. A Gauteng Executive Council Member initiated a project aimed at drawing SDU members into educational and skills training programmes, so as to equip them for different roles in life. Those who wanted to continue their policing functions were recruited into the reserve police or the army. Although this project encountered many problems, it was creative in its attempt to rehabilitate these youth.

27It is also important to look at the way in which our society deals with young people who have been involved in conflict situations with the law enforcement agencies. South Africa’s criminal justice system, like most systems in the world is based on the retributive model. The offender is accused of an offence and tried by a court of law, allowed an opportunity to defend himself, convicted and often sent to prison. The system is developed around the notion of denying and proving guilt. At no time is the offender required to take responsibility for his actions; instead, throughout the process, all control is taken away from him

28While this system may allay fears that the courts are being soft on perpetrators, it has been proved to have little success in breaking an offender’s involvement in crime. Rather, an offender is alienated from the process, and becomes a victim yet again of the system which determines his punishment. Should an offender be sent to prison, he will be subject to the harsh discipline and conditions of the institution and his every movement will be determined for him. He may even be victimized further by other inmates. At no time is he encouraged to be responsible or to make decisions which can positively improve his situation. He is unlikely to learn from his mistakes or to rectify his behaviour on his release. Within the context of the gang, a young person may even be granted a high status as a result of his having been sent to prison, thereby receiving peer confirmation of his deviant behaviour.

29In South Africa, increasing numbers of young people are being sent to prison. There are currently more than 12,000 juvenile prisoners in the country, many of them serious violent offenders. This gives the impression that the criminal justice system is completely unable to deal with the growing problem of youth involvement in crime. While one option is to adopt a ‘tough on crime’ approach, efforts in this direction in the past have demonstrated their ineffectiveness.

30A more restorative approach which makes the offender take responsibility for his actions is necessary. This approach could be more effective, particularly in the case of youth who have not yet become hardened criminals. The restorative justice approach posits that the criminal justice system should be used as the basis for the young person’s transformation. It should encourage conflict resolution within the family group and communities, and make the youth a crucial part of the decision-making process. Alternatives to the strict criminal justice system and imprisonment should be provided at every stage of the process and these should become a central part of the system and include measures to prevent reoffending.

31The Inter-ministerial Committee on Youth at Risk (IMC) has attempted to devise a strategy to deal with youth at risk and those in conflict with the law. The strategy is designed to encompass all facets of prevention and developmental care based on a youth-centered approach. It aims to encourage accountable and responsible involvement of care givers, participation of the family or community and fosters a restorative justice approach in the resolution of conflict. Legislation to bring this into effect is being drafted. It is hoped that the restorative approach will help these youth to develop a positive sense of identity based on the ability to make and carry out correct decisions, and wean them from crime.

32The NCPS also recognized that ineffective victim support and empowerment programmes have an impact on the cyclical natures of violence. If victims are not treated effectively today, they are likely to become victims in the future, or even out of frustration, they may become perpetrators.

33It is trite to say that the youth of today become the adults of tomorrow. Many of these youth will grow out of the need to affiliate with street gangs and violence, but there are many who will not, particularly if those gangs are integrated into the structure of a community.

34The task of tackling the problems of street children and street gangs is enormous. It needs a unified approach by government on a national level. In the Western Cape, it is estimated that there are between 90,000 and 100,000 gang members, many of which are young people. Solutions to particular problems need to be developed, on a local level, involving different sectors of the community in problem solving.


35Thanks to Shaneez Amien for her input on the Westbury Gangs.



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Hulmes, E. 1996. Two boys, thirty years and other numbers. Child and Youth Care 14 (4): 17.

Kinnes, I. 1995. Reclaiming the Cape Flats: A community challenge to crime and gangsterism. Crime and Conflict 2 (Winter).

Makenzie, P. 1996. Political pawns or social agents? A look at militarized youth in South Africa. Imbizo 3 (27).

Nina, D. 1995. Going back to the roots: Alternative views on community justice. Crime and Conflict 2 (2).

Pinnock, D. 1996. Arresting crime against children. Child and Youth Care 14 (3): 12.

Pinnock, D. 1996. Gangs, guns and rites of passage. Child and Youth Care 14 (10): 13.


Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Johannesburg, South Africa

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