Sometimes, as a journalist, the sadness that follows the information you seek is almost unbearable. The story in question was to get to the root of Cape gangs. And there was time: two years. That’s a long while to research a single topic – a chance you seldom get.
With that sort of time you inevitably go beneath the skin of daily journalism and the epidermis of weeklies to muscle and bone. Down that deep came a discovery: gangs are merely a symptom of a profoundly disturbing youth problem that’s getting worse.
Countless thousands of young people in South African cities are without adequate parenting, a usable education, a job or political agency. With nowhere to go and no prospects, they fight and fuck each other as a distraction from the frightening emptiness of their lives.
In the streets of Cape Town’s low-income areas life is often brutal and short. That’s where hope goes to die, and to see it die in the eyes of a young person is the greatest sadness of all. It should not be like this.
My investigation turned around three obvious questions. What is a gang? Why are there gangs? And what can we do about them?
The first should have been easy – everybody knows what a gang is – but it wasn’t. There are many definitions of gangs but I boiled them down to their essence: a gang is a group of people with common interests who continue to meet over time with a common purpose. My focus was where that purpose became criminal.
This casts a wide net. It includes school kids in Khayelitsha who fight with pangas for glory, merchant gangs who sell drugs on the corner and fight over turf, syndicates which control illicit markets and organised transnational smuggling networks. It also includes money-laundering teams in legitimate corporations, government officials after tenderpreneur kickbacks and politicians who conspire to steal public revenue.
The broad division, though, is between people who operate with or without guns. My quarry was the former.
Why there are gangs is even more complex. The most obvious reasons are poverty, lack of jobs, poor education and family breakdown. But these, in other countries, don’t deliver the horrific levels of violence we’re witnessing.
Cape Town is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, a place where statistics trump hyperbole. In one year, between April 2014 and March 2015, there were six murders and seven attempted murders a day as well as 30 637 reported assaults.
Each act of aggression had a reason, and each reason a context. The deeper I dug, the more I found family hurt. Single and often reluctant mothers, absent fathers, fetal stress from drugs and drink consumed during pregnancy, undernourished infants, emotional attachment problems. But how did that translate into violence?
Part of the answer I found in the most surprising place: the field of epigenetics, the cytoplasm in a cell surrounding the nucleus. It’s new science which is raising profound issues. What was not formerly realised is that, in the assembly of a fetus, the cell membrane mediates information between the DNA’s templates and the environment within which the pregnant mother exists.
New life is built on a combination of ancient genetic wisdom and epigenetic responses to what’s happening moment by moment. Nature is nurture.
This means that a mother’s stress, poor nourishment or use of harmful chemicals can alter the way a baby’s brain forms, sending signals to it to adapt to a hazardous environment.
It means more dopamine and aggression, less control by the prefrontal cortex, more physical action and less reflection. In teenage years this translates into more aggression, higher drug use, lower inhibitions.
The converse is startling: a mother’s love can change the genetic formation of her baby during the first 1 000 days of its life. One of the solutions to adolescent violence is therefore to support pregnant and postnatal mothers.
Fathers are also important but many are failing their children. For a young man, particularly, an absent or aggressive father can lead to a deep sense of worthlessness and shame. The poet Robert Bly says a young man not being admired by an older man is being hurt.
On the street, shame inverts into bravado and aggression – and the search for an admiring father. Often the only stand-in is a gang boss, the cost of which is acquiescence to his command. A mixture of dopamine-driven excess and a deep sense of worthlessness opens a pathway to increased drug use. It’s a way of becoming other than who you are. And Cape Town has a massive drug problem. It’s been estimated by the Financial Intelligence Centre that the illicit drug market in South Africa is worth R24-billion a year and growing. Cape Town is a drug smuggling hub.
How we deal with this is worsening the problem. The war on drugs has failed, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The victims fill prisons where they get worse and are shunned and shamed on release.
The only reasonable solution is to decriminalise all drugs on the way to legalising them. Portugal and a number of South American states did that and drug use has dropped dramatically. The reason is that drugs aren’t the cause of addiction.
In research for a book called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari found that in the stress of the Vietnam War, about a third of all United States troops were using heroin. But when they came home they simply stopped using it because they were back in a supportive environment.
If you have an operation you’ll probably be given diamorphine for the pain. It’s the purest form of heroin. Everyone experiencing surgery should become heroin addicts, but they don’t.
Here’s why. Research has shown that chemicals don’t cause drug over-use; loneliness, isolation and insecurity do. Adolescents may try drugs – most of us did – but only adolescents with problems continue using them. Family and community support is the only counter to continued drug use. If you ban nonscheduled drugs you hand the trade to syndicates whose goal is to addict their customers. If you decriminalise them, you collapse the international and local syndicates, end gang turf wars, free police for more important tasks and halve the prison population.
The money you save can go to maternal support and drug counselling. One day we will look back in horror at the damage done by the war on drugs.
Another thing to consider is how education is failing our young people. Half of those who start school never finish it. Most of those who get matric don’t get into higher education or find jobs. If you’re not in school, employment or tertiary education you’re on the street.
One of the reasons for the failure of education in South Africa is that it’s inappropriate and, for many, simply boring. It favours head intelligence over hand intelligence, life in an office over life in a workshop. It’s elitist and failing.
Those starting school now will retire in 2070. Nobody can predict the skills required by then, but you’ll always need someone to do real work in the physical world.
There’s a good chance that, in the future, office staff will become digital factory workers and skilled artisans will be the new elite.
There are solutions to the gang problem, but it would take a government with insight and compassion to implement them: throw most money at pre- and postnatal support and early childhood development, rethink the essence of education, decriminalise drugs and turn prisons into places of learning.
We need to help young people be the sort of people they’d like to be and never, ever, let their hope die.
Gang Town by Don Pinnock is published by Tafelberg