To what extent could society at large be held responsible for issues of gangsterism, drugs and crime in Manenberg and similar communities?
The Academic and the Elephant in the Room
One evening last week, Sarah and I, some friends visiting from the USA, and the Cru62 boys all went to a talk by a well-known journalist, academic and researcher of all things gang-related. He has just released a book about the nature of Cape Town’s gang pandemic and some of the contributive factors causing it. He was articulate and insightful as he expounded his ideas based upon four decades of research. But whilst his theories relating epigenetics to a chemical predisposition towards addiction, and his stinging critique of Patricia De Lille’s (Mayor of Cape Town) shameless neo-liberal agenda, were fascinating, by the time he finished his presentation and invited questions from the floor, I found myself bothered by something much simpler and more obvious. The entire audience, except a group of us from Manenberg in one corner, was white and middle class. The irony of this – a room full of white people listening to a white man talk about the gang problem – was not once mentioned. And whilst the questions that this demographic posed to Dr. Pinnock were worded eloquently and opinionated in tone, they betrayed an ignorance about or reticence towards two of the most undealt-with issues in Cape Town – race and inequality.
One lady with a plump face and frizzy blonde hair asked (somewhat rhetorically) whether the speaker agreed that the gang problem could be solved by imposing a year of military service. He gave a nuanced and rather gracious reply, suggesting this could be a small part of an answer. Another lady, bespectacled and demure, aired her views that better town planning would sort everything out.
There were a few elephants in the room that evening. Yet the biggest elephant was also least acknowledged. The majority of opinions given by the middle aged, white audience, aired in the form of questions, were all centred around a single narrative. In their eyes, coloured youth that join gangs are a problem to be solved, a threat to their suburban security, and an embarrassment to an otherwise world class city. There was no mention of the fact that 95% of people in that room were still, 22 years into non-racial democracy, surfing the wave of wealth, entitlement and privilege left to whites as an inheritance from apartheid – and that this might just be a significant factor in perpetuating violent crime, anger and hopelessness amongst vast swathes of young coloured men.
Saul Alinksy, the father of community organizing, wrote that “to unslum the slum… [means] battling all of those forces in the city and the nation which converge to create the human junkyard.” In other words, there is “a dynamic interrelationship between a community and the general social scene.” (Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p.59,61). These words were written in Chicago in 1946 by a Jewish American of Russian descent, and yet they encapsulate the grand narrative that desperately needs addressing in Cape Town today. Manenberg’s gang problem is dynamically interrelated to the rampant racism and economic inequality in Cape Town today. Every time a gangster is shot dead, it’s a reflection of the state of Cape Town as a whole. Very little, if anything, will change until the violence and drugs and crime in Manenberg affects those in wider Cape Town beyond just motivating people to build higher walls, and install more armed response panic buttons. And until the ‘haves’ stop pointing blame-assigning fingers at the ‘have nots’, no amount of expert research and eloquent opinions will count for much.
Let me tell a couple of stories in an attempt to illustrate my point. In a period of three months during the first year of running Cru62, whilst driving with the boys around various parts of Cape Town, Sarah and I were stopped and search by police seven times. Neither of us had ever been stopped and searched previously, except for an occasional police roadblock. One evening when Dowayne was driving the boys to Narcotics Anonymous in Observatory, they were stopped and searched and made to lie face down on the road as the police stood on them, interrogated them and checked that the car wasn’t stolen. What was it about the sight of five young men driving a citi golf in Observatory that sounded alarms for the police? What was it about that totally normal scenario that led them to suspect criminal activity? Another time, five of the boys were prohibited by security guards from entering a shopping mall, with no reason given. They had saved up money they’d earnt working at Jou Ma Se Kombuis (our community’s coffee shop in Manenberg) in order to take a trip to the mall to play video games. Their planned trip was ruined, just because security didn’t like the look of them. Recently, at a cinema, a group of white people got up and left when Sarah walked into a movie with the boys with her, and she is regularly followed by shop attendants when food shopping with one of the boys.
You’re Sitting on My Dinner
One Saturday evening, I went out with the boys to buy gatsbys (footlong sub rolls filled with meat, chips and salad – a firm local favourite). We decided we would like to go to a viewing spot about 20 minutes drive away to watch the sunset over the city. We arrived at the car park to see that the gate was closed, prohibiting cars from entering. So I turned the car around, and we decided to head home. As we were turning out of the road, a police van pulled up alongside us and two black poliemen told us to get out of the car. We complied, though slightly confused as to what we had done wrong. We were made to put our hands on the vehicle as police searched us and then the inside of the car. As they searched, they asked us what we were doing there.
“We’ve come to watch the sunset and have dinner.”
“Where’s your dinner then?”
“You’re sitting on it.”
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“I’m not – you are literally sitting on our dinner.”
“Where are you from?”
“We all live in Manenberg.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“We just explained – we’ve…”
“But if you’re from Manenberg you shouldn’t be here. You need to come to the police station with me so I can take your finger prints.”
Of course, we put up a fuss – why ‘shouldn’t’ we have been there? Especially galling was that the policemen made all four of the boys sit in the back of the police van on the way to the station – as if they were criminals who had been caught breaking the law. Once at the station, finger prints were taken (though I had to make them take my finger prints too – I was equally (un)guilty), questions were asked and when, to the police man’s utter disbelief (he was convinced we were dealing drugs), a more thorough search of the car yielded no illicit substances, they had to let us go. One of the policemen picked up a semi-automatic rifle and marched us to the door, with the words, “now get out of my area.” The single story rearing its ugly head through figures of authority.
You Know they are Planning to Mug You, Right?
Three friends from Kansas City were visiting our community in Manenberg for a couple of weeks. On their bucket list was a climb up Lion’s Head – which is also one of the boys’ favourite things to do. So they went together. As they reached the top, a concerned-looking young white South African approached Jordan.
“Hey broe, those coloured guys who were chatting to you and followed you up here – you do know they’re planning to mug you don’t you? You’re welcome to walk down with us if you want – it would be much safer.”
Jordan replied that ‘those coloured guys’ were actually his friends and they walked up together. He called out the young white South African’s racism, and said “I appreciate you trying to be kind, but you’re actually being a jerk.”
Multiple unrelated occasions. Different parts of Cape Town. Police and public, white and black alike. A single story circulated and recirculated. Fear, distrust, condemnation.
How would you view yourself if everyone else in your city saw you as an urban menace, good for nothing, inherently bad, a social ill to be contained?
Think about it this way – if you told someone you knew, every time you saw them, that they stink, they might begin to wash more, though simultaneously start resenting you. If you continued to tell them they stink, despite them washing multiple times a day and wearing deodorant and clean clothes, they might begin to believe that they really do smell and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. And they would probably hold some level of anger towards you for so rudely telling them they smell but not doing anything to help them with what you perceive to be a problem they have. It seems to me that this isn’t dissimilar to the problem faced by young coloured men trying to leave gangs and drugs behind. Systems, authority structures and individuals are all against them, continually telling them they stink (despite the fact that they don’t), doing nothing to help them, and refusing to examine prevailing judgmental presuppositions, all the while compounding the lie that ‘people like that will never change’. Cape Town, we have a problem. It’s not the gangs, the drugs or the crime. It’s us.