CYC-Online 42 JULY 2002
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society and children

Boys and guns: In search of money, power and respect

Glynis Clacherty of Clacherty Research and Johanna Kistner of Ekupholeni Mental Health Centre describe their work in the Johannesburg area with “at-risk” boys as researchers.

Ekupholeni Mental Health Centre is a non-governmental organisation offering an innovative and comprehensive mental health service in the Kathorus area east of Johannesburg. Clacherty Research is an agency that specialises in participatory research with children. Together they run the Zimiseleni Researchers' Project, which builds on the skills of both organisations through using an approach that combines therapy and healing with research.

The Zimiseleni group is composed of 15 boys, aged from 12 to 16, who have been referred to Ekupholeni because of behavioural problems. When the group started, only about half of them were in school. All of them live in deep poverty and come from difficult and deprived home situations. They are all at risk of getting involved in the criminal gangs that operate in the area. The boys meet at Ekupholeni after school once a week for two hours, as well as three times a year for a day, and once a year for a weekend camp.

The Project operates on a unique approach that makes the boys researchers into their own lives. This approach is informed by new thinking in the field of child research where children – rather than adult researchers – are seen as the “experts”.

The Project began when the adult researcher and the boys sought to find out why boys in the area got involved in crime. Over time it became clear that this joint research approach was also a very effective therapeutic tool. As the research progressed, the boys began to use the research (with the help of the psychologist) to provide insight into their own lives and the context they lived in. Over the last two years they have, in addition to the initial research on “why boys in Kathorus get involved in crime”, undertaken research into school issues and substance abuse. The role of researcher provided the distance they needed to “see” their own problems. Slowly, as the research progressed, they began to own some of these problems, talk about them and begin tentatively to find solutions to them.

During 2001, Gun-Free South Africa, a non-governmental organisation working to educate and lobby for a gun-free society, heard about the Zimiseleni Project and saw an opportunity to work with the group to look at how at-risk boys perceived firearms and what role they played in their lives.

The adult staff of the Zimiseleni project saw this as an opportunity for the boys to explore their attitudes to guns, crime and violence. We did not anticipate that the research would also afford us the opportunity to explore other emotional issues. As the findings below show, we were also able to use the research to explore issues such as identity, power and respect, as well as how the marginalisation of such boys by their families, schools and communities leads them to seek alternative forms of affirmation, such as the power they get from a gun. We also spent much time with the boys talking about other ways to get the respect that a gun can give a boy. In this case, as with previous work, the research was an intervention in the boys' lives.

From the very beginning of the project the boys participated fully. For example, they listened to GFSA’s proposal and agreed to do the research. They felt, however, that they needed to define the scope of the research so that they did not expose themselves to the risk of being seen as informers by other boys in the area. They decided that they would look at why boys carried guns rather than where they got them and how they used them. They also decided that they could not do the research with boys outside the Zimiseleni Project as this would place them at risk. They, therefore, suggested that the research focus on themselves and their perceptions.

The findings presented here are, therefore, a small in-depth case study of the perceptions about guns of 15 at-risk-boys. The reflective skills the boys have developed through the project and the level of trust with adult researcher, care worker and psychologist (which is a product of the long-term nature of the project) make this information particularly rich. It is unlikely that the insights around the emotional reasons that boys turn to crime and use guns would have emerged from a research project that did not take place in the context of ongoing contact and support.

What the boys have to say about guns needs to be placed in the context of their personal histories and their community. For this reason, in the section below, each of the themes that emerged is followed, where relevant, by an explanation of the context in which the boys live.

Guns get money
According to the boys, the most obvious reason why boys in Kathorus carry guns is because they are poor and need money.

"People who are poor, they carry the gun to force people to give them money by force."

“Tsotsis (young gangsters) started like us talking about having old shoes and no money and they just said agh! Forget it, let’s take a gun and do crime. We get tired of having old shoes, the girls laugh at you when you have old shoes.”

When the boys describe the everyday battle they face to get food and other necessities it is obvious why money is important and why guns are seen as an easy way to get it. Many of the boys are entirely responsible for their own upkeep or come from families that have no income at all.

“Sometimes there is no money for food and you go to bed hungry.”

"I can’t concentrate at school because I didn’t eat anything since Monday. The only food I get is at Ekupholeni.”

“S. did not go to school because he was too weak from hunger. His older brother went to stay with other people and started stealing because there is no food at home. He did not go to school last year.” (S's mother).

Guns give power
The second reason why boys carry guns is because they believe guns give them power.

"People who carry guns they don’t listen. Everybody scared of them. They are always free to bully. They feel like they are in a small heaven.”

"Yes, you feel like the boss. You feel like you are the king who can control everybody and no one will tell you anything.”

“When you have a gun you are not scared anymore. You see yourself as the boss, a clever. To be “clever” is to think you are powerful and stronger than older people.”

Guns give dignity and respect
Another reason that the boys identified for carrying guns was that many boys believed guns gave them dignity and made people respect them.

“To have dignity. Usually when you don’t have the gun you don’t have dignity”.

“When you carry a gun you feel like you are a human being.”

“Boys our age carry guns because we want people to pay attention to us. Ja, if you are a boy and you don’t have a gun people treat you like a stupid. You have to make sure you find the gun for yourself"

This wish for respect needs to be placed in the context of how the boys are seen in their families, by the school and in their community. In an activity where we looked at how they are seen on the outside, one of the boys said:

"[When people see me] they just see someone who drinks alcohol. Someone who is bad. A person who kills people. Bad boy. You can see yourself. A person who robs people, tsotsi. According to myself I wasn’t like that. While I was growing up I wished to have a good family, me and my wife and children to live in peace without violence, fights and noise, to stay peacefully and help people. But I don’t see that it will ever happen the way I want it to happen. The way people see me will be like that until I die.”

Guns give protection
The boys also repeatedly mentioned the need to carry a gun because it would protect them.

"I feel much protected having the gun.”

Where did you get this gun?

"I bought it from the licence firearm for self-protection and to protect my place.”

Do you carry your gun with you everyday?

"No I left the gun at home.”

So what if I come hit you are you gonna shoot me?

"No, I’m gonna hit you back or call the police because this gun I use only at my place and I shoot to death.”

This need for protection makes sense when one looks at the dangerous environment the boys live in. In an exercise in which the boys imagined they were an animal arriving in their place for the first time one of the boys describes his place like this:

"I thought of being a lion. I arrived here and saw it was a very dangerous place. I found a house at the corner, it is a ganghouse, brothers stay there. I went further on and there is a house and there are boys who like sitting there – it is also a gang. And not very far from home in another corner, there is also a gang that hang around there. Then you'll find a lion is an animal that can defend itself. The lion did fight but it was defeated here – there are so many gangs. You'll find that here in H. they will rob you in broad daylight, when you are just walking by during the day. They will call you and just beat you. They also hold up and rob trucks that sell coal and bakery vans, and milk delivery vans. In some cases they kill them too. Sometimes they shoot the police. Everyone is the same in that street even the mothers. You find them standing for each other; protecting each other.”

This quote gives a sense of how the boys feel surrounded by negative influences. No wonder they look for ways to protect themselves.

Another theme that emerged was the fatalism with which many of the boys viewed their lives. This is what one boy said while playing a game about the future:

"In 10 years” time I will be a killer and in jail. For boys in Kathorus that is all there is. Crime is all there is. The only university you go to is jail. Boys in Kathorus become gangsters.'

This same fatalism is expressed below.

What are your future plans?

"I will do this until I die”.

How old will you be when you die?

"Maybe 30 years old.”

Is 30 young or old?


So it’s OK that you are going to die young?

"Yes, I will die young because people know I am a problem to them. I think I will be killed young." [He puts the toy gun down.]

How do you feel when the gun is down?

"I feel weak.”

This fatalism is linked to the fact that the boys agree that many people in Kathorus don’t worry about killing someone else because they have seen death so many times.

"It is nothing to them to kill. They see dead people. Even their fathers are dead and so they don’t care.'

It is also linked to the extreme poverty that they live with.

“When you go to bed hungry all the time you think that life is nothing. You have nothing so life is nothing.”

Research as a route to reflection
The findings described above show that the context the boys live in has created a space where it is perfectly logical for guns and violence to become a means of meeting material, psychological and social needs.

By acknowledging this, and using the idea of researcher, the Zimiseleni Researchers' Project has created a space for the boys to begin to look at their world and their ideas, and to begin to question them.

The research into guns, power, and identity gave the boys an opportunity to reflect on important aspects of their daily realities, which otherwise they would have taken for granted as inevitable.

We took each of the reasons why boys carry guns and problematised these ideas. We asked “What is real power? How else can boys get power? What is respect? How else can boys get respect?” The quotes below show how, through discussions such as these, the boys are tentatively beginning to reflect and question.

Discussing power

How do you get power?

" I think you get power when you are having a gun.”

Only a gun?

"Any kind of weapon gives you power."

What else?

“When you are having money you get power."

"Education gives you power."


"Yes, power also comes from having respect.”

"People like you when you have respect."

What kind of respect do you want?

"I want to have my house and my money and respect and live longer'

"I still think it is weapons that give you power.”

Discussing respect

"You get respect from respecting your friends and parents.”

"From that you get respect.”

"You must respect yourself in order to be respected.”

"Pride is different from respect.”

“But we must get respect from our parents.”

"People respect people who are rich.”

"And people with guns.”

"I think that is fear; not respect”.

Money gives you respect.”

Can you get respect if you are poor?


“When you wear poor clothes people don’t respect you.”

"Not all people.”

"Most. I think respect is inside you.”

"Yes, respect comes from home, from parents. If your parents respect you then you have respect. If everyone disrespects you, you cannot have respect.”

"Yes. It’s not possible to have respect if people don’t respect you.”

This kind of reflective process can only take place in a safe and supportive environment within which alternative paths, perceptions, realities and interpretations can be tested and explored. The boys” everyday lives and the systemic forces that shape them have created little or no space for safe exploration.

The function of the Ekupholeni team therefore goes well beyond facilitating the research process. This function is to create safe and non-judgmental pathways to alternative realities. Such an approach requires time, continuity, consistency and availability. The boys need to be allowed to express their needs, material, emotional and otherwise; some measure of reparenting also needs to take place.

To what extent such consistent availability of alternative support structures can counteract the very powerful negative forces in the boys” lives remains to be seen. Not attempting this, however, would deprive them of the only opportunity they may ever have for redefining selves and reality.

What becomes overwhelmingly clear from the boys” research, therefore, is that the issue of gun use among boys such as these needs to be placed in the context of power and identity which in turn needs to be seen within the forces operating and interacting in the larger system. Changing perceptions and realities requires hard work and creative courage as well as stability and the continued availability of an accepted support system. What the Zimiseleni process is showing is that the effort may be well worth it.

This feature reprinted from ChildrenFIRST, Vol.6 No.40

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