At the time of writing, a Prevention of Organised Crime Bill, which aims to make mere membership of a gang a criminal offence, is being debated in South Africa. Soon youths may be arrested merely because of the colours, symbols, signs and tattoos they display.
Public concern is understandable. But within the debate around the proposed legislation, an important dynamic is being overlooked: as social institutions gangs work extremely well. They serve a purpose way beyond the strong-arm needs of gang and syndicate bosses. If they didn't the kids on the corners wouldn't join them, let alone fight sometimes to the death for the territory they claim.
One reason is that gangs provide more emotional support than the youths' often dysfunctional families. Their families are in bad shape because for hundreds of years the colonial overlords poured cheap wine down the throats of Cape workers to keep them quiet. Then the apartheid government ripped up their communities in the name of racial purity, destroying fragile community support networks and dumping people in soulless hokkies on the bleak Cape Flats sand dunes. One can hardly blame youngsters for doing the only thing possible in the tough, alienated neighbourhoods in which they find themselves: creating surrogate families gangs.
Manhood and courage
But there's another, even more important, reason for the existence of gangs. In the history of all of our cultures, and in cultures people call 'primitive' today, adolescent boys face ordeals and trials that test their manhood and courage. Young girls are taught healing, magic and the secret paths to the ancestors. Hunts, ritual warfare, scarring, circumcision, elaborate rites around the heroic deed or apprenticeship to a master these are actions strangely similar to what goes on in city gangs.
In our urban cultures which have lost their ancient roots through migration, poverty or dilution young people continue to have (and act on) the same needs. Where ritual is absent it is created. Elaborately, often unconsciously, and with tools, substances and attitudes dating back to the dawn of our species, young people still engage in rituals of transformation which have a single goal: adult respect.
In this painful and dangerous journey can be found echoes of African initiation ceremonies, Jewish bar mitzvahs, ancient hunting rituals, Boer kommando lore, images of Hollywood, Christian holy communions, Khoi trance dances, Arthurian legends and many other rituals through which, for millennia, young people have attempted to prove themselves worthy of adulthood. But if to this wild search for identity and social respect you add guns and drugs and take away the guidance of adults (particularly fathers) who could lead youths into calmer, more acceptable waters then disaster is inevitable.
On the hard, stony ground of the ghettoes, rituals take on a life-or-death quality and the 'crossing' to adulthood becomes fraught with danger. In this atmosphere police attention, arrest, lashes or prison become the dangers of the hunt, a rite of passage through the police vans and prison cells of the 'enemy' and into the admiring arms of the gang. Excesses are inevitable.
One 14-year-old from Manenberg told us: "The nicest thing about the gang is the sound of the gun. It makes the enemy scared and it makes you feel brave. Every time I hear a shot I imagine it's me, standing with a smoking gun."
The boundary between reality and fantasy blurs. A member of the Mongrels gang commented: "When we go fight with the Americans I just imagine I am in a film. I don't run away because on TV they don't run. I just take out my gun and shout 'mutha fucker' and start shooting, like on the films."
Fantasy and reality
Gangs have a complete fantasy world of 'belonging' far more complex than wearing Nikes or Reeboks or sporting tattoos.
The Young Americans, for example, use symbols related to their name: the Stars and Stripes, the American eagle, the Statue of Liberty and dollar signs. Their name, Americans, stands for Almighty Equal Rights Is Coming And Not Standing. Their motto is :'In God we trust. In money we believe": They have an imaginary constitution, a president, a cabinet, a White House and count their money in dollars. The Statue of Liberty is the 'entrance' to a joining ritual which each gang member must go through and which has no connection to reality. The Hard Livings use the British flag and call themselves 'The Chosen Ones"
Without community supervision, however, these rituals are the first steps down a path to violence for its own sake, and often to chilling callousness. A Mongrels member described a gang attack after his group went looking for trouble in 'enemy' territory: "We broke the door of the house down and a pregnant lady ran out. Everyone went in and we started to stab the American with knives. Me and another Mongrel friend were the last to stab him then another guy came and finished him off with a 'pum pum' (Uzi submachine-gun). I didn't feel anything I just forgot about it."
Strangely, it is through these rituals and not simply punishment that the most hopeful point of entry into altering gang behaviour lies. The first moves in this direction came while drafting proposals for a new Juvenile Justice Act. After whipping and the death penalty were abolished by the Constitutional Court, urgent questions had to be asked about punishment of young offenders. Harsh sentences seemed to simply add to the problem and there were virtually no alternative programmes available.
Risk and challenge
Research into gangs suggested a new, hard look at their rituals which led to the conclusion that the best way to beat gangs might be to create richer, more ritual filled, gang-like groups. The extraordinary plan was to put young gang offenders on high-energy, scary, relatively high-risk leadership-type programmes in wilderness areas. These would be followed by job-skills programmes and compulsory repayment of debts to their community (for offending) by working in these communities. Most importantly, the wilderness part of these programmes would involve ritual and magic: strenuous and even frightening activities, times of intense bonding-type discussion and times of isolation in a wild place.
The importance of these endeavours was to make them, if anything, more challenging than being in a gang and worthy of more respect for 'surviving'. The goal was to build in the young people independence, generosity, mastery and a sense of belonging within a context of intense ritual performance.
A preliminary wilderness programme was worked out between certain NGOs and the government departments of Welfare and Justice, and some 60 tough youths were taken through it at Hogsback in the Amatola Mountains. Despite the usual rivalry and potential violence present when working with gangs, the programme shocked the youngsters out of their normal frame of mind and got them thinking about their own futures. But with no follow-up programmes yet in place, the youths were not sufficiently supported beyond the programme and its success was limited.
A beginning had been made, though, and in 1997 a broad-based rites-of-passage organisation called 'Usiko' was formed to pilot the ideas further. This had representatives from both government and nongovernment organisations and included experts in wilderness leadership programmes and individuals such as conservationist Ian Player and super-sangoma Credo Mutwa.
Usiko, meaning 'first ritual' was given a start-up grant by Open Society South Africa and its first task was to network among all organisations dealing with young people 'at risk'.
After extensive discussions, its researchers drew up a five month programme. This includes careful assessment of young offenders; rites of passage programmes; job skills and personal skills development and a period of 'pay-back' to the people and community who were 'offended' by whatever crime landed the kids in trouble.
Among Usiko's founding principles are the development in youths of self-mastery, personal growth, environmental sensitivity, awareness of the effects of wrongdoing, accountability, collaboration, dignity and spiritual healing.
Negotiations are presently underway to start a Youth Resource Development Centre in Cape Town. Various NGOs working with youth at risk have asked the City Council to partner them in setting up the centre by providing premises and running costs. Negotiations are also taking place with the Western Cape government to acquire a live-in training centre where staff can work with young gangsters in the development of rites of passage programmes and, in so doing, become skilled in this new approach themselves.
An attractive side to the programme is cost. The state spends perhaps R75 a day to keep someone in prison. There they learn little of use and, after release, have a 90 percent likelihood of returning to jail within the next five years. The cost of the rites of passage programme, aimed precisely at creating skills and keeping kids permanently out of jail, has been estimated at about R55 a day. So prison the current option costs more and delivers less.
Right now very little work is being done with young gangsters, and with an estimated 60 000 in Cape Town alone there's a very real danger of an impending collapse into urban anarchy. Using wilderness and ritual may be the best shot we have at addressing the problem.
The mystical poet William Blake once wrote that "the road to excess leads to the place of wisdom." Maybe there's a message there. But the finest testimony comes from a young gangster who went on one of the first Journey programmes:
It was very hard. I wanted to come home (from the wilderness), but we had to sign papers before we went to show that we knew it would be hard. Before we went we took it for granted that we could do everything.
We went on hikes. We climbed rocks and once you got to the top and you looked down you didn't want to go back. But they told us we could do it. We abseiled and river-rafted. There were life-savers so it was okay if we fell in.
We walked a long way. We carried heavy bags with food and things. We started in the morning and walked until evening. They told us the whole way was 36 kilometres. I wanted to quit, to say: 'No, I'm not doing it.' But I signed it so I did.
Now I am a man. I have stayed in a forest alone and walked on the top of mountains ...