Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town: Getting Beyond The Streets in Africa’s Deadliest City

By Dariusz Dziewanski

March 10, 2022

In a different life Patrick could have inherited a criminal empire. “Growing up, gangs were kind of in my blood. My family, all of my uncles – my mothers’ brothers – my grandpa and his brothers they were all part of this gang”, said the 29-year-old former member of the Laughing Boys. His family founded and still holds considerable sway in the gang. “I grew up believing this is the way of life for me and my family”, he said. The Laughing Boys are one of a hundred or so gangs fighting to control lucrative drug markets in Cape Town, South Africa. Most gangs in the city can be found in poor, under-serviced, and segregated township communities like Patrick’s.

His is one of 24 life histories I write about in a recently published book, Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town: Getting Beyond The Streets in Africa’s Deadliest City, which provides a deep qualitative account of why young people in Cape Town get into gangs, and describes what life is like once they are in, as well as what it takes for them to get out. The book builds on criminological research that depicts gangs as an expression of “oppositional street culture” – a subcultural mechanism formed against structural exclusion and oppression found in townships in Cape Town, as well as in ghettos, favelas, slums, and other disenfranchised social spaces around the world. Some of the most compelling applications of the street cultural lens to gang research build on the social theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – using concepts such as “cultural capital”, along with “social field” and “habitus” – to show how somebody born into the pressure cooker of urban vulnerability might turn to gangs as a rational response to unjust social circumstances. Broadly speaking, involvement in gang activities is a way of obtaining a competitive advantage in poor and unstable communities.

Patrick, a former member of the Laughing Boys gang, at the beginning of his rehabilitation. Credit: Dariusz Dziewanski.

In Search of Respect

Patrick witnessed firsthand from his uncle – then the leader of the Laughing Boys – that criminality and violence can be sources of “street capital” that can earn a person considerable respect and power. “As a young kid say, for instance, someone would beat me up I know it would be as simple as pointing a finger to that guy, and [my uncle] would beat the shit out of that guy”, said Patrick. Gangsters like his uncle serve as high-flying examples of success in township areas. “Everybody feared him, they still fear him… So he was my role model. I always saw myself as maybe someday as people respecting me to that extent”.

But respect is not given. It must be fought for – sometimes ruthlessly – in a “street field” where the continuum of cultural practices centres on various forms of illegality, crime, and aggression. In order to build up their reputation, gangsters act out wild, anti-social behaviours in a death-defying pursuit of street capital, which is the street field’s social currency. “There was always the pressure of kind of living up to their expectations. My family is not just part of the gang, they are the gang”, stated Patrick. “It’s kind of like there’s this scoreboard. The more violent you are the more people you hurt the more people fear you, and the higher you go on that scoreboard”. This led him into a life of stealing, fighting, robbing, and even killing.

What began for Patrick and others in my book as an adaptive retort to urban marginality, in time congealed into “street habitus”; this is another key street cultural concept transposed from Bourdieusian sociology to illustrate how the repetition of gang behaviours structurally attaches crime, violence, and poverty to people and places. Writings on street culture overwhelmingly present the “homologies of habitus” as hardwired, preconscious, and cyclical, and gang members as inevitably complicit in reinforcing the very structures that pushed them into gangs to begin with.

Blood In, Blood Out?

Sometimes it can truly feel there is no way out of gangs. But Patrick did eventually get out. Street culture theorists are yet to properly take account of disengagement stories like his. Each of the 24 men and women whose life histories are chronicled in my book attest to the fact that getting into gangs is not ‘blood in, blood out’, as is popularly believed in Cape Town. Indeed, I describe in detail how every ex-member in their own way disengaged from gang life by creating what they often called a “normal life”: a post-gang lifestyle made up of a combination of employment, family, and religion. “I just wanted to be normal for once in my life. Just try to live a normal life and serve my purpose here on earth, as the head of a family. I got myself a reasonable job”, Patrick explained. “They can have their flashy cars, lots of money, and tons of girlfriends, it doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to live my life looking over my shoulder every day”.

After a lifetime of fighting enemies and dodging cops there is something appealing about retreating into a normal, quiet life made up of family, work, and faith. But there are also important practical reasons that Patrick and other ex-gangsters sought out the normal life. Family serves as a source of emotional, social and material support; gainful employment provides income and purpose; and religion offers them moral guidance, community, and resolve. Being a dedicated employee, a devout believer, and a devoted spouse and parent are important personal tools ex-gangsters rely on.

These are also outward-facing strategies the book’s protagonists used in order to prove to others – family, neighbours, allies and foes – that their redemption stories could be trusted. A convincing performance of normal living gave former members the best chance of keeping these stories alive through the risky early stages of their out-of-gang transitions – when one’s gang history remains hottest to the touch. For example, after Patrick first left the gang, the Laughing Boys would try to lure him back in, speaking to him in gang slang as he walked to church on Sundays. Although it made him “look like a wuss sometimes”, Patrick could only respond to their overtures with formality and deference, taking great pains to distance himself from his former brotherhood. “It’s easy for someone else to spot me and think: naai, he’s with them having a beer; yeah, he says he’s not part of that [gang] anymore, but now we know about him… Tomorrow they get me at another place, then I’m dead”, Patrick stated. “So I want my change to be visible, to be known by everybody that I’m not that type of person anymore”.

Sadly, even then his survival is far from certain. “I ran into the leader of the [rival] Americans once. He didn’t have a gun fortunately, that day he wanted to kill me”, Patrick recalled. “I actually came from church on a Sunday walking with my bible. I had my shirt on, and my slacks, and my shoes. He jumped out his car and said: you taking chances to even fucking walk here”. When the incident occurred Patrick was fully immersed in an almost-clichéd performance of normality – a god-fearing family man walking to mass with his bible in his Sunday best.

All indications up until that point were that he was nothing but the model ex-gangster: staying away from the Laughing Boys, attending church, working full-time, spending time with this son, etc. Still, his past threatened him. Transitions out of gangs are inevitably onerous and hampered by challenges from enemies’ grudges, employers’ suspicions, community stigma, and criminalisation by cops. But with enough time, much effort, lots of luck, and a bit of mercy, even those apparently born into the streets – like Patrick– can survive long enough to salvage their lives and get out of gangs.

Both policy-makers and the public should take note. Tough-on-crime gang prevention strategies that focus hard policing and harsh prison sentences are unlikely to find much long-term success; they cut people off from their friends and neighbours, prevent them from securing steady employment, and separate them from love ones. While effective policing can be one part of gang prevention, holistic approaches require more disengagement initiatives that help connect people to non-gang groups and practices, as well as efforts to tackle structural drivers of gang participation, like joblessness, racism, insecurity, and alienation.

Getting beyond Street Culture

Rather than simply reproducing the poverty-crime-violence narrative, Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town demonstrates how gang members can – and have – transformed their lives, challenging the pessimistic conclusions commonly associated with gang entry. The book falls within more critical sociological traditions that have adapted Bourdieusian social theory into criminology. But it breaks from this tradition in its call to greater sensitivity to the dialectic relationship between agency and structure in gang research, dovetailing my recent work from Cape Town that considers how street culture can be creatively applied by street virtuosos, gang girls, and hip-hop fans. Research also speaks to scholarship highlighting the “practical dimensions” of Bourdieusian thought, which argues against structurally produced social realities by replacing determinism with dialectic. Giving a more prominent place to disengagement narratives in gang research braces the forces of personal transformation against the influences of social reproduction, reiterating that – like all social fields – street fields are “fields of struggle”. The struggle in the streets is real, and the competition over cultural, symbolic and economic capital can be cruel. But gang members are not aggressive automatons, resigned to cycles of perpetration and victimisation. They are the subjects of their own stories – some of which have happy endings. That everybody in this book managed to find some semblance of normal and legitimate living proves that gangsters can start anew. The experiences of Patrick and other ‘exes’ should be a source of inspiration to gang members also wishing to disengage, as well as a valuable source of information for anybody trying to understand how to better help them do so.

Dariusz Dziewanski is a social scientist whose academic research focuses on gangs in Cape Town. He also has fifteen years of experience carrying out research projects and evaluations in diverse international development and humanitarian settings. He holds a doctorate from SOAS University of London, and is currently an Honorary Research Affiliate at the Centre of Criminology, at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Law.

Latest Posts

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.