Reconsidering The Streets: Making and Breaking Street Culture in Cape Town

by Dariusz Dziewanski

15 June 2020

Cape Town is one of the world’s deadliest cities. The vast majority of the killing takes place in its townships, some just a short drive away from the stylish city centre. Turf wars, revenge killings, and gang initiations contribute to an average of more than two gangland murders per day – about one third of all homicides in and around the city. Gangs in Cape Town first grew from the social disorder wrought by apartheid; the unfulfilled promises of post-apartheid urban renewal have kept many Capetonians in poverty and violence, thus sustaining the gangs’ existence. For some people residing along the city’s urban margins, joining a gang offsets a lack of development and governance and offers opportunities for security, dignity, and income. In particular, gang violence has become a way of accessing the basic amenities of life. “This is because [gangs] know that acts of violence against themselves or others are a reliable method for reasserting their existence when life experience has denied it”, writes Cape-based criminologist Don Pinnock.

Most gang literature on the city echoes international research that depicts gangs as an expression of “street culture”: a globalised form of subcultural opposition to structural exclusion and oppression, which connects townships in Cape Town to ghettos, favelas, and slums around the world. Street cultural scholarship focuses on how criminal expertise and an aggressive reputation can win a gang member “street capital” that he or she can then leverage for power, protection, and profits. Such scholarship also demonstrates that taking to “the streets” can end up exacerbating the most pernicious aspects of economic scarcity, racial oppression, and spatial segregation. By shooting each other, stealing from family members, and selling drugs to their communities, young men and women joining gangs in Africa’s deadliest city can accumulate street capital. But, in so doing, they also help keep themselves and their neighbours trapped in cycles of poverty and violence.

Apartment blocks in Hanover Park, one of Cape Town’s most gang-affected neighbourhoods. Credit: Dariusz Dziewanski

There is great analytical benefit in demonstrating how structural exclusion and oppression reproduces crime, gangs, and violence, especially in refuting portrayals of gang members as “social viruses” and countering militarised approaches to gang prevention. But over-representing the reproductive power of street culture has its own dangers; it risks making street culture seem static and insurmountable – even if this is not what street-focused scholars intend. Outlined below are three papers on gangs in Cape Town that echo key themes in street culture research from around the world, including opposition to oppression, agentic adaptation, and social reproduction. But the papers also hint at how street culture – like culture writ large – can be adapted and transformed in ways that deviate from typical readings in the literature. Specifically, they show how some gangsters subvert gang norms through extreme violence, how gang girls fight the masculine tendencies of gangs, and how gangsters and non-gangsters alike adapt the global oppositional repertoire of Tupac to avoid or leave the streets.

The first paper shows how “street virtuosos” use extraordinary violence and take risks that others would not even consider, in order to thrive alone as mercenaries amongst the hundred or so groups that populate the city’s ganglands. This is contrary to existing criminological literature on Cape Town, which typically assumes people join gangs to find strength and security in numbers. “I got around about twelve guns with me… I would position guns where I would know I would run to. I would hide here, so I would shoot then run there, and shoot − crazy stuff like that”, said one interviewee, describing a shootout he had with the biggest gang in the city – the Americans. He had explicitly sought out the conflict after newly arriving on their territory. Doing so earned their respect, allowing him to use American turf to sell methamphetamines and other narcotics. “The only language they understand is violence. You must first take them to the peak of your violence, and then bring them down to the level that you want them to be”, he said, explaining that in a place where murder is normal, violence must be exceptional to make people take notice. That he is enacting violence to gain repute and status is not itself atypical in gang culture. It is how he uses it – audaciously and recklessly – that makes his particular violent acts unexpected and remarkable. Indeed, I have been researching gangs in Cape Town since 2013, conducting interviews during that time with hundreds of men and women implicated in gangs and criminality, and many more that were not, and have encountered only a few who can – or even would dare try to – stand alone amongst the hundred or so groups that populate the city’s ganglands. But those exerting enough force can survive against the odds without the protection of a gang, to show the various innovative types of street-based practices that are possible within gang culture in Cape Town.

Young man on a street corner in the ‘Cape Flats’, an expansive low-lying area outside central Cape Town. Credit: Dariusz Dziewanski

Girls that participate in gangs subvert typical street practices too. In another new paper, I find that violent street culture in Cape Town is not just a man’s game. Global street culture has invariably been presented as embodied in “hardmen”, “masculine dignity” and the “rugged, self-sufficient man”, and gang literature on Cape Town usually represents females as accessories or victims. But my research shows how girl gangsters can leverage aggression as a form of protection against threats not faced by men, as well as a means of accessing income, status, and power like male gangsters do:

In the street life [violence] was seen as a positive thing. Because I knew for a fact, sorry to say this, nobody’s going to go fuck with him [a violent gangster]. Because that is the way he was. So I also felt I need to adapt this way, for nobody to come fuck with me. They’re going to see ok no, this is a woman, but… don’t mess with her.

The woman making the statement is a former member of the Backstreet Kids. She joined the gang because she wanted to be as respected and powerful as the male gang bosses that ruled her neighbourhood. She tried to emulate them like any young man would. Fighting with other gangsters was one way to do this. For instance, she brawled with a fellow Backstreet after he tried to cheat her following a robbery they had pulled off together. “I told myself: [you] just make your heart strong, and be a man and you fight. Because otherwise he’s going to keep on doing that, he’s going to take advantage of me”, she said. Winning the fight “gave the message: Don’t mess with this one [and] don’t go around thinking like I’m not a gangster”. Other women from the study also fought to prove they were ‘gangster’ – even committing murder to show their street cred. However, street culture generally gave only short-term reprieve from their marginality, as it led to broken relationships, physical injury, long-term imprisonment, drug addiction, and other problems. That they still chose to take part in gangs – notwithstanding such well-know dangers – is indicative of the cruel dilemmas confronting township women in Cape Town.

But not all subcultural performances necessarily led towards the streets, as I discuss in a third paper exploring how township residents draw on the music, visage, and legacy of rapper Tupac Shakur as a “globalised oppositional repertoire”. Some men and women related to the oppositional power that Tupac embodied as a gangster rapper and street cultural icon, while many others saw him as a sociocultural resource for resisting or getting out of the streets. Some saw him as both. “Our dreams were to go to prison because we knew when you come out you going to be a mirror to someone else like Tupac. Everyone is going to look to you”, said one key informant, who spent much of his life in street and prison gangs. Early on in his life, Tupac’s oppositional character reflected for him the same localised struggles that animate gang identities, as the Tupac gangster rapper was projected in the informant’s desire to be a street soldier. Later, the same man would say, “Tupac was a super-big inspiration to me, when I was in prison . . . I started to realise I wanted to be a rapper is when I was in a single cell”. He had two possessions in his cell: a Tupac poster and a bible. Both were important inspirations in his subsequent exit from gangs. In the end, the cultural value of Tupac both confirmed and conflicted with street culture for study participants; he was whatever people needed him to be at the moment, serving as a source of inspiration, a behavioural schema, and an oppositional symbol that helped young poor Capetonians face their individual struggles in different ways.

Tupac murals in Manengerg, Cape Town, 2001. Credit: Henry Trotter

In my article on Tupac, as in my papers on virtuosos and female gangsters, there are findings similar to street cultural research conducted elsewhere. But the papers also show the ways that street culture can change. They are an effort to move such criminological scholarship beyond reactive reproduction, by elaborating how a street-oriented theoretical framework can better attend to the potential for human agents to act with cultural creativity despite structural oppression. My upcoming book project – Beyond the Street: Exiting Gangs and Violence in Cape Town – develops this research and aims to show how individuals disengaging from gangs can contest prevailing structural constraints by innovating the sociocultural resources available to them to disengage from the streets. Those who successfully escape the grip of gangs in Cape Town prove that it is not necessarily ‘blood in and blood out’, further demonstrating how some people manage to break from street culture – thus taking a step towards one day transforming it.

Dariusz Dziewanski works as a freelance researcher and monitoring and evaluation consultant. He obtained his PhD in Development Studies from SOAS University of London and is currently a visiting lecturer at the Centre of Criminology, at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Law. His research interests include: street culture, gangs, urban violence, and disengagement and desistance. Follow him on Twitter @ddziewan

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