At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connecting the flat Canadian Prairies to the rocky shores of South Africa’s southernmost tip. But there are gangs in every city, from Calgary and Winnipeg and Saskatoon on one side to Cape Town on the other.
Our research has shown that despite vast differences in culture, history, and geography, gangs in Cape Town and the American Midwest share many commonalities. Similar struggles for autonomy and protection against oppressive institutions can be seen in both of these subcultural societies.
I, a criminologist with expertise doing research in South Africa, and I, a Métis professor of Indigenous studies in Canada, have both studied the causes and consequences of gang membership.
The similarities in street gang activity between South Africa and Canada, especially the link to marginalisation and colonisation, are often overlooked by researchers. In our article, we compare and contrast the experiences of 24 Cape Town gang members with those of 53 Prairie City gang members. Two ex-gang members, one from South Africa and one from Canada, testify to our results. Gavin and Roddy.
South Africa, Canada, and other countries with unequal and exclusive metropolitan environments have a gang problem, and this problem is systemic and pervasive. As such, their presence is often regarded as an early warning indicator of more pervasive structural problems in a given community. Social life in Cape Town and the Canadian Prairies has been deeply impacted by prejudice, disenfranchisement, and empowerment for generations. They are responsible for creating conditions that encourage the youth of colour and indigenous youth to join gangs.
This research adds to the limited but ever-expanding body of work on gangs that makes connections between seemingly unrelated international phenomena.
Gavin, a lifelong member of the Mongrels gang, was raised by his abusive alcoholic and drug addict father in a poor informal community on the outskirts of Cape Town. He continued by saying:
No, I don’t think there are any available jobs right now. The wealthy people in our town are the gangsters. They set the table with the food… That’s the part that interested me.
Studies of gangs and street life suggest that people who have to make a living in dangerous environments often resort to aggressive and violent behaviour as a sure way to acquire respect (also known as “street cred”). According to Gavin:
They do it every day because they want to “make a statement,” “get famous,” and “get their name out there,” which is why they resort to gun violence. Therefore, he has the power to… Winnipeg, Manitoba Native Syndicate member Roddy equated respect with “acting crazy”:
- Insanity was a sign of social standing back then since it made you instantly recognisable.
Roddy also highlighted Gavin’s problems and the remedies that gang membership offered:
- Without food, money, or loved ones… Being a part of something (the gang) made you feel important. I felt like all my problems vanished the moment I became a part of the group. What I was getting myself into, I had no idea.
- Gavin and Roddy both regarded gangs and street culture as a method to get what they needed out of life when legitimate opportunities were unavailable, even though they came from different parts of the world and had very different upbringings.
Cape Coloured communities, a diverse ethnic group in South Africa, are home to the city’s most prominent street gangs. The unemployment rate is high, and violent crime is common, in these locations.
In places like Winnipeg and others in the Prairies, a disproportionate number of gang members are young people of indigenous descent who live in economically disadvantaged areas widely believed to be under the gangs’ influence.
In each of the studied settings, gang membership can be traced back to the colonial era and the struggles of indigenous and coloured populations that were targeted by multiple government campaigns that used institutionalised violence to eradicate their cultural identities.
When the colonial government of South Africa attempted to classify its diverse population into a single racial category, the word “Coloured” was coined to describe this new group. Later, during the apartheid era, whites displaced Coloured and other racially mixed populations to expand their control over prime downtown real estate. Other racialized groups were also affected by these violent relocations. Therefore, gangs were promoted because they gave otherwise aimless youth a sense of community, direction, and power.
The same thing has happened all over the Prairies, causing Indigenous families to break apart and young people to form street gangs. One cause was the government’s and churches’ practises of forcibly removing children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools known as the Indian residential school project. Because of the pressure to abandon their culture and language, many of their children perished. Child welfare schemes that forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and placed them with non-Indigenous adoptive families contributed to the problem later on. Indigenous street gangs have flourished because of the social conditions and inequality brought about by settler colonial policies.
From the outside, it may seem as though what is happening on the streets is completely irrational. A gang member’s sense of social and personal worth is bolstered by conforming to the gang’s values of toughness and fearlessness, which is achieved in part by acting “crazy” consistently and seeking out violent confrontation.
Gavin, Roddy, and the other youth in our research considered joining a gang as their greatest chance for survival, and this was a decision they made consciously.
When underprivileged persons are unable to gain employment or education, they often turn to criminal activity as a means of subsistence. They adopt more rebellious personas as a result of their gang involvement. Street culture provides gang members with temporary hope for self-improvement and entry into underground economies.
However, staying in a gang for the long haul is highly unlikely. Most studies on street gangs have found that involvement is temporary and often leads to serious violence. It is extremely risky and difficult for gang members to escape, but some, like Gavin and Roddy, have succeeded.
Young men and women shouldn’t feel like they have no other choice but to join a gang, thus more effort needs to be made to develop equitable and just communities.