Gangs target children in Cape Town

Fakrir lives with his family in Parkwood, a lower income suburb in Cape Town. He is 28-years-old and after walking his two daughters to school each morning will earn money collecting scrap metal that he delivers to junkyards for a price corresponding to its weight.

Every penny counts, so metal is something he constantly notices. This was evident when I met with him one evening. As he added wood to the fire around which we spoke, a few meters from the front door of his shack, he removed any nails or bolts attached to the discarded wood and set them to one side.

Fakrir’s reliance on scrap metal for income is linked to his earlier life, growing up in Ottery, which was shaped by child abuse, gangsterism and drugs. He never took drugs himself, he says, but did sell them. The necessity to do so came about after he ran away from the suburbs he called home after being unwillingly involved with the most well-run and dangerous organisation operating in that area: the Mongrels gang.

Significant both in numbers and influence, the Mongrels, which has a strong presence in the Cape Flats, has been established over three generations. It is often the case that a newly recruited member will have a family member – an uncle, or father – as an active leader within the organisation.

This was the case for Fakrir. As he explains, after constantly being threatened by gang members who were trying to persuade him to join the gang, at age 16 he was eventually kidnapped at gunpoint by four Mongrels members. He was taken that day from outside a spaza shop at the Wynberg taxi rank to his uncle’s house in Ottery, where he was stabbed numerous times. One of the perpetrators was his uncle, who was, and still is, identified as a leader in the Mongrels gang.

After his initiation, he miraculously ran away that day, despite the shoot-out his escape caused. For the sake of his life, he felt he could not return to the suburb where he grew up.  From that moment, his isolation from safety structures such as family relationships and schooling would require him to seek other means of survival.

Gang members often target children. They are useful for gang activity because they slip through the cracks of police arrest policies due to their age, according to Major General Jeremy Vearey, Provincial Commander of a specialised South African Police Service (SAPS) anti-gang strategy unit for the Western Cape. Children are often used as hitmen in wars over territory.

Vearey defines gangsterism as a form of organised crime that illegally seeks to privatise control over shared public space (known as ‘the commons’), such as roads, parks and schools. In monopolising control over these spaces, gangs are able to use them for private criminal activities, and in so doing pose a security threat to any resident community member passing through public areas that have been either been claimed by a gang or remain contested turf.

Many children and teens being recruited into gangs on the Cape Flats come from abusive homes or have experienced neglect. The socio-economic circumstances in the suburbs in which these gangs operate are exactly what allow these gangs to prosper as youth seek social protection.

As Fakrir told the story of his own childhood, the deep breaths and pauses he often employed to explain a feeling or intensity of a situation spoke breadths about the harsh family environments that many children are forced to negotiate.

Children as young as 14 are being arrested on gang-related murder charges, according to research by journalist Shaun Swingler.

With 12 percent of murders in the Western Cape last year classified as gang-related – an 86% increase from 2012 – it can be understood why addressing this problem has become an increasingly significant and highly politicised topic.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s recent call to introduce the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) into parts of the Cape Flats to quell gangsterism has been slammed for only focusing on the symptoms of the crisis. But National Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s suggestion to find a long-term solution has as yet not explicitly been translated into anything concrete.

An article by Vearey in Amandla! Magazine emphasises the effectiveness of community-driven patrols and watches in strengthening and sustaining collective territorial control of public spaces. “The role of the police officer in working-class areas therefore extends beyond security functions to social activism, which seeks to mobilise and build community solidarity, organised collective capacity, and ultimately class power, to confront crime…”

To tackle the complex roots and effects of organised crime in the city’s working class areas will require a sophisticated understanding and strategy. A robust collaboration between invested departments, communities and social organisations may deliver hope to the youth. And it can’t come soon enough — if a story like Fakrir’s is not to be repeated.

image credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty.

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.


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