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Bringing in the army turns people on the Cape Flats int...

South Africa


Bringing in the army turns people on the Cape Flats into targets

By bringing in the army to the Cape Flats, people in gangs are no longer family and community members, they are the enemy, and by turning them into the enemy, the rest of the community is turned into a target, says the writer.

What if our responses to gangs and drugs made gangs more violent and drugs more dangerous, and increased their immediate value, while simultaneously reducing alternative choices?

Escalating violence and the recent deployment of the army in the Western Cape has ignited a much-needed debate around the failures to curb rising levels of violence and address the issues that have affected people living on the Cape Flats ever since someone decided to call a piece of barren sand Grassy Park.

There are diverse opinions as to whether the army will reduce or increase violence, but one area of consensus seems to be that gangs and drugs are the root cause of the problems communities face. Get rid of drugs, get rid of gangs, and we will be rid of the problems.

With increasing levels of gun violence, many believe we need a war on drugs and gangs, and war requires an army. But the world has tried that, invested trillions of dollars, and in every situation where authorities have tried to get rid of drugs and gangs by force, the results have been tragic.

We have warned young people not to take drugs or join gangs. Young people have been “scared straight,” seen the bodies of peers, the “before and after pictures of people who use drugs. They have been threatened by parents and police officers during drug “education”, been taken to see the horrors of jail, punished, suspended and expelled from school, arrested, incarcerated and stuck into rehab. Still, they use drugs bought from gangsters. Still, they join gangs. The same gangs that bullied and beat them and brutally killed their siblings.

As General Jeremy Vearey once noted, when young people watch the film Four Corners, reactions “range from an awestruck fascination with the mystique of ‘Sabela’ and the ‘discipline’ of the ‘Number’ as they see it in the movie, to take(ing) sides with … the 26 street gang leader and 28 ‘general’ respectively. However, I have yet to meet a young person who is as awestruck about the SAPS detective character in the movie.”

The obvious question is: Why do young people persist in using drugs and joining gangs?

What if people, of an increasingly younger age, see drugs and gangs not as the problem, but as the only imperfect solution to the very real problems, injustices and fears that dominate their lives from birth? What if, in certain circumstances, the dependent use of drugs and loyalty to a gang carried more purpose, security and meaning than any other option available? What if our responses to gangs and drugs made gangs more violent and drugs more dangerous, and increased their immediate value, while simultaneously reducing alternative choices?

After spending two decades living, interacting, talking and working among parents, teachers, children, policemen, preachers, adolescents, people who use drugs, people who deal drugs, convicted murderers, gangsters and hitmen on the Cape Flats, combined with a decade of academic studies, reading, conferences and discussions with experts and people with lived experiences of drugs and gangs from around the world, my conclusion is: All people seek to improve their lives by ingesting chemicals in the form of food, drinks or drugs; and/or participating in activities that alter their brain chemistry and thereby alter their experience of the world, and all people form groups with like-minded peers in the pursuit of common goals.

In other words, it is human to alter our reality through drugs, activities and rituals, and it is human to form gangs. And most of the time, the outcome is positive. However, in certain circumstances, compounded by inappropriate policies and responses, the pursuit of drugs can become dependent, habituated, all-encompassing and harmful, and gangs become coercive, violent and inescapable.

In his seminal work “The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit” Bruce Alexander persuasively argues that when populations and individuals experience a deep sense of psychosocial dislocation, they seek radical ways to compensate by finding meaning in something that both provides a sense of belonging and justifies or explains their exclusion and the sense of “not belonging”.

Alexander describes “psychosocial integration” as the “profound interdependence between people and society” reconciled with the need for “individual autonomy and achievement”. It can be described as “belonging, community, wholeness, social cohesion or simply, culture”.

Alexander, through his famous rat park experiments, demonstrated that when rats were isolated in environments that lacked alternatives and opportunities for social interaction, they would drug themselves to death. Moved to an enriched and social setting, they resolved their dependency. This lab experiment has been demonstrated outside the laboratory. For example, the writer Eugene Marais, himself dependent on opium, described how monkeys would avoid intoxicating amounts of tobacco when in the wild, but in captivity, they would consume nicotine at every opportunity.

There are a number of other examples of how animals compensate for suffering through intoxication, but we are talking about people. Unfortunately, human examples are common. In many colonised first nations the loss of land, incarceration and oppression has resulted in pervasive and harmful intoxication and violence. The spread of free-market societies that focus on the needs of the individual at the expense of the collective has had similar effects around the globe.

Other researchers such as Siegel, Norman Zinberg, Howard Becker, Carl Hart, and Julian Buchanan have shown that economic exclusion, adverse childhood events, labelling, stigma, confrontation and context all increase the feeling of psychosocial dislocation and increase levels of drug use, along with the desire to belong or find purpose and meaning, no matter the cost to the individual and society.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Cape Flats community is vulnerable to finding meaning and purpose in drugs use and gangs. The mixture of cultures, races, backgrounds and histories along with disparate social status that gave birth to the people of District Six and the surrounding areas brought with them the need to develop a new and unique narrative history, rituals, social rules and means of creating community.

As a new culture and set of narratives evolved, a sense of community began to develop, but this was soon disrupted as families, friends and neighbours were separated and dispersed across the Cape Flats. The “flats” people were forced into bears a striking resemblance to the Skinner Boxes that drive rats to drugs.

With an emerging but not fully integrated cultural identity, being made to occupy the middle ground in terms of the apartheid system of racial classification, the further destruction of communities because of forced removals, and without the respite of a rural community to return to, the people who now occupy the Cape Flats are, I would suggest, the most psychosocially dislocated community in the country.

Metaphorically and literally, the avenues out of their circumstances are reduced and often blocked by gangs or law enforcement. In these circumstances, drugs serve multiple purposes, and inadequate health and mental health services add to this. Drug dealers become peddlers of purpose, meaning, relief and medication.

Nine of the 10 precincts with the highest levels of drug-related crime in South Africa are traditionally so-called “coloured” areas. The narrative of the “Number” gangs provides meaning, the illusion of historical justification and the mythology that people seek to explain the transience of their lives. Gangs provide the safety of rank and structure, they are the family that is, often by necessity, absent. And critically, gangs provide the illusion and hope of economic opportunity.

In the post-apartheid era, the Western Cape communities of Hangklip, Hawston and Gansbaai suffered a further insult as fishing quotas were sold to the highest bidders, and family boats were left to rot in the harbour or driveway. But, people needed to eat, and so crayfish and perlemoen, once caught legally, became the centre of an illicit economy. This brought in foreign syndicates and with them came methamphetamine to help reduce the cash outlay from syndicates and maximise profits for local suppliers.

Once again, entire communities were criminalised and excluded for doing nothing more than continuing to do what they had legally done for decades, now made illegal by the stroke of a pen. By pursuing a criminal justice response to what is essentially the result of social issues, the police became part of the problem. Already alienated because of apartheid policing, they became a de facto state-sanctioned gang.

The confiscation of drugs or firearms may disrupt one gang, but at the same time, it strengthens the neighbouring gang. As more people get arrested, they lose any chance to participate in the formal economy. The conditions in the prisons around Cape Town make gang membership inevitable. Not being a member of a “Number gang” in prison is dangerous and lonely. Being a Number means protection, a brotherhood, a purpose and the drugs that get you through the day.

If we are to find meaningful solutions, we need to face some realities: given the context, the use of drugs and the attraction of gangs is, from some perspectives, a logical choice. No interventions will ever stop the desire for drugs and gangs, but we can make the use of drugs less appealing, less harmful and, in some cases, beneficial. We can encourage pro-social gangs that build communities instead of breaking them down.

But, to do this, we need to sit down and talk to our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and children who use drugs and who have joined gangs. By bringing in the army, these people are no longer family and community members, they are the enemy, and by turning them into the enemy, we have turned the rest of the community into targets. DM

Shaun Shelly is the human rights and policy lead at TB/HIV Care, where he founded SA Drug Policy Week. He is a researcher at the University of Pretoria, Department of Family Medicine, and is the former deputy secretary of the United Nations VNGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs. He is the chairperson of SANPUD, on the management advisory committee for the International Drug Policy Consortium and sits on a number of boards and advisory groups, locally and internationally.


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