Opinionista Ryland Fisher 26 August 2013

Getting gangs out is a community affair

Gangs are a serious problem in the Cape Flats, but the suggestions for solutions from leadership are lacking. Neither Premier Helen Zille’s suggestion to bring in the troops, nor national police minister Nathi Mthethwa’s suggestion that gansterism must be treated as a socio-economic problem are the perfect solution. A middle ground must be found.

I grew up in Hanover Park and it is a badge I still wear with pride. I am not trying to romanticise the place; I doubt that is possible no matter how hard I try. However, I believe that we must be proud of where we come from.

Hanover Park is one of those places on the Cape Flats in Cape Town where many people have given up hope. Where young people do not see the value of matriculating because they know, in most cases, they do not have a future beyond it.

For some young people, passing matric means liberation: the start of a new life, going to university or having a gap year. For most young people in Hanover Park, passing matric means that you lose the routine school instilled in you and embark on an uncertain future, one in which you have no guarantee of continuing your studies. Finding work with only a matric certificate from a school in Hanover Park is almost impossible.

A large part of Hanover Park consists of three-storey flats, each with 60 houses. The rest of the township is made up of two-storey apartments with no freestanding houses in sight. Every block of flats and every group of houses has its own gang. This is one way young people find solace and commiseration in an otherwise miserable life. Walking from one block of flat to another means that one is leaving one gang’s territory and entering another’s.

In a township like Hanover Park, one is groomed from an early age to become involved in gangs. It is part of the survival tactics that one has to adopt. Either you join a gang, where you will at least have the protection of other gang members, or you become a victim of the gangs.

As a small boy in Hanover Park, my friends (probably all of us under 12 years old) decided to start a junior gang, because we idolised the older gang in our block of flats. I ended up being the leader of this gang, which used to fight with another junior gang in the block of flats closest to us. Fortunately for me, my term as a gang leader was short-lived (it’s a long story, one I will tell on another occasion) and I went back to concentrating on my studies. Also luckily for me, the gangsters realised that I was probably more worth to because of my academic ability, by helping youngsters with their studies, whether they were in gangs or not, so there was never any real pressure on me to join a senior gang.

Every couple of months, the issue of gang influence on the Cape Flats raises its ugly head and it always seems like our politicians are unable to agree on the best way to tackle this problem. This was evident again last week when Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and national police minister Nathi Mthethwa disagreed publicly on how best to tackle gangsterism on the Cape Flats. Zille wants President Jacob Zuma to send in the troops; Mthethwa feels this is not necessary, because it is a socio-economic problem.

The solution, as it is the case most times, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

The crisis with regards to gangsterism on the Cape Flats has become so big that crisis action is needed, but whether this should involve the military is debatable. Instead, the politicians need to find a way of involving all the citizens of places such as Hanover Park, Lavender Hill and Manenberg in their attempts to eradicate gangsterism. Gangs will continue to exist as long as they have the support of the people in the communities where they operate. This is also true, for instance, for crimes such as car theft and housebreaking. As long as the criminals have a market for their stolen goods, they will continue to steal in an attempt to meet that need.

Communities need to agree that gangsterism is bad and that they should play a role in eradicating it. But they should also feel convinced that in cases where they try to point out gangsters in their midst, they will be protected by the police and other authorities.

Too often communities feel that they cannot trust the police or other authorities to provide them with protection against gangsters. This often leads to people preferring to remain quiet when they see crimes being committed. We need to get to the point where everyone in the affected communities will speak out whenever they notice illegal activities are taking place.

The problem of gangsterism will not go away if the military is brought in. At best it will subside for a short period. However, if the politicians win over communities and convince them to join the fight against gangsterism – and to make gangsters persona not grata in their communities – then we will stand a better chance of eradicating this scourge in its totality.

It is important for our politicians, irrespective of political parties, to work together in the fight against gangsterism. Failure to do so will mean that gangs will continue to thrive, potentially making it difficult for political parties also to organise in these troubled areas.

I would like to one day be able to walk between the blocks of flats in Hanover Park without fearing that I am trespassing in a gang’s territory and running the risk of being mugged or even killed. That moment is not unattainable, but it will only happen if everyone works together. DM

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