Gang violence continues unabated in South Africa, particularly in impoverished black and “coloured” communities. This essay focuses on black communities. We reveal how young men living in majority Xhosa-speaking black townships become part of a gang and how the gang relationship is forged and sustained over time. We pay attention to how the gang relationship is understood by young male gang members, noting that the gang relationship is one forged through violence and sustained through loyalty to the leader, referred to as the “general.”

“Gang violence continues unabated in South Africa, particularly in impoverished black and “coloured” communities.”

However, despite the relationship between the gang members and their “generals” being sustained through violence, gangs are also sources of social support and often fill a vacuum left by the absence or lack of involvement of some guardians and parents in the township. We argue that gangs and the relationships formed between members, either within or on the periphery of these groupings, offer an alternative social support system in township neighborhoods with high levels of violence and crime. In substantiating our argument, we draw from an ethnography of “being in a place,” which involved greeting, talking to, passing-by, and interacting with young local men. We observed the streets, detailing everyday life in a setting where violence and crime are common. We relied on different sources, such as spending time on the streets, talking to youth gangs, reading graffiti on the walls, among others. This helped to provide a detailed understanding of what people involved in violence in black townships tend to be silent about.

The context of gang violence

South Africa’s history of colonialism and subsequent apartheid policies and practices helped give rise to gang violence. There are documented records of gang violence in South Africa dating back to the 1920s.1Gary Kynoch, “From the Ninevites to the Hard Livings gang: Township gangsters and urban violence in twentieth-century South Africa.” African Studies 58, no. 1 (1999): 55-85.

Despite the demise of apartheid, young people in marginalized areas, especially townships, continue to resort to gang violence to survive.2Adam Cooper and Catherine L. Ward, “Intervening with youths in gangs” in Youth violence sources and solutions in South Africa, eds. Catherine L. Ward, Amelia van der Merwe and Andrew Dawes (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 2012). Thus, experiences of impoverishment and relative deprivation, continue to frame the lives of many young people in these communities.3Don Foster, (2012). “Gender, class, race and violence” in Youth violence sources and solutions in South Africa, eds. Catherine L. Ward, Amelia van der Merwe and Andrew Dawes (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 2012): 23-53. This trend is confirmed by the Affordable Land and Housing Data Centre which shows that, for example, in greater Nyanga, an area which includes Gugulethu, 72.3 percent of the residents live below the Household Subsistence Level (HSL). Hema Hargovan further observes that young people continue to live in communities also marked by high rates of unemployment, substance abuse, and weak family structure.

Given the rise and complexity of corruption in South Africa, the continued presence and increase in gang-like formations can also be ascribed to a failure of the judicial and policing systems—some members of which have reportedly become complicit in illegal activities like fraud and bribery. For Sibongakonke Mama, lack of policing and a loss of trust in the justice system have contributed to the spate of gang violence in the Western Cape.

Gugulethu Township

We focus on the practices of gang violence in Gugulethu, a black township established in 1960 as a result of overcrowding in the first black residential area of Langa, also in Cape Town. Initially, barrack-like homes/hostels were built in Gugulethu to provide boarding quarters for single male workers who had to leave their families in the rural areas due to the apartheid era’s influx control and migrant labor system, which only allowed the actual workforce to come to the towns. Many of the people who live in Gugulethu migrated from elsewhere, most often the Eastern Cape which is dominated by Xhosa-speaking people. Gugulethu has nine sections: Europe, Barcelona, Kanana, Lusaka, New Rest, Gugulethu SP, Phola Park, Vukuzenzele, and Zondi. According to Jasmina Brankovic, violence in Gugulethu is structural as well as historical. It is institutionalized in inequalities of power, which in turn restrict life opportunities for individuals, especially young people.

Becoming a gang: Street relations

We observed that the youth gangs on the streets were organized in their activities; while some spoke on behalf of fellow members, others were simply told what to do. In most instances, those who spoke on behalf of others were the leaders of the gangs. They gave orders to recruit gang members who live along the streets to carry out muggings and bring back the money to their superiors. Those who spoke on behalf of all the others were referred to as “generals,” and could give orders to the “foot soldiers” without being questioned.

To become a “general” in the gang, one has to kill, know the tactics of robbery, and have been imprisoned at some point. In essence, promotion to the rank of “general” represents a criminal journey—from foot soldier committing petty crimes to being a “general” who can order recruits to mug people and bring the spoils to him. The spoils include money, which is sometimes used to buy food, clothing, and drugs. The gang recruits are provided with drugs as a way to introduce them to gang activities. The youth quickly take these up as a way to be accepted into a gang. Thus, taking drugs in a group is a way of accepting the “unwritten rules” of gang membership and thereby earning power, status, and forms of social identity.

“even though gang relationships are sustained by violent mechanisms, they are also alternative social and emotional support systems.”

Identities and masculinities are formed and sustained by acts such as killing and physical assault. Engaging in acts of violence is a way of being and becoming a man. However, some young men see themselves as more masculine than those who do not kill. Masculine identities are structured within these gangs such that the “general” tends to be hyper-masculine, making and commanding other young men to commit acts of violence. Once a young man recruited to the gang sticks around with other gang members, he can be beaten up to test his commitment, or can also be given a gun to kill.

It is much easier to become a gangster than to leave a gang because loyalty and commitment to the leader and the group, as well as its perceived cause are more important than any individual member. It is therefore important to note that lasting bonds are created by the conduct of violence.


We explored how gang relationships are forged and maintained over time, especially in impoverished communities, and asserted that even though gang relationships are sustained by violent mechanisms, they are also alternative social and emotional support systems for gang members, who sometimes come from broken homes. In terms of policy, we recommend that communities are much better placed to deal with gangsterism through street committees and community forums. Hence the government needs to formally recognize and support communities affected by gang violence.

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