Recruiting child soldiers on the Cape Flats

| Dariusz Dziewanski
Ten year old Mikey makes the gang salute. Photo by Dariusz Dziewanski.

Calvin* has spent over half of his life in Cape Flats gangs. Today, he is 26 years old and a high-ranking member of both the Mongrels street gang and the 28s prison gang.

When he takes off his shirt, he resembles a newspaper, the tattoos on his chest a testament to 15 years on the streets and behind bars.

I met Calvin about a year ago. It was about the time that he started recruiting 10-year-old Mikey* into the Mongrels. Their lives intertwined in the labyrinth of sheet metal, faded wood, and dust that delineates the informal settlements hidden throughout Ottery. Some of our first conversations were also in this setting.

Having just been released from Pollsmoor Prison after serving 10 years for murder, Calvin was sent to establish control over the settlement for the Mongrels, which over their three-generation existence have gained control of much of Ottery.

Describing his initial meeting with Mikey, Calvin says: “He reminded me of me when I was a little boy.

“The way he came into the yard, he was like a gangster. And he was, like, so small.”

That first day, Calvin gave Mikey a R10 note, “just to get closer to him, you know.”

As their relationship developed, Mikey was allowed to hang around the gang, and would be sent to run errands to earn pocket money. In the process, he absorbed information about the gang and its activities.

When we meet, Calvin speaks to Mikey in prison language to demonstrate what he has learned. In response, and to the laughter of the adults around him, Mikey raises his arms, with his index and middle fingers pointed and thumbs extended in the 28s salute, shouting “son af.” The phrase means ‘sunset’ – a key symbol of the gang, which operates in prison by night.

Mikey is keen to imitate the mannerisms and speech of those around him, and is particularly fascinated with Sabela – a prison language that combines a mix of

Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, and Zulu.

As he gains experience, I am told, he will be given other tasks. He will act as a lookout, hold drugs or guns for the gang, and eventually become a shooter. It is through this interaction that Mikey will gradually progress towards that irrevocable point where a young boy suddenly becomes a gangster.

He has not yet taken this step. If he is to do so, Mikey must show loyalty by ‘taking blood’ and marking himself with his gang’s tattoo. But once it is ‘blood in,’ it is also ‘blood out’ – a reminder that the most common way out of gang membership is death.

National crime statistics indicate that some 18 per cent of murders in the Western Cape are gang-related. Between April 2012 and March 2013, 309 people were murdered in gang-related incidents, according to the Western Cape police annual report - an average of nearly one person every day.

But popularised media imagery of hardened criminals shooting each other over turf and drug money is misleading. While those doing the shooting may refer to

themselves as soldiers, they are in reality often only children.

There are no reliable estimates of child membership in Cape Flats gangs. But Minister for Community Safety of the Western Cape Dan Plato told the National Council of Provinces in a debate on security in September: “we are seeing kids as young as 10 to 14 years old running around with guns, peddling drugs close to or even on school grounds.”

Juveniles under fourteen years of age make for expedient gangsters. A report by Child Soldiers International states that South African gangs “deliberately targeted vulnerable young people for recruitment [and]… to carry out attacks because, if arrested and tried, they were less likely to face a long prison sentence.”

Instead they will probably be sent to youth care institutions for rehabilitation, even if sentenced for serious crimes such as murder.

Some join because they are threatened by other gangs, or in search of identity, respect, and money, in circumstances where they lack security, empowerment, and employment. The entry point is often an older male figure.

Calvin himself learned about gangsterism through his brother, who was also a Mongrel and a 28, and his “everything.” At 13, Calvin joined the Mongrels to avenge his brother’s murder. He joined the 28s in prison at 16.

Mikey also wants to be a Mongrel and a 28. “It’s cool, it’s fun,” he says. “You can be a General and get lots of money.”

He also has family links to gangs. His father was a 28, and it is through him that he acquired a fascination with gangsterism. “Men would come to our house and sit with my daddy, and smoke pipes.” These same men carried out shootings against the rival 26s gang, supposedly to protect their community.

“They shot them dead and nobody touched them. That’s how I learned how to act like [a gangster]. “

Gangsters are role models, the ones with cash, clothes, and clout. “Sometimes they give all the youngsters money,” Mikey says. “I like they way they act, the way they ride with their windows dark black.”

To a boy of 10 the consequences of gang life may not yet be apparent. Mikey’s own father was stabbed to death two years ago. When asked if he is afraid to die, Mikey answers, “no, you must be brave.”

Mikey’s mother worries about her son. “I don’t want him to be like his father… Here there are a lot of big guys, talking like gangsters. That’s why they [are] responding to that.”

She acknowledges that young boys are used in gangs, but is reluctant to speak about how. “He’s still in school, and everyday I am talking to him… But he doesn’t listen. He just goes on with his kind of talk that he wants to talk.”

She still hopes that he can “finish with school, pass his matric, and get a decent job.”

To keep young boys out of gangs, “the most important thing is to keep them busy”,she says,noting that in her area there is a park and a library.

But keeping busy may not be enough. Mikey uses both the park and the library. He is active and inquisitive, and has many interests beyond the gang. He speaks excitedly about travel, and gives an impressive list of European countries he would like to visit. Like other children his

age, he also has a fascination with animals, especially big cats, about which he knows a remarkable amount. But his obvious intelligence and youthful enthusiasm are in danger of being usurped by gangsterism, just as Calvin’s were.

“When I joined the gang, it took away my whole education, my whole talent, my sports and all that. My whole mind-set changed into gangsterism. And the gang became my family.”

At times, Calvin sees Mikey’s path towards gangsterism as inevitable, just like his own. “One day he will become a big boy, 16, 17, 18, and he will probably end up in prison. Before he becomes that age, he should know already what it is to be a gangster… When you come to prison you mustn’t be a softy.”

This, he says, is the reason he mentored Mikey. “I needed to step in… Not to rob him, but to help him – to school him. To tell him, like, hey, what you’re busy with is not a game, or a movie. These are real-life things that you are busy with.”

Calvin often speaks of escaping gangsterism himself and four months ago started to distance himself from the gang.

“Drugs, guns, and everything, I’ve been through it… Looking at the kids today – damn – they just do what I did in the past.”

But his efforts to move forward with his life have met numerous obstacles. He recently survived a shooting and two stabbings; attempts on his life that he attributes to others perceiving him as “weak” for moving away from gangsterism.

Today, he is in Pollsmoor Prison again. After a night of drinking, he opened the door to a police car to help a friend escape arrest. In doing so he violated his parole. The violation occurred after Calvin had been cheated of a month’s wages for a job he had. He was desperate, he explains, “I thought, maybe I am just born to be a gangster.”

Back in prison, he has returned to the 28s, because, he tells me on the telephone, “you do what you do to survive.”

Still, even as a prison gangster, he says he thinks constantly about changing his life and staying out of gangs and prison permanently, and admits that his parole violation was a “stupid” mistake.

To keep his mind off of his case, Calvin helps out with educational tours that come through Pollsmoor. When he is released, he says he would like to use his own experience to help prevent youth entering gangs.

When I update Calvin on the phone about Mikey, he suggests he could be a positive influence on the boy, “to keep him out of the life.”

Just how Calvin’s story unfolds, remains to be told. So far, it is evidence of the Cape Flats axiom that ‘getting into gangs is easy, but getting out is very difficult.’ For those working to stop gang violence, the moral appears to be that fighting gangs in the present means helping veteran gangsters like Calvin make a new beginning, but safeguarding the future security of Cape Flats communities requires preventing boys like Mikey from being recruited in the first place.

‘* not their real names’

Dariusz Dziewanski is a researcher and consultant based in Cape Town, researching gang violence in the Cape Flats. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Follow him @ddziewan.

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I can relate to that story. I usually tell people that gangsterism is not a root but a fruit. There are many factors that contribute. Dysfunctional background has a major impact. I joined a gang when i was 11 because of family issues. When I was turning 17 I got arrested and I was sent to Pollsmoor Prison. We planned to escape but I was left behind. After that I was sentenced to 22 years in prison, two years before I got released, I design a curriculum for dealing with Identity issues that young people are facing. I use my past experience to help. Change is possible but it is a process.

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