Gangster’s paradise: why Cape Town’s gangs are thriving.

By Don Pinnock

Police efforts to curb gang membership and violence in Cape Town are failing. In an attempt to find a solution, a new book, Gang Town, by Don Pinnock turns existing theories on their head.

Cape Town is two cities. One is beautiful beyond imagining, known since its beginning as the ‘fairest cape’ in the world. Here tourists come to lounge on beaches, scale misty peaks and dine in fine restaurants.

The other is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where police need bullet-proof vests and sometimes army backup. Here gangs of young men rule the night with heavy calibre handguns, dispensing heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and fear.

This is a story of the second city…

In Gang Town, investigative journalist and criminologist Don Pinnock draws on more than thirty years of research to provide a nuanced and definitive portrait of youngsters caught up in violent crime.

Rethinking delinquency

In a single year ending in March 2015 more than seventeen thousand people were murdered in South Africa. This is higher than some countries at war. Around 600 000 other violent crimes were reported, including attempted murder, rape, robbery and assault.

The country’s murder rate per 100 000 is 30.5 per 100 000, one of the world’s highest. In Cape Town it’s much higher at 55. This number masks the city’s huge internal disparities. In Nyanga, it’s estimated the murder rate above 200 per 100 000. In 2012 contact crime in the Western Cape was 1 852 per 100 000.

Much of this is attributed to gangs.

Reasons for Cape Town’s high crime rate are generally given as mass population removals under apartheid, a history of peri-urban alcohol production, poverty, poor education, unemployment, drug use and single parents.

Most proposed solutions are notable by their generality, unworkability and lack of analytic precision. The standard official response is: Lock them up. We do, in large numbers, but it’s not working. Recidivism is estimated at around 90%.

As a criminologist working on youth gangs, my job is to understand causes and come up with solutions. Since the problem was first raised by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in the mid-19th century there have been many theories of adolescent delinquency: Social disorganization, deviance, social learning, anomie, strain theory, labeling, differential association, subcultural theory.