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Home Discussion Papers Counter Proliferation Violence and gang youth in South Africa: More complex than 'black menace'
Violence and gang youth in South Africa: More complex than 'black menace'
Written by Mandy Noonan (1) Monday, 03 December 2012 05:25

The prevalence of young men in South Africa’s criminal statistics, along with ongoing racial tensions in the country, has contributed to the enduring racist discourse of the swart gevaar, or ‘black menace’.(2)  This is a recurring story that stretches back through the decades of Apartheid resistance, “when street children and organised black youths were both represented in the media as violent, anarchistic threats existing outside the social order.”(3) This kind of discourse casts all young, black men as predators, without giving any consideration to the various factors behind the statistics, nor to the many young black men who are non-violent. With regard to the boys who do join gangs or participate in criminal behaviour, violence does not come naturally to them by virtue of their youth, skin colour, gender, or nationality.

This CAI paper analyses violence as a behaviour that is modelled and learned, something that, for South Africa, must be understood “within the context of entrenched socio-cultural notions about male superiority and privilege as well as the social impact of apartheid, political emasculation, and unemployment on generations of African men.”(4) Furthermore, the paper takes a look at the state’s current approach to the proliferation of gangs in South Africa, and how it falls short of being a solution.

Hegemonic masculinity: Defining the ideal man

No culture in the world is limited to a single, static masculinity.(5) Even within the particular country of South Africa, there is a plurality of masculinities (and femininities), all of them socially constructed and liable to change. Gary Barker and Christine Ricardo of the World Bank warn against essentialist stereotyping of African men:

There are numerous African masculinities, urban and rural and changing historically, including versions of manhood associated with war, or being warriors and others associated with farming or cattle-herding. There are indigenous definitions and versions of manhood, defined by tribal and ethnic group practices, and newer versions of manhood shaped by Islam and Christianity, and by Western influences, including the global media.(6)

Not every boy in South Africa joins a gang or engages in violent behaviour; there are plenty who remain in school, raise families and try to provide for them, representing a different image of manhood than that of the gangster. Every culture produces a number of varying masculinities and femininities, which are then hierarchically assigned value, based on cultural norms. Some of those constructs will be considered dominant, some subordinate, and one hegemonic: the normative ideal to which people are encouraged to aspire to.

Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci is credited with the concept of hegemony, “the outcome of social struggle between groups or classes to dominate”(7) – essentially, the current ruling system of a society. Hegemonic masculinity, as developed by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, refers to the gendered ordering of power relations within that system, “the pattern of practice (i.e. things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women to continue.”(8) Within this type of hegemony, there is a distinct polarisation of masculinity and femininity and the values attached to each. This creates a binary system of “othering” that conceptualises everything in opposition to a counterpart: man/woman, masculine/feminine, military/civilian, and fighter/victim.(9) In this system, one side of the binary is dominant and the other subordinate.

Hegemonic masculinity is not something that can be permanently proven with a single demonstration of power, nor automatically bestowed through membership in a masculine institution such as the military, a gang, etc. It is viewed not “as a genetic inevitability but rather as an accomplishment, constantly measured and negotiated through processes of performance.”(10) Therefore, hegemonic masculinity is something that is pursued, an ideal which people might hope to achieve through various gendered performances, and it may vary for different groups or situations. The interpretation of masculinity (or gender in general) as a performance, can be traced to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Within this theory, gender is not something inherent or fixed; it is a set of socially constructed cues that people perform in an ongoing affirmation of their gender identities, which themselves are social fabrications.(11) The more a person performs the cues, the more his or her gender identity is established, and the more the overarching gender stereotypes are perpetuated. Therefore, when gang members commit an act of violence, they perform their masculinity and prove their dominance to their victims and each other, while simultaneously affirming violence and dominance as masculine traits. The traits of hegemonic masculinity shift according to one’s position in society. For instance, businessmen and gang members are not likely to pursue the same masculine ideal, that is, the same hegemonic masculinity. Within the context of gangs, violence becomes a means through which to attempt to realise hegemonic masculinity: 

[T]he violence feels like a performance of young men acting out a violent version of manhood, seeking to instill fear and to make their presence known before a terrified audience. They are acting out a socially recogni[s]ed role of manhood taken to its extreme.(12)

Through this ongoing and widespread pursuit, hegemonic masculinity is preserved and its dichotomies reinforced. The dichotomy system not only defines men and women in opposition to each other, it also outlines socially acceptable behaviour and associated traits for each gender. Although male/masculine is prized within hegemonic masculinity and granted dominant status, not every man is able or willing to measure up to the dominant side of every binary. This creates a range of masculinities within the culture, some of which are marginalised. For instance, a person might belong to the dominant gender, but not the dominant race or class of a given culture. This reduces his power and standing within the hegemony, and may place him at risk of victimisation.

In South Africa, these subordinate masculinities might be exemplified by males too young or too old to be in gangs, homosexual men, and boys who actively avoid gang membership. Hegemonic masculinity is competitive and, in order for a dominant man to maintain his dominance, he must continually assert it over others. Many South African males struggle with poverty, homelessness, and the inability to fulfil the cultural role of protector. These are all traits associated with subordinate masculinities, which reduces their ability to access hegemonic masculinity, and likely their own sense of self-worth. Emulating aggressive masculinities becomes a way of trying to replace lost masculine norms, providing “men with an alternative role model to regain their lost status and aspiration to the power of hegemonic males.”(13) In line with this, ‘gang masculinity’ as a hegemonic masculinity could in fact be a marginalised masculinity, especially when one considers that gang membership is centred on societal marginalisation. That alternative role model then becomes an example to children growing up in the society, who often join the cycle of violence.

The proliferation of gangs: Implications of violence and socio-economic distress

Within the city of Cape Town alone, the numbers of gang members are estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Their missions tend to revolve around drug trade and armed encounters with rival gangs and their initiations can include murder and rape.(14) Young men join gangs while in their teens or early 20s, and sometimes remain active members until middle-age.(15) As one 16-year-old member of the Thug Life gang puts it, “[g]ang life is like a religion to my family. My father and grandfather were in gangs and they have done time in jail – I will probably end up there as well. It is the way of life here; it is where you learn about respect and get status.”(16)

This is hardly a new social trend in South Africa; the popularity of street gangs dates back to the late-40s, when servicemen were returning from World War II.(17) The situation grew worse in the 1960s, when Apartheid, and its forcible removals of non-whites into townships, caused massive social upheaval.(18) Through the 1970s and 1980s, resistance to Apartheid and the corresponding crackdown led to many children growing up in an environment of constant violence. As Velile Notshulwana of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University describes, “[d]odging bullets, the smell of teargas, the 'necklacing'(19) of any suspected informer, and hurling stones and rocks as the security-force Casspirs drove along the burning township boulevards, were most township children's daily experience. Violence was the norm.”(20)

It appears to have remained the norm. Despite the end of Apartheid and the advent of democracy, interpersonal violence remains the top cause of injury in South Africa, and murder rates are more than seven times the global average.(21) The National Injury Mortality Surveillance System reports that the primary cause of ‘non-natural death’ for South Africans between the ages of 15 and 45 is homicide.(22) Statistics show that young males are the most common victims and perpetrators of crime.(23) There are, of course, plenty of young men that avoid gang membership, but youth in areas where gangs are the norm are at risk of being the targets of violence if they do not comply.(24)

In a 2005 study commissioned by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, 4,409 youths from all 9 provinces were questioned about their exposure to violence. 48% of the respondents had first witnessed community violence between the ages of 11 and 15, with another 18% claiming to have been between ages 6 and 10.(25) Beyond that, violence within the family is reported to be common among youth throughout all the provinces,(26) and over 50% of children allege that corporal punishment is ongoing at their schools, even though it is prohibited.(27) This incessant exposure to violence in every part of their lives is likely to desensitise the children to violence and legitimate its use. Helene Perold, Executive Director of Volunteer and Service Enquiry South Africa, points out that the current system essentially trains children in violent behaviour: “[w]e live in a society where it is acceptable for parents to beat their children and husbands to beat their wives….Once someone learns that being violent makes them powerful then they see that as a way to solve problems in the future.”(28) Professor Brian Robertson, former head of Cape Town University’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, agrees:

Almost all [adolescent gang members] came from families where violence was an everyday phenomenon. The conclusion I came to was: the youngsters were not committing serious crimes because of some sort of abnormal criminal streak, but because of the circumstances they were brought up in….Their family experiences dictated that they were mentally wired to react in a certain way: they always expected trouble and never stopped to consider the consequences of their actions.(29)

All of this indicates that, not only is violence a learned (rather than innate) behaviour, but that it is adopted reactively. Violence is often a response to the experience of violence,(30) and within that context, joining a gang can be viewed as a defence mechanism. Many of these young gang members are growing up in the Cape Flats, an area often characterised by shootings, stabbings, drug abuse, sexual violence, and gangsterism.(31) Within this environment, gang membership is a survival strategy, however misguided. However, the proliferation of gangs and gang membership in South Africa is not only a response to violent environments, but to environments that are characterised by high levels of economic strain.

Economic distress has been identified as a predisposing condition for societies that become overrun with armed conflict and political violence.(32) This is a main tenet of sociologist Johan Galtung’s concept of structural violence, a type of passive violence in which social institutions harm people by preventing the fulfilment of their basic needs. As Galtung explained it, “[t]he violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.”(33) Within this premise, some people have unfettered access to what they need — due to their wealth, class level, race, etc. — while others are denied, with their personal development impaired as a result. Feminist researcher Cynthia Cockburn writes, “[s]tructural violence also reminds us that sometimes outbreaks of open violence, inspired by hope, can seem preferable to the stasis of victimhood.”(34) This is reminiscent not only of revolutionary movements, but also of gang membership, employed as a non-heroic rebellion against that structural violence. The violent behaviour ends up serving — in the eyes of gang-affiliated youth — as a proactive measure toward their own survival. It is an attempt to claim and assert power within an environment that has left them feeling powerless, rewarded by forcible acquisition of that which they lack: money, goods, status, and perhaps sexual partners.

The youth of South Africa do not merely adopt violence as a means to protect themselves from others, but as a way to make a living amidst scant economic opportunities. A 2005 survey of two Cape Flats townships, Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, found overall unemployment to be 46%, and a staggering 60% for residents between the ages of 16 and 30.(35) Within that unsustainable economic landscape, there are likely few options beyond starvation or illegal activity. Membership in the gangs becomes a sort of alternative career:

The gangs become a significant reference group that forms an effective network for access to material sources that would otherwise be unattainable. As gangs, they can intimidate other people successfully, carry out burglaries and deal illegally in ‘dagga’ (marijuana), drugs and alcohol, which makes the material resources necessary for survival available to them. At the same time, the ‘entrepreneurship’ gives them the financial ability to acquire status symbols, such as owning a car, supporting a family and affording accommodation, which would otherwise be impossible.(36)

With enough repetition, violence simply becomes the customary technique through which to solve problems, whether economic or social. Therefore, gangs become a means of protection and social networking, and a conduit for manhood.

The state’s response

Despite the socio-economic complexity of gangsterism in South Africa, the state’s overarching response is imprisonment. However, imprisonment does little to deter gang membership. One man, Michael Leunissen, joined a gang called Junior Young Ones in his youth, then, after being sentenced to 20 years in jail for multiple murders, joined the prison gang known as the 28s. Now 47 years old, he claims that most of his fellow gang members are dead, either killed by rival gangs or executed for their crimes.(37) The prison system is so overwhelmed that there is a complete lack of effective reform measures. Rosanne Baily, a Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) prison researcher, attests that incarcerated youths are often traumatised and mentally unstable, within a system too overpopulated to provide proper rehabilitation treatment. In Pollsmoor Prison, for instance, there is only a single social worker assigned to care for all of the juvenile prisoners. According to Baily, “[b]eing in prison doesn’t do anything in terms of rehab, as the prison system operates in such a way as to make mental healthcare and rehabilitation impossible to carry out.”(38)

The prison population continues to grow, particularly with youths, with over 60,000 people under the age of 25, currently in jail or awaiting trial.(39) Although the increase in incarcerations correlates with a reduction in homicides, the numbers of assaults and non-fatal crimes continue to climb.(40) How, then, when prisons are proving to be ineffective, can South African civil society and state respond to gang violence?

Concluding remarks

South Africa’s high rates of crime and gang activity are not merely a criminal issue but a social one, which can be ameliorated through socio-economic development — through the reduction of poverty and childhood exposure to violence, and the improvement of career opportunities for youth. In the meantime, any kind of media coverage that propagates the ‘black menace’ concept or demonises street children should be considered poisonous for South African culture. As this paper has demonstrated, the youth violence in South Africa is not a natural accompaniment to male bodies and black skin. It is a product of classed, gendered, and racialised behaviour that has left certain groups marginalised and seeking alternative means of survival and belonging.

Efforts to reduce violent crime in South Africa need to be channelled into youth intervention programmes, as well as rehabilitation programmes in prisons. Often, public pressures on governments to eradicate crime “translate into simplistic ‘war on crime’ approaches that funnel marginal youth into the criminal justice system and leave more or less untouched deeply rooted social inequalities.”(41) Rather than continuing to rely on a prison system that has already shown a failure to rehabilitate, public reform in South Africa should be directed toward gang intervention, family support, and enforced prohibition of corporal punishment and bullying in schools. Before South African youth become perpetrators of violence, they are usually victims first. It is only through prevention of that victimisation that the cycle of violence can be interrupted.


(1) Contact Mandy Noonan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).   
(2)Samara, T.R., 2005. Youth, crime and urban renewal in the Western Cape. Journal of Southern African Studies, 31(1), pp. 209-227.
(4)Bhana, D., de Lange, N. and Mitchell, C., 2009. Male teachers talk about gender violence: “Zulu men demand respect.” Educational Review, 61(1), pp. 49-62.
(5)It should be noted that masculinity is not limited to people with male bodies, nor femininity to people with female bodies, as women can be masculine and men can be feminine. However, that discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, which uses masculinity to refer to normative ideals and the gendered expectations placed upon youth within a society.
(6)Barker, G. and Ricardo, C., 2005. Young men and the construction of masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for HIV/AIDS, conflict, and violence. The World Bank: Washington D.C.
(7)Pankhurst, D., 2008. “Post-war backlash violence against women: What can ‘masculinity’ explain?”, in Pankhurst, D. (ed.). Gendered peace: Women’s struggles for post-war justice and reconciliation. Routledge: New York.
(8)Connell, R. and Messerschmidt, J. 2005. Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), pp. 829-859.
(9)Kovitz, M., 2003. “The roots of military masculinity”, in Higate, P. (ed.). Military masculinities: Identity and the state. Praeger: Westport and London.
(10)Price, L., 2001. Finding the man in the soldier-rapist: Some reflections on comprehension and accountability. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24(2), pp. 211-227.
(11)Butler, J., 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge: New York and London.
(12)Barker, G. and Ricardo, C., 2005. Young men and the construction of masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for HIV/AIDS, conflict, and violence. The World Bank: Washington D.C.
(13)Leatherman, J., 2011. Sexual violence and armed conflict: War and conflict in the modern world. Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden.
(14)‘Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century’, IRIN, February 2007,
(15)Burnett, C., 1999. Gang violence as survival strategy in the context of poverty in Davidsonville. Society in Transition, 30(1), pp. 1-12.
(16)‘Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century’, IRIN, February 2007,
(19)Necklacing is when a car tyre is placed over a person’s neck and set on fire.
(20)Notshulwana, V., 2012. Rehabilitation of youth offenders in South Africa: The relevance of ecological model and graduated sanctions. Africa Insight, 41(4), pp. 139-158.
(21)Ward, C., et al., 2012. Violence, violence prevention, and safety: A research agenda for South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 102(4), pp. 215-218.
(22)Leoschut, L., 2008. The influence of family and community violence exposure on the victimization rates of South African youth. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 6(3), pp. 201-221.
(23)Lindegaard, M.R., 2009. Navigating terrains of violence: How South African male youngsters negotiate social change. Social Dynamics, 35(1), pp. 19-35.
(25)Leoschut, L., 2008. The influence of family and community violence exposure on the victimization rates of South African youth. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 6(3), pp. 201-221.
(27)Ward, C., et al., 2012. Violence, violence prevention, and safety: A research agenda for South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 102(4), pp. 215-218.
(28)Zimela, Z. and Kachingwe, K., ‘Southern Africa: Youth vulnerable to violence’, Inter Press Service, 23 July 2010,
(29)‘Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century’, IRIN, February 2007,
(30)Burnett, C., 1999. Gang violence as survival strategy in the context of poverty in Davidsonville. Society in Transition, 30(1), pp. 1-12.
(31)Lindegaard, M.R., 2009. Navigating terrains of violence: How South African male youngsters negotiate social change. Social Dynamics, 35(1), pp. 19-35.
(32)Cockburn, C., 2001. “The gendered dynamics of armed conflict and political violence”, in Moser, C. and Clark, F. (eds.). Victims, perpetrators or actors?: Gender, armed conflict and political violence. Zed Books: London.
(33)Galtung, J., 1969. Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), pp. 167-191.
(34)Cockburn, C., 2001. “The gendered dynamics of armed conflict and political violence”, in Moser, C. and Clark, F. (eds.). Victims, perpetrators or actors?: Gender, armed conflict and political violence. Zed Books: London.
(35)Samara, T.R., 2005. Youth, crime and urban renewal in the Western Cape. Journal of Southern African Studies, 31(1), pp. 209-227.
(36)Burnett, C., 1999. Gang violence as survival strategy in the context of poverty in Davidsonville. Society in Transition, 30(1), pp. 1-12.
(37)‘Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century’, IRIN, February 2007,
(40)Samara, T.R., 2005. Youth, crime and urban renewal in the Western Cape. Journal of Southern African Studies, 31(1), pp. 209-227.


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