on Friday, 31 January 2014. Posted in Heritage, Arts & Culture

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In a paper presented by Steve Mokwena titled The Era of Jackrollers: Contextualising the rise of the youth gangs in Soweto in 1991, Mokwena states:

“At 2:10 a.m. on Christmas Day 1990, a gang of approximately twenty to twenty-five boys broke into the Salvation Army Girls Home in Killarney, Soweto. After attacking the night-watchman they broke the doors of the home and proceeded to make their way to the girls' dormitories. Brandishing an assortment of dangerous weapons, the boys threatened to kill the matron who they then stabbed with a sharp instrument. Amidst the turmoil and the panic, the boys selected their victims, who were then taken to various venues where they were raped

For the first time the "Zebra Force" became known beyond the confines of its immediate neighbourhood. Until then the gang was but a group of delinquent boys operating in the Meadowlands/Killarney area. This was one of the more conspicuously horrific forms of youth violence which aroused fear and revulsion in the people of the township. This was adolescent bravado run riot, but still it was one incident amongst many equally horrendous acts of violence committed in the township streets.”

Gangsterism and substance abuse typically have been prevalent in marginalised communities, not just in South Africa, but the world over. South Africa, however, presents an interesting case, in that the excesses of violence, impoverishment and under-education are rooted in the structural and historical problems entrenched by the Apartheid system. The decades of imposed violence in the cycle of perpetual violence and marginalisation is a factor often cited in the development of the levels of violence in the country. Mokwena explains it as the marginalisation of a significant portion of the black youth, manifests in growing youth unemployment, the education crisis and social breakdown, with the consequence collapse of a civic culture. He elaborates, stating that:

“The social sources of gangsterism can be divided into two main analytical categories. The first category consists of causative factors of a structural nature such as the change within the family, the school, employment, and the dis-organisation of the community, with the consequent destruction of a civic culture. The second category is made up of intervening factors such as the existence of a culture of violence and its interaction with the youth culture. The latter category is concerned primarily with the lived experiences of township youths.”

Culture in this context speaks to the predominating attitudes and behaviour that characterise the functioning of a group. Here culture represents a negative force of violence, gangsterism, and substance abuse. In order for it to be changed, this negative culture has to be countered with positive attitudes and behaviour as a way of disassociating the negative behaviour from being ‘cool’ and considered as the only way out of conditions of poverty and inequality. To cultivate positive culture in disadvantaged communities there are several processes that have to be engaged in, quite like as a farmer does and that is to cultivate. When a farmer plants a field of corn, he must provide several environmental conditions to ensure it grows. There must be ample sunlight, water, and fertilizer. The temperature should neither be too hot nor too cold, and the soil can neither be too acidic nor too alkaline. Given time, with these influences set at optimum levels, the seed will mature into a successful plant.

The original meaning of culture is derived from the Latin ‘cultura’, meaning ‘growing, cultivation’. The meaning was based on the Latin ‘colere’, which means to ‘tend’ or ‘cultivate’. The word evolved from meaning the cultivation of the soil to include the cultivation of the mind, faculties or manners. From there on arose the understanding we have today of culture. In cultivating a positive culture in marginalised communities, the environment must be right to do so. This entails addressing issues around: marginalisation and impoverishment, the disintegration of the family, structural social and economic constraints, and a weak education system. Mokwena notes and expands on these points as follows:

  • The deepening crisis of marginalisation and the resultant material impoverishment of black communities feeds directly into the growth of a violent and criminal youth culture, manifested particularly in the escalation of youth gang formation in the Coloured and African townships.
  • There is much sociological and psychological writing on the effects of familial disintegration in South Africa. D. Pinnock in The Brotherhoods, Street Gangs and State Control in Cape Town, focuses on this as central to the process of gang formation amongst "coloured" youth removed from District Six to the Cape Flats. This appears to be central in explaining the process of ganging. Many youngsters, in an attempt to escape their overcrowded and often poor homes, have opted for a life in the street gangs.
  • In recent years the development of a youth-based political culture has also had further serious consequences for family life. In the process of violent struggle, many youths have developed a noticeable arrogance which resulted in intense generational conflict between them and elders in the community and the family. The generational conflict has not always manifested in stark political terms, but has also taken more subtle and ongoing forms within the privacy of the home.
  • The bellicose youth gangs which have multiplied over the past few years are a concrete index of marginalisation as they are a response to the economic and social constraints facing young blacks.
  • The South African education system has been unable to provide clear connections between schooling and the job world, and has remained ineffective in enhancing the social advancement of black youth. The education system has also been the main site of struggle for many black youths. The virtual paralysis of the education system has pushed many youngsters into the streets where they acquaint themselves with the alternative norms and values, and the required survival skills.
  • Under-educated black school-leavers experience their marginalisation most acutely in their economic powerlessness when confronted by contracting job markets and virtual denial of any legitimate wealth creating capacity. In this context the creation of alternative criminal youth gangs, not surprisingly, provides an obvious and welcome substitute.

By addressing these factors, marginalised communities will be prepared for growth to take place. Then, in tandem with initiatives like Metro fm’s Men in the Making and Playing for Change, they will be better positioned to be influenced at optimum levels and develop into healthy communities.

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