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Gangs of Cape Town
Borderland is an on going project, a moment of inquiry and awareness about the reality of the “coloured” communities of Cape Town. This project stemmed from the experience of living in the coloured flats of Cape Town in the winter of 2012.
After more than 20 years since the epochal revocation of the racial laws, the shocking reality of the “coloured” communities of Cape Town shows how the apartheid politics have generated an even deeper marginalization than social ghettoization, a new criminal ideology of violence, power, cruelty and poverty.
The gangs of the coloured communities (coloured people) originated in 1966, year in which the racial segregation laws caused District Six and other areas of the centre of Cape Town to be expropriated and declared as “white only areas”. Since then these gangs are organized as an order operating outside of the State, founded on “values” such as violence, power, alchool and drug abuse, rebuilding their own identity on specific codes of honour inside illegal networks.
Township is the word indicating the urban areas close to the Cape Town metropolitan ones. In some of them, during the apartheid, the Flats areas where built: a conglomerate of cement buildings where these communities have been isolated, in order to banish them at the fringe of the society.
The violence of the gangs rules the common life with a double dynamic: on one side people who, moved from a sentiment of revenge and craving of power and money, decide to start a criminal life, and from a very young age join one of the several gangs controlling the territory; on the other side those who do not live in an illegal way but suffer its cruelty and inevitably choose for “protection” in order to survive.
Poverty cuts everyone out in a fragile balance between danger and daily life. In the townships, women, men and kids are in contact with gangsters every day, because of their direct involvement to illegal business or just because innocent victims of the frequent shootings between gangs. Synergies between private life and criminal life are shown at several levels.
In the flats violence is learned very early, at the beginning as emulation while playing, then as a direct behavior on the school desks. The local logic is cruel: each flats block is governed by a gang, and young people are soon brought to mislead opposite feelings, to coexist with hate and friendship: classmates during the day, outside the school they come back to their different flats, often “forts” of their opposite gangs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – UNODC – in its 2010 global report stated that murders are one of the main causes of “unnatural” death in South Africa, giving this Contry the primate of the biggest number of murders in the world. With 41 murders every 100.000 inhabitants, Cape Town holds the biggest number of murders of the entire region, concentrated at the borders of the city, like in the flats areas, where poverty and marginalization are at the base of the criminal activities of the local gangs.
The gangs phenomenon is in constant growth, especially the traffic of drugs feeds diffusion and popularity of these illegal orders. The gangs movement is considered as a culture among the coloured communities, a committed ideology, with hierarchies of power and strength internal and external, implicit or evident, often impressed on their own skin, and imperative codes of honour. Breaking any rule of this system could be fatal.
With the aim of going more in depth with the research started in 2012, I came back to Cape Town to learn, understand and tell the lives of the coloured gangs. After visiting most of cape flats, I have focused my work in areas where the presence of the gangs was stronger, and there I’ve built emotional bonds with people and places. A bond strong enough to feel as a personal cause digging as much as possible into a reality that goes beyond the gangs, but involves everyone living in the coloured areas or close to them.