There’s a famous quote from The Godfather: Part III, when Michael Corleone says “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
It’s an iconic line in movie history, but it’s also the reality faced by many members of Cape gangs, who are looking for a way out of the violence that sees an average of around two gangland killings every day.
There may have been a temporary ceasefire in the early days of the national lockdown, but that has come and gone.
According to a study by Dariusz Dziewanski, part of which has been covered on The Conversation, Cape Town has as many as 130 different gangs, with a combined total of somewhere around 100 000 members.
Once you’re in, you’re in, and gang membership is often referred to as “Blood in, blood out” – in other words, you’re only leaving in a body bag.
Dziewanski’s research shows that some members do manage to leave that life behind, however, and he spoke with 24 former gang participants about what led that decision.
He says there are four stages involved – first doubts, seeking alternative roles, turning points and new role creation:
Doubts are experienced when members start to question their commitment to gangs. The second stage involves evaluating alternative social roles. Turning points activate role exit in stage three. The final transition stage requires accepting the expectations and identities associated with becoming an “ex”.
37-year-old Ibrahim’s story is a great example of how making the decision to leave doesn’t necessarily mean your past is left behind.
He decided to leave the Americans gang after 13 years, when he stabbed a fellow gang member to death.
The siblings of the man he killed don’t care that the police ruled he acted in self-defence, and have vowed to take revenge:
The US flag still dominates the wall of his cramped wooded dwelling, but he insists that this important symbol of the Americans gang merely offers cover after disengagement. “I think they (are) going to kill me… This is only a way of showing them the flag is still here, but (really) it does not mean I am an American.” The strategy might keep Ibrahim alive, but it might also keep him partially embedded in his former gang role.
If he does not maintain a safe distance from gang associations and activities, he could be dragged back. Yet, if he does not show the gang that “the flag is still there” he risks being killed. Should this uneasy ceasefire falter, Ibrahim is prepared to fight for the freedom he has secured, returning to a type of street violence typically reserved for gangsters.
Even when you’re out, you’re never far from being pulled back in.
Dziewanski’s study, published recently and titled ‘Leaving Gangs in Cape Town: Disengagement as Role Exit’, shows that whilst programmes aimed at assisting gang members to leave that life behind are essential, real structural reforms are needed if the problem of gangsterism is to be properly addressed.
You can read the full article here.
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