Gangs of Cape Town revisited
When we last spoke, Gang Town had won the City Press-Tafelberg prize and had just been published. What have you been up to since 2016?
Gang Town went through the ceiling and catapulted me into another space – TV, radio, great reviews, lots of requests for talks.
Then government noticed it. I was asked to pitch to coordinate the Western Cape’s anti-gang strategy process, and I am now working with a team from government departments and nongovernmental organisations – really smart people – to do something about the astronomically high levels of violent crime (on average, there are six murders a day in Cape Town) and massive gang membership. The problem is mainly in Cape Town, but in smaller towns too.
Gang Town is now a recommended coursework book in all criminology and most criminal law courses in the country.
It would be surprising if it wasn’t recommended reading for any student studying criminal law or criminology. It’s a key study on urban crime in South Africa, sadly for the country but good for book sales, crime being big news here. It’s also a good book for teacher training – a way to understand what kids are going through in tough neighbourhoods.
How does it feel to know that your research and findings are being used in tertiary education in South Africa?
If it helps people understand the youth crisis in the country, great.
I found the book to be very accessible because it is not just about statistics – it provides far greater insight into factors that contribute to gangsterism, particularly among young people in Cape Town.
I’m more journalist than academic, so getting the message across is important to me. In a way, the book is long-form journalism backed by researched data. It has cool photographs, many of which I took in high-risk areas with police protection and a flack jacket. So I can amp up the drama when I need to.
How did your time in the community affect you?
A chunk of my life has been defined by my work with youth – the gang problem is just one aspect of a much larger youth problem. I’m a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy, which does wonderful work with high-risk young people. It’s my happy space, which I bank against the sadness of kids who end up as gun fodder in stupid drug turf wars.
The cycle of violence on the Cape Flats seems unbroken and unbreakable. What do you propose as the solution?
To massively paraphrase the book and starting from the top – fix the economy (poverty is growing and we are a rich country); fix the education system (half the kids drop out before matric); rethink prison as a solution to crime (it just makes people worse and they join gangs inside); make life rough for hit-and-run fathers (a third of kids are growing up in single-parent families); prevent pre and postnatal epigenetic damage (mother stress, poor nutrition and drugs translates into dopamine-driven teenagers); decriminalise leisure drugs (half of the time, police, courts and prisons see drug-related issues and illegal drug use getting worse – harm-reduction works); and give young people meaningful things to do in their leisure time. Three words to cover all of that? Build youth resilience.
What positive effect did your interviews with gangsters have on you?
If being sad for them is an impact, then that, certainly. It opened my eyes to the damage we do to adolescents as a society. We create conditions that make crime and violence inevitable, then lock them up for doing it. It made me angry. I don’t think kids deserve to be treated that way.
Did you feel comfortable, as a white man, trading in another culture?
I think ‘trading’ is the wrong word. I have always found cultures not my own more interesting and, in gang situations, I never consider my skin colour. Gang members live by quick assessment of ‘others’ and they always responded to my interest in them and not to my colour. In three decades of interaction with them, I’ve never felt threatened. I respond to them as adolescents: wild, eager, data-hungry and a bit crazy. I like their energy. Sometimes I feel they’re unconsciously responding to me as the father they needed but never had.
How has winning the City Press-Tafelberg Nonfiction Award helped to amplify your voice as a writer in South Africa?
Well, I certainly got heard, and I also got respect because a wide range of people – from top officials to ordinary folk – said: ‘Yeah, that’s how it really is.’ The last third of the book has a whole lot of proposals for game-changers in the gang space, so it isn’t a gloomy or sensational book. In a way, it has become a manual for change.
It’s always nice for a writer to be acknowledged after years of hard, often lonely work.
What updates would you make to the book if a new edition appeared – which is likely as it has already had six reprints?
Actually, the book was pretty prescient, so its information is holding up well so far. No changes are needed yet.
When we complete the provincial gang project by the end of the year, there will be much more to say, I’m sure. But whether that’s an update, another book or a fat government report remains to be seen.
What are your feelings on the state of the publishing industry in the country?
South Africa has an awfully small reading public and even fewer people read books. We have a massive literacy crisis. But in terms of Gang Town, the industry certainly worked for me. Tafelberg has excellent editors and a formidable marketing arm.
And my editor, Gill Moodie, and publicist, Jean Pieters, are just nice people to have coffee with.
What is your advice for writers who are submitting manuscripts for the award?
Don’t give up. Write daily. Accept the advice of editors. You can do it. You won’t get rich on book writing, but your first book smells like heaven in your hands when you open it and sniff your achievement.
What are your thoughts on the current wave of explosive nonfiction titles that have been released in South Africa? How does this speak to what South Africans want to read, and how engaged they are with topical issues such as crime and corruption?
Aspects of South African society are so bizarre that you don’t need to turn to fiction.
You couldn’t invent the freaky stuff in books written by Jacques Pauw, Mandy Weiner and others who are digging into the poo pile of crime and corruption.
Why do fiction if you can pick up mega-plots all around you.