Monograph 48: From Urban Street Gangs to Criminal Empires: The Changing Face of Gangs in the Western Cape, By Irvin Kinnes



The ongoing gang fights between the Americans, the Hard Livings and other gangs on the Cape Flats have caught the attention of the nation. The fights were started in an attempt to establish the new leadership of these gangs in the face of the assassinations of their old leadership core by vigilantes during 1998.

It is significant that gangs have chosen to fight one another while facing of attacks by vigilantes, and have continued to defend themselves while simultaneously carrying on with their illegal operations. The trend of violence unfolding in South Africa and particularly in the Western Cape follows the same pattern of other developing countries undergoing transition. Countries such as those belonging to the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (Russia, for example), East Germany, Poland and Argentina all experienced a general increase in criminality during periods of political transition.

This monograph examines the changing patterns of gangs across the Western Cape during the past few years. It sketches patterns of development in the organisation of crime with particular reference to the major street gangs in the Western Cape.

It is not uncommon for people living in remote areas of the country to have heard of Western Cape street gangs such as the Americans, the Hard Livings, the Sexy Boys, the School Boys and the Junky Funky Kids. This is largely due to the fact that these gangs have managed to capture the attention of the media through their actions. Identification with American gangsters through popular culture characterises even the most docile of communities in rural and urban areas of the country. The growth of the gang subculture is a result of a combination of various factors which include social factors such as unemployment and poverty, its deep rooted nature in the Western Cape, cultural persuasions and the globalisation of gang culture.

During times of political transition, social controls are invariably relaxed. This has also been the case in South Africa after 1994. The relaxation of social controls, coupled with social disorganisation and political uncertainty, provides ample opportunities for the growth in crime. Crime serves a legitimate social function by forcing the government to promulgate new laws and regulate existing legislation in order to extend its social control capabilities. In this sense, crime serves a useful social purpose. The change in the function of ordinary street crime must also be understood in these terms. The context for the operation of street gangs has changed due to the growth of the illegitimate opportunity structure which has been strengthened by the relaxation of social controls.

Street gangs are no longer characterised by youngsters who hang around the streets of local communities to ‘defend’ the community from rival gangsters. They have developed into organised criminal empires.

International examples also clearly show this trend. In Colombia, the Cali cartel used the police against the Medéllin cartel in order to secure the market for itself. The fights between the Majimbos and the Varados in the Westbury area of Gauteng are no different from the fights playing itself out on the Cape Flats. There are similar patterns emerging in different communities across the country and, indeed, across the world.

More significantly, the fact that the Moroccans and Nigerians, as well as the Russian and Italian Mafia have all established operations in Cape Town indicates the extent of the growth in the illegitimate opportunity structure.1 It is this opportunity structure that will be considered here and how it has helped with the growth of the gangs. In addition, social and political transition has also played a key role in shaping the ability of local street gangs to deal with their international competition.

It is the purpose of this monograph to examine how the relationship between transitional factors and gang activities has developed and how it has contributed to local crime trends. More particularly, it will focus on the impact of the organisation of gangs on local destabilisation and control over communities. The general trends in the development of gangs across the Western Cape will be examined, as well as national and international developments.

Until now, most studies have focused on aspects of policing and security, with very few considering how gangs have changed as a result of the political changes that have occurred in the country. These studies have also not examined the organisational changes which gangs have undergone as a result of democratic changes.

The existing literature, moreover, does not contain sociological analyses, an important focus in ascertaining the reasons for the continued existence of the problem. This monograph has attempted to make a contribution in this regard.


In preparation for this monograph, many people were interviewed. They included gangsters, police officers, community activists, academics, journalists, as well as intelligence operatives both within the police and outside. It was often difficult to talk to them and some granted interviews only on condition that they remain anonymous. Certain sources will therefore not be identified by name on their request. The reader must also be mindful of the safety implications for these sources.

First-hand experience of having lived and worked in Manenberg for a considerable number of years and witnessing many of the events when they occurred, have significantly contributed to the insights presented here. It remains a challenge to write and undertake research under these conditions, especially where it appears that there is a real possibility of people being killed.

International trends

Crime families in the United States, Europe and Latin America have all had small beginnings. The Gambino family, the Corleone family and other important crime syndicates such as the Cali and Medéllin drug cartels, at some time or another, were small-time street criminals within their respective communities. Criminal organisations flourish in a situation where there is uncertainty about the political and economic development of any country undergoing transition. This uncertainty creates opportunities for criminal syndicates. At stake is the international organisation of the proceeds of crime in view of the international focus of crime prevention agencies co-ordinated by the United Nations.2

In Colombia, for example, the former leader of the Medéllin cartel, Pablo Escobar started his business as a local street criminal and graduated to greater criminal activities in the face of social uncertainty. The same is true of the elusive Giovanni ‘The Pig’ Brusca, the head of the Corleone section of the Sicilian Mafia before he was caught.3

After the democratic elections in 1994, South Africa ‘opened up’ to international criminal trade. It is evident that drug cartels that are under pressure from their own governments have been looking to South Africa as an emerging market. The UN and Interpol have achieved some notable successes in the fight against international crime syndicates in recent years. The rush to South Africa is therefore not surprising, given the country’s relative inexperience in dealing with drug and other international syndicates. Today, the Western Cape and indeed the entire country are dotted with Nigerian cocaine cartels, Chinese triads, Moroccan protection gangs and, to a lesser extent, Pakistani textile syndicates.

These syndicates have exploited the relative inexperience of their South African criminal counterparts and muscled in on the territory. The precise nature of deals that were struck between the international syndicates and their South African counterparts will be discussed elsewhere in this monograph.

An important development in the fight against organised crime is the creation of the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs’ Co-operation Organisation (SARPCCO) which is part of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) security organ, the Inter-State Defence and Security Committee (ISDSC). The fact that this body has now commissioned a study of organised crime is indicative of the seriousness with which all SADC member states view the problem.

Defining gangs

The traditional view of gangs includes the so-called of ‘skollies’ who function within the coloured communities on the Cape Flats. However, this definition and especially that of Pinnock4 changed considerably as the events on the Cape Flats showed that street gangs have become much more organised. Importantly, prison gangs that traditionally operated inside prisons started to recruit outside members, especially those who belonged to street gangs. Although a strict delineation between members of street gangs and prison gangs exists, it is accepted that the ‘generals’ controlling prison gangs were far more disciplined than those controlling street gangs.

The study by Gastrow5 of organised crime provides definitions of organised crime, crime syndicates and gangs. He distinguishes between the European Union’s definitions and its shortcomings with regard to the South African context. He notes the following:

"In general, gangs tend to be less formally structured than syndicates. They are often territorially based, their criminal activities involve less sophistication than those of syndicates, their members tend to be youths and they tend to identify themselves by a gang name. The many different manifestations of criminal gangs make it unlikely that one single definition will ever be adequate or comprehensive enough to cover all shades and variations."6

He provides a definition of gangs which reads as follows:

"A criminal gang consists of an organised group of members which has a sense of cohesion, is generally territorially bound, which creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the community and whose members engage in gang-focused criminal activity either individually or collectively."7

It is important to return to the question of what constitutes a gang, as the traditional definition has been altered as a result of changing circumstances. While some elements of Gastrow’s definition apply, it is helpful to understand the differences between the current definitions that are used. Gastrow correctly points out that no one definition will ever be adequate. He concentrates in particular on the theoretical aspects applicable to gangs.

Pinnock points to the structural aspects of gangs, as well as to the organisation of deviance. He distinguishes between the different types of gangs and notes the differences in structure between so-called corner kids, defence gangs, reform gangs, mafia gangs and syndicates.8 He points to factors such as age, economic activity and social organisation, and notes that all these factors influence the typology and structure of gangs. The important factor that is missing in Pinnock’s definition relates to their motivation and world view.

It is contended here that gangs define themselves in relation to their social world and that this world engenders the loyalty, brotherhood and universality of their beliefs. The structure of the gang is open to change as the gang progresses in a world of changing criminality. All of these factors influence the typology and structure of gangs.

Some common problems emerge when other categories are considered, especially when the government’s definition of gangs as ‘youth at risk’ is examined. This categorisation has been dominant and proposes to deal with youth at risk of getting into trouble with the law. But, it excludes the category of youth that makes a rational choice to join gangs despite their age and the myriad risks attached to membership of a gang. The category also does not take into consideration those layers of gang members who are adults of up to 30 and 40 years of age. The popular definition of gangs refers to all gangsters from street level operators to sophisticated syndicate bosses of drug cartels.

No one definition of what a gang is, seems to be adequate. A consideration of some prevailing definitions of gangs points to the fact that:

  • Gang members may range in age from youngsters (‘corner kids’) to adults between 20 and 40 years of age.

  • The nature and activities of gangs are mainly determined by their social context.

  • Membership of gangs may include persons both inside and outside of jails.

  • Gang members may be anything from street level operators to sophisticated syndicate bosses.

  • They may belong to the category regarded by the government and its agencies as being at risk of becoming involved in criminal activities, or may make a choice to become involved with full cognisance of the associated risks.

  • Gangs may be involved in criminal activities for the sake of survival, or may be high-level, structured criminal organisations.


  1. Cape Times, 7 July 1998.

  2. See S Flood, Illicit drugs and organised crime: Issues for a united Europe, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1992; S Mahan & K O’Niel, Beyond the Mafia: Organised crime in the Americas, Sage, California, 1998.

  3. T Sancton, ‘The Pig’ is penned, Time, June 1996.

  4. D Pinnock, The Brotherhoods: State control and gangs in metropolitan Cape Town, David Phillip, Johannesburg, 1984.

  5. P Gastrow, Organised crime in South Africa: An assessment of its nature and origins, ISS Monograph 28, Institute of Security Studies, Halfway House, August 1998.

  6. Ibid, p 9.

  7. Ibid, p 10.

  8. Pinnock,op cit, p 4.

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