By Dariusz Dziewanski
Gangsterism on the Cape Flats is typically thought of a man’s game. But women have always played an important role in gangs — in the Western Cape and elsewhere in the world.
Victimisation surveys estimate that 60% to 70% of serious violent crime on the Cape Peninsula may be gang-related. Authorities approximate there are between 100 to 120 gangs in the Western Cape, with membership ranging from 80 000 to 100 000. How many of these are women, is unknown.
The perception that gang violence and gangsterism is an exclusively male domain originates from the fact that women are rarely the ones pulling the trigger in gang shootings. Though female shooting is limited, it does exist. But, generally, women participate in gangs in other ways. Due to a shortage of women police officers, female gang members are often used to hold guns after shootings, as they are less likely to be searched. Others may be used as spies or informants before shootings, or to lure opposing gang members — with the promise of sex — to be ambushed and killed. Quarrels over women — the flames of which are sometimes fanned by the women themselves — are also a primary motive for many gang disputes. There is a saying among gangsters on the Cape Flats that “a woman is more dangerous than a loaded gun”.
Though they are typically not on the frontlines of gang battlefields, women are at risk in different ways. One former male gangster recounted a case of four murders and nine attempted murders that he was once connected to. Of the thirteen victims, one female and three males were killed, while the remaining four women and five males escaped with their lives. All were associated with a rival gang, and were smoking drugs in a hideout, where they were ambushed. It was the men that were targeted in this instance, and the women were “just there [in the wrong place] at the wrong time”.
Women may also be targeted directly. Being caught by a rival gang for spying may result in getting assaulted, gang raped or even killed. Female gangsters likely make up a disproportionate share of the approximately 200 000 South African women that are victimised by rape and assault every year. Sexuality comes into play in other ways as well. The women that are not protected by a boyfriend in a gang may have to sleep with multiple people. Often this is in exchange for drugs.
Despite the dangers they face, very few women are allowed to participate in the gang in the same way as males do. Ultimately, gangs are a brotherhood that reproduces and amplifies the patriarchal gender relations present throughout South African society. On the one hand, young men act out socially prescribed roles of dominant masculinity, which are taken to violent extremes. On the other hand, young women are discriminated against and typically forced to play supporting roles.
Unless a woman can successfully establish herself as a gang “brother”, she is likely to be disrespected. Just as male gangsters must make a name for themselves by continuously killing their enemies, for women, respect is constantly challenged and negotiated. According to one former female gang member, who now works with young women to help get them out of gang life, it is all about how a woman carries herself and the limits she sets in her interaction with men. “If you respect me, I’m going to respect you at the end of the day, I don’t care who you are. But if you disrespecting me, I’m going to do the exact same thing back to you. Otherwise everybody is going to disrespect you, they are going to do with you whatever they want to.”
Another young woman described how she sought respect through violence. She explained, “I just show them how you must talk to a lady. And then I’m stabbing you. Just where I want to stab you. Where I know it’s not going to hurt too much (in the leg or arm). I did always have my knife on me.”
Young women participate in “masculine” activities — such as committing acts of violence and other crimes — to gain respect within gangs. Yet even in participating in these acts, women are not simply acting like men. They are using violence to protect themselves against discrimination, abuse, and exploitation at the hands of men, in a setting where respect and power are defined by criminality and aggression.
Indeed, even by joining gangs women are reacting to a kind of “structural violence”, through which institutionalised classism, sexism, and racism kill slowly through deprivation and alienation. Though many women are introduced to gang life through boyfriends, romantic bonds belie a deeper attraction to participation in gangs. Like men, women participate largely in response to domestic and social problems. Gangs provide an important sense of belonging and identity, in circumstances that may be rife with drug abuse and lack sufficient opportunities for employment or empowerment.
While it is clear that women are an important part of gang life on the Cape Flats — and likely throughout South Africa — they remain a subplot in male-centred narratives about gangsterism. Even as the death of Reeva Steenkamp has kindled international debate about South Africa’s problems with violence against women, and stories of gang violence make for daily news, the lives of women surviving in gangsterism in South Africa are largely ignored. In many ways, the lack of attention paid to female gangsters is a form of marginalisation that mirrors the marginalisation experienced by women in other spheres of South African society.
Ignoring female experiences within gangs ignores the fact that they often face challenges not faced by men. One of the main problems is that women are left to care for children fathered from relationships with gangsters. It is not uncommon for one woman to have children from multiple partners within the same gang. Sexually transmitted infections are another key issue disproportionally affecting women.
Rehabilitation programmes aimed specifically at women are vital to help them quit gangs and overcome the drug addiction that often comes with gang life. Unfortunately, the opportunities for accessing support to leave gang life are also fewer for women.
One important reason for the lack of attention to women in gangs is that “women are almost completely left out of South African research on gangs”. A paper assessing the state of research on female gang participation in the South Africa highlights “the need for a great deal more research and thinking in this area, as well as engagement with women gang members”. Writing the female perspective into research on gangs may be the starting point for helping to increase the number of programmes available to women trapped by gangsterism.
For those women in gangs, definitions of victim, accomplice and perpetrator, blur and interweave. Though often defined by murder, assault, and sexual violence, the lives of these women also challenge one-dimensional depictions of violence against women, within which women are typically cast as victims. Acknowledging the complexity of female experiences with gangs and drawing on their lived experiences can be the starting point for increasing the number of programmes aimed at assisting women leave gang life. This can also improve understandings of how constructions of femininity and masculinity contribute to gang violence; in the process making these communities safer for all residents — male or female.
Dariusz Dziewanski works as a researcher and consultant in international development, currently conducting research in Cape Town on issues related to violence. Follow at: @ddziewan