“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

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