“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.

WORK/LIFE: John Carlin

John Carlin is an award-winning journalist. His newest book is Chase Your Shadow, about Oscar Pistorius; previous ones include Playing the Enemy (which inspired the film Invictus) and Knowing Mandela.

What does “writing” mean?

Using the written word to engage people by generating emotion, or informing, or instructing, or entertaining – or, best of all, all at the same time.

Which book changed your life?

King Lear.

What are you working on at the moment?

An article for a Spanish newspaper about a new leftwing political party that is taking Spain by storm.

Describe your workspace.

I have many workspaces. It can be a glass desk at home with a big computer screen on it, it can be a small plastic airplane table with a laptop on it; it can be a table in a hotel room anywhere.

The most important instrument you use?

My head.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Between 10am and 2pm.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

Play a game on my iPad.

How do you relax?

Reading, watching football, helping my son with his homework. (Well, scratch last.)

Who and what has influenced your work?

Everyone and everything I read, from newspaper writers to novelists, to philosophers, to historians.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Byron said, “No good ever came from good advice.”

Your favourite ritual?

Morning coffee with cigarette.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?


What do you dislike most about yourself?


What are you afraid of?

Fanatical sheep (disguised as people).

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

If you HAVE to write, write. Otherwise do something else for a living.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

My happy marital separation.

Chase Your Shadow is published by Penguin in South Africa and is available from Kalahari.com.

Photograph by: César Nuñez Castro

10 Questions: Laura Stickney


Pelican is back! Penguin’s illustrious sibling made waves with its accessible non-fiction before disappearing from bookshop shelves in 1984. We chat to its editor, Laura Stickney, about the imprint’s history and why, 30 years later, it’s being resurrected.

How did the original Pelican imprint come in to being?

In 1936, one year after Penguin was born, its founder Allen Lane overheard a woman at King’s Cross station asking for ‘one of those Pelican books’. Presumably she meant to say Penguin, since the publisher had been an immediate success, but Lane was worried a competitor might be snatching up bird names, and decided to create a new list of non-fiction books called Pelicans. The books were distinctly intellectual in tone, yet always accessible, and priced more cheaply than most other serious non-fiction books. At that time many publishers were sceptical that the general reader would embrace this kind of non-fiction in large numbers, whereas this was the Pelican idea from the beginning.

Why was it disbanded in 1984?

In its heyday of the 1950s and 60s, Pelican was committed to both authority and accessibility, and bringing intelligent non-fiction to the widest possible audience. But by the 1980s, the imprint had moved slightly away from that democratic, popular spirit, and the books published were a bit narrower and more academic in tone. It’s the spirit of the early days — of the imprint in its golden age — that we are trying to revive now.

Why did Penguin decide to resurrect this famous imprint?

It strikes us that there is a widening gap in the culture that these books can fill, and a need for accessible, intelligent, inexpensive paperbacks — books that can serve as stepping stones to more demanding and pricier hardbacks. Pelicans are for those gaps your knowledge – for the subjects that you are interested in, but ignorant about, whether it is economics or evolution. We like to say they are books for the musician who wants to know more about philosophy, or the geographer who wants to read about physics.

What kinds of things will you be publishing under this Pelican?

We could publish on every topic under the sun, but there’s an expectation that the books will focus on broad and essential intellectual subjects. Pelicans are written by experts in their field, but rather than just focussing on what’s new or advancing a particular argument, they should open up and illuminate a topic as a whole.

Tell me a bit about the launch titles.

The five launch titles are all ideal Pelicans because they are superb introductions, yet they also ask us to think again about their subjects. Ha-Joon Chang shows why we can’t rely on the experts alone, and how we all can, and must, understand economics. Orlando Figes redefines the scope of the Russian Revolution, and Robin Dunbar shows that there is much more than stones and bones to human evolution. Melissa Lane illuminates the most important ideas of Greek and Roman political philosophers, and Bruce Hood explains what makes us social.

Pelican Covers

The cover designs are startlingly simple. Explain their, and the imprint’s, aesthetic.

Our idea from the beginning has been for Pelican books to be distinctive and accessible. This has informed our decisions throughout the relaunch, and we hope it is visible in the aesthetic of the entire series, which includes the design both inside and out, and the web presence. Our aim was to make the design clean, approachable and straightforward, since the promise to the reader is straightforward as well.

What’s your favourite historical Pelican title?

Probably George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, the first Pelican ever published, if only for the title.

Which Pelican title had the greatest impact?

That’s difficult to say! But if I had to pick one, I’d say John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which is probably one of the most influential books on art ever written.

Describe today’s Pelican reader.

Our aim is for Pelican to be truly global. These are books for everyone, to be read everywhere, around the world and in both print and ebook. We hope they will be popular with younger readers, and curious autodidacts of any age. They are for readers who like to think for themselves, and who don’t need to follow a syllabus.

Where do you see Pelican in five years’ time?

As a broad and diverse library of approachable, intelligent paperbacks for every interest imaginable, and a brand that readers can rely on for accessibility and authority. Hopefully Pelican will have re-entered the cultural slipstream, and evoke something of the affection its namesake did in its heyday.

Pelican titles are now on sale in the UK and will be available in South Africa from June.

On the dark edges of a shiny airport


Katherine Boo’s beautiful non-fiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, delicately weaves together the narrative of the miserable lives of inhabitants of Annawadi, a poverty-stricken Mumbai slum built illegally on land belonging to the city’s international airport.

The graceful manner in which the narrative is written makes for a magnificent journey but it is done in a way that does not mask the horrific realities which Annawadi’s residents face. Squalor, pettiness, police corruption and having to dig through the rubbish of the rich to survive are just some of the everyday realities they have to navigate and survive.

The book explores many of the inhabitant’s lives but there is a particular emphasis on the story of Abdul, a young man of uncertain age. His family is more fortunate than the average slum dweller: they do not have to resort to eating frogs or rats because of his hard work as a garbage trader, which sometimes involves scavenging through the airport’s rubbish to make ends meet. His moderate success in this sea of poverty sparks animosity amongst some of his poorer neighbours — animosity that will have terrible consequences when the corrupt police act on deceitful accusations that he set a jealous neighbour alight.

You would be forgiven for believing that Boo must have creatively seasoned the truth to produce this vivid masterpiece. Boo, however, can back everything she writes up. She states that from the day she started the research in November 2007 to March 2011, she documented “the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs”. She used more than 3000 public records which validated “many aspects of the story”. These public records were doubly as useful as they also “revealed the means by which government corruption and indifference erase from the public records the experiences of poor citizens”.

The title of the book is cleverly derived from the Beautiful Forever Italianate floor tiles billboard that obscures the slum from the view of the rich who land at the airport. Many of the slum’s inhabitants left their equally harrowing rural existences in search of a beautiful forever in Mumbai. But, as Boo powerfully and hauntingly shows, this is somehow always eluding them. 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Granta and is available from Kalahari.com.