Pubdate: Fri, 08 Apr 2016
Source: Mail and Guardian (South Africa)
Copyright: Mail & Guardian, 2016
Author: Don Pinnock


But it would take a government with insight and compassion to 
implement the necessary remedies

Sometimes, as a journalist, the sadness that follows the information 
you seek is almost unbearable. The story in question was to get to 
the root of Cape gangs. And there was time: two years. That's a long 
while to research a single topic - a chance you seldom get.

With that sort of time you inevitably go beneath the skin of daily 
journalism and the epidermis of weeklies to muscle and bone. Down 
that deep came a discovery: gangs are merely a symptom of a 
profoundly disturbing youth problem that's getting worse.

Countless thousands of young people in South African cities are 
without adequate parenting, a usable education, a job or political 
agency. With nowhere to go and no prospects, they fight and fuck each 
other as a distraction from the frightening emptiness of their lives.

In the streets of Cape Town's lowincome areas life is often brutal 
and short. That's where hope goes to die, and to see it die in the 
eyes of a young person is the greatest sadness of all. It should not 
be like this.

My investigation turned around three obvious questions. What is a 
gang? Why are there gangs? And what can we do about them?

The first should have been easy - everybody knows what a gang is - 
but it wasn't. There are many definitions of gangs but I boiled them 
down to their essence: a gang is a group of people with common 
interests who continue to meet over time with a common purpose. My 
focus was where that purpose became criminal.

This casts a wide net. It includes school kids in Khayelitsha who 
fight with pangas for glory, merchant gangs who sell drugs on the 
corner and fight over turf, syndicates which control illicit markets 
and organised transnational smuggling networks. It also includes 
money-laundering teams in legitimate corporations, government 
officials after tenderpreneur kickbacks and politicians who conspire 
to steal public revenue.

The broad division, though, is between people who operate with or 
without guns. My quarry was the former.

Why there are gangs is even more complex. The most obvious reasons 
are poverty, lack of jobs, poor education and family breakdown. But 
these, in other countries, don't deliver the horrific levels of 
violence we're witnessing.

Cape Town is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, a place 
where statistics trump hyperbole. In one year, between April 2014 and 
March 2015, there were six murders and seven attempted murders a day 
as well as 30 637 reported assaults.

Each act of aggression had a reason, and each reason a context. The 
deeper I dug, the more I found family hurt. Single and often 
reluctant mothers, absent fathers, fetal stress from drugs and drink 
consumed during pregnancy, undernourished infants, emotional 
attachment problems. But how did that translate into violence?

Part of the answer I found in the most surprising place: the field of 
epigenetics, the cytoplasm in a cell surrounding the nucleus. It's 
new science which is raising profound issues. What was not formerly 
realised is that, in the assembly of a fetus, the cell membrane 
mediates information between the DNA's templates and the environment 
within which the pregnant mother exists.

New life is built on a combination of ancient genetic wisdom and 
epigenetic responses to what's happening moment by moment. Nature is nurture.

This means that a mother's stress, poor nourishment or use of harmful 
chemicals can alter the way a baby's brain forms, sending signals to 
it to adapt to a hazardous environment.

It means more dopamine and aggression, less control by the prefrontal 
cortex, more physical action and less reflection. In teenage years 
this translates into more aggression, higher drug use, lower inhibitions.

The converse is startling: a mother's love can change the genetic 
formation of her baby during the first 1,000 days of its life. One of 
the solutions to adolescent violence is therefore to support pregnant 
and postnatal mothers.

Fathers are also important but many are failing their children. For a 
young man, particularly, an absent or aggressive father can lead to a 
deep sense of worthlessness and shame. The poet Robert Bly says a 
young man not being admired by an older man is being hurt.

On the street, shame inverts into bravado and aggression - and the 
search for an admiring father. Often the only stand-in is a gang 
boss, the cost of which is acquiescence to his command. A mixture of 
dopaminedriven excess and a deep sense of worthlessness opens a 
pathway to increased drug use. It's a way of becoming other than who 
you are. And Cape Town has a massive drug problem. It's been 
estimated by the Financial Intelligence Centre that the illicit drug 
market in South Africa is worth R24-billion a year and growing. Cape 
Town is a drug smuggling hub.

How we deal with this is worsening the problem. The war on drugs has 
failed, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The 
victims fill prisons where they get worse and are shunned and shamed 
on release.

The only reasonable solution is to decriminalise all drugs on the way 
to legalising them. Portugal and a number of South American states 
did that and drug use has dropped dramatically. The reason is that 
drugs aren't the cause of addiction.

In research for a book called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last 
Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari found that in the stress of the 
Vietnam War, about a third of all United States troops were using 
heroin. But when they came home they simply stopped using it because 
they were back in a supportive environment.

If you have an operation you'll probably be given diamorphine for the 
pain. It's the purest form of heroin. Everyone experiencing surgery 
should become heroin addicts, but they don't.

Here's why. Research has shown that chemicals don't cause drug 
overuse; loneliness, isolation and insecurity do. Adolescents may try 
drugs - most of us did - but only adolescents with problems continue 
using them. Family and community support is the only counter to 
continued drug use. If you ban nonscheduled drugs you hand the trade 
to syndicates whose goal is to addict their customers. If you 
decriminalise them, you collapse the international and local 
syndicates, end gang turf wars, free police for more important tasks 
and halve the prison population.

The money you save can go to maternal support and drug counselling. 
One day we will look back in horror at the damage done by the war on drugs.

Another thing to consider is how education is failing our young 
people. Half of those who start school never finish it. Most of those 
who get matric don't get into higher education or find jobs. If 
you're not in school, employment or tertiary education you're on the street.

One of the reasons for the failure of education in South Africa is 
that it's inappropriate and, for many, simply boring. It favours head 
intelligence over hand intelligence, life in an office over life in a 
workshop. It's elitist and failing.

Those starting school now will retire in 2070. Nobody can predict the 
skills required by then, but you'll always need someone to do real 
work in the physical world.

There's a good chance that, in the future, office staff will become 
digital factory workers and skilled artisans will be the new elite.

There are solutions to the gang problem, but it would take a 
government with insight and compassion to implement them: throw most 
money at pre- and postnatal support and early childhood development, 
rethink the essence of education, decriminalise drugs and turn 
prisons into places of learning.

We need to help young people be the sort of people they'd like to be 
and never, ever, let their hope die.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom