A new study that examines how former South African gang members understand and make sense of ceasing gang involvement, focusing on exiting gang life and maintaining a reformed lifestyle despite the possible challenges and temptations to relapse, has made a great contribution into the subject, which until now has been very sparse. This contribution can help to deal with the complexity of gang involvement.
While gangs are found all over the world, including in South Africa, gangsterism in Cape Town is a critical problem that needs urgent intervention. Dr Jane Kelly’s recently published PhD thesis titled: ‘Narratives of gang desistance amongst former gang members’ makes a much-needed contribution to the research.
“I was interested in not only the process of exiting the gang but how they maintained that after they had left the gang because there’s often a risk of rejoining, particularly in the context of poverty and unemployment,” said Kelly.
The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Psychology PhD graduate conducted two rounds of life-history interviews with 12 former gang members, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 60s. All of them live in one Cape Flats community known for high rates of gang violence and which has several high-ranking gangs competing in the area. While there has been some investment in the community to uplift and rebuild, it remains an impoverished area with high levels of unemployment.
Many of the participants came from broken homes and families where a sense of belonging and of love were lacking. Most were at a “foot-soldier level” although three or four were more senior. The majority had spent time in prison and eight of the 12 had also joined prison or “numbers” gangs, as they are more commonly known, while maintaining their affiliation to their street gang.
Three of the interviewees had been in gangs for approximately 15 to 20 years. All had been out of the gang for at least one year, a requirement for participation in Kelly’s study.
“Thereʼs a high risk for relapse, so I was interested in those who had successfully exited and werenʼt at high risk of rejoining,” she said.
Findings revealed two overarching themes: identity transformation and the act of leaving the gang and maintaining a transformed lifestyle. The study showed that participants had transformed from a hard, stoic and typically masculine gangster identity to a reformed, prosocial man with a desire to care for his family and be a role model in the community. This transformation was marked by key turning points such as incarceration and religious experiences. For the majority, identity transformation had been facilitated by a growing disillusionment with the gang because of negative experiences. When they initially joined the gang, they encountered a sense of brotherhood and belonging. Then, over time, they came to realise that the brotherhood and camaraderie were, in fact, false.
Kelly pointed out that disillusionment with the gang and choosing to desist is not a single event.
“This is a process that unfolds over time, with them coming to realise that, ‘No, they’re not there for me. That isnʼt what I want for my life anymore’.”
With a subset of participants, religion or a religious experience enabled them to feel absolved for their past crimes and gave them a sense of meaning.
“What was interesting for me is that it transformed them into these emotionally aware and very sensitive people, which completely goes against the kind of violent gangster stereotype,” added Kelly.
The second overarching theme was leaving and staying away from the gang. All the former gang members had made a conscious decision to desist; it didn’t come from an external party. Therefore, Kelly argued, there is agency in the desistance process. But again, itʼs a process because while they might have wanted to change, they didnʼt necessarily know how because they didnʼt have the right resources on which to draw.
Religion emerged as a key factor, giving them a sense of meaning, belonging, absolution and a new community. What was of interest to Kelly was that gangs respect religion and wanting to become “a man of God” as a way of exiting.
Another mechanism of support was social – family members, loved ones or friends they could turn to when they wanted to make a change. An additional, crucial element was the availability of substance abuse rehabilitation programmes. Nine of the 12 former gang members had been addicted to drugs and so a significant part of their desistance process was stopping drugs.
A final sub-theme, said Kelly, is the desire to be better people, whether through being caring, giving fathers or by being a positive role model in the community. Kelly found that this supported them in leaving and staying away from the gang because they had people looking up to them.
One of the major threats to maintaining a reformed lifestyle is whether former gang members can secure employment. In the international literature, finding employment and a meaningful job is a way one can exit a gang. With South Africa’s worsening unemployment rates, the challenge for former gang members is amplified. Returning to the same community in which their former gang operates holds the potential for recidivism. Added to this is that when they return, it is to an impoverished community where the same conditions persist that led many to gangsterism in the first place.
Drug addiction relapse is another problem area. Kelly explained that former gang members might return to drug use and then active addiction which could, in turn, mean a return to gangs to fund the addiction.
Further challenges and risks include reformed gang members’ safety, particularly from rival gangs; and having the former gang constantly watching to ensure the individual is keeping their word regarding their reason for leaving.