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Gangs, Gangsters and Community Response: An Exploration of Community Perceptions of the Rise and Fall in Youth-Led Gang Violence in Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town

Youths living in Khayelitsha, South Africa's second-largest township, navigate multiple threats to their health and wellbeing. In this context of extreme economic and social deprivation, the burdens of both infectious and non-communicable diseases remain considerable. Face with such challenges, young males, between 14 and 24 years, are vulnerable to involvement in particular kinds of interpersonal violence. In 2013, reports of youth-led violence in Khayelitsha emerged and fighting appeared to escalate in frequency and severity. Victims and perpetrators self-identified and were recognised by Khayelitsha community members as "gangsters" belonging to "gangs". Unlike the gangs of Cape Town's "coloured" townships in the same area, gang activity is new to Khayelitsha, a predominantly "black African" township. While "coloured" gangs have a long history associated with organized crime, drug sale and protection of gang "territories" much like gangs from the Americas, Khayelitsha gangs' primary activity appeared to be centred on fighting and apparently "recreational" violence, that could be likened to gang activity in Scotland. 

Recently, however, reports of large-scale street fights perpetrated by Khayelitsha "gangsters" have decreased. This situation raises two key interrelated questions. Firstly, how are community-based understandings and definitions of youth as "gangsters" shaping ways that violence is, or is perceived to be, "gang-related"? Secondly, what do community members perceive local intervention mechanisms to be, and how do they understand them to operate? The aim of this paper is to explore local understandings of gangs and gangsters, as well as community perceptions of how and why a reduction in such a violence could have occurred in Khayelitsha. 

This paper reports on ethnographic data gathered over a period of six months, in Town Two, Khayelitsha. Fieldnotes based on participant observation and transcriptions of semi-structured interviews constitute the bulk of the data collected. Developing a deeper understanding of this relatively recent expression of gang activity in the South African context represents an important contribution to the conversation centred on violence prevention in economically marginalized contexts.