A Mother's Agony: Teen-Agers Trapped in Gangs
A Mother's Agony: Teen-Agers Trapped in Gangs
May. 29, 1995
MANENBERG, South Africa (AP) _ Gangs have such a stranglehold on this depressed working-class community that a desperate mother saw only one way to keep her teen-age son away from his new ``family'' _ keep him in jail.
When 16-year-old Ikeraal Lakay first appeared in court in December charged with murders linked to the area's constant gang wars, his mother, Fatima, rose to plead with the judge not to grant bail. He didn't, and Ikeraal remains in a cell while his case slowly wends through the court system.
``I told the court what kind of kid I had, the dreams and aspirations he had had,'' Mrs. Lakay said, holding a crumpled pink paper handkerchief to her mouth, her eyes red. ``I won't allow these gang leaders to use my son again.''
Neighbors applaud Mrs. Lakay as a hero in their campaign to drive gangs from Manenberg, a township of 75,000 mixed-race people just south of Cape Town, in the lowlands along the Indian Ocean known as the Cape Flats.
They are tired of seeing their children killed in turf wars generaled by drug lords, tired of spending weekends at home to be safe from gunbattles, tired of Manenberg being known as South Africa's gang capital.
The young criminals draw inspiration from movies and music videos about gangs in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, but they are home grown and nurtured by social conditions and police indifference that were the hallmarks of apartheid.
Gangs operate in other parts of South Africa. But nowhere are they as numerous, powerful and central to the soaring crime problem as Cape Town's mixed-race townships. More than 40 gangs are believed active in Manenberg alone.
In April, some 5,000 residents marched through Manenberg's streets, stopping at several gang headquarters to shout demands that the killing stop.
With its single-family homes on tiny lots and pastel-colored apartment buildings, Manenberg is not as bleak as many of the areas set aside under apartheid for black and mixed-race South Africans. Garbage is picked up, homes have electricity and telephones, streets seem scrubbed clean by constantly blowing beach sand.
But community leaders say the middle-class facade hides an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. There are few playgrounds or sports facilities for young people _ in fact, little to do but pitch pennies and wait to be old enough to join a gang.
With money earned from dealing drugs, selling stolen cars and running prostitution rings, the ``gangsters'' buy sharp jeans and sweat shirts emblazoned with American-style slogans, gold jewelry and cars.
Younger kids look up to gang members ``as a source of power, of authority, of everything that is razzmatazz,'' said Wilfried Scharf, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town.
``They rule by both a reign of terror as well as buying favors or silence,'' Scharf said. ``Quite often, when people get into trouble or need a small loan _ or not even a small loan _ they go to the gangs.''
Gang leaders control entire apartment buildings, paying tenants' rent and utility bills in exchange for the right to use the homes to store guns and drugs.
Though the gangs sport playful names _ Forty Thieves, Naughty Angels, Bologna Boys _ they are often vicious.
Scharf said one gang recruited prostitutes by using corrupt welfare officials to take children away from single mothers and place them in foster homes the gang controlled. The mothers would then be forced to work for the gang for fear their children would be harmed if they refused.
Some gangs have their roots in the groups of dashing gamblers and illegal liquor smugglers who lent a tough charm to Cape Town's District 6, a neighborhood that included mixed-race, black and white South Africans that was destroyed when the apartheid government declared downtown whites-only.
Manenberg residents whose families once lived in District 6 said its destruction meant the end of the sense of community and extended family that had helped counter crime.
Drug syndicates began using gangs in the 1980s to distribute their wares and protect and expand their territory, police say. Money poured in with the drugs, heightening competition among gangs and making them more violent.
Manenberg residents say corrupt police officers protected gangs in exchange for bribes or used gang members as political spies. Police have called in independent investigators to look into growing evidence that backs up those accusations.
``Before, the police in South Africa were concentrating on suppressing revolution,'' said Col. Raymond Dowd, police spokesman for the region. ``Now we're concentrating on what we should have been over all those years _ crime.''
Pushed by a community emboldened by the end of apartheid, local police have targeted gangs as their No. 1 priority.
Ikeraal Lakay once told his mother he wanted to be a police officer. Instead, he joined the Hard Living Kids, Manenberg's most notorious gang, and later drew in his 22-year-old brother, Riedwaan, who had been struggling to find work as a carpenter.
Both were arrested late last year, Riedwaan on an illegal weapons charge.
When Mrs. Lakay first became convinced Ikeraal had joined the Hard Living Kids, she went to the police to ask them to bar her son from the gang leader's home.
The leader, perhaps tipped off by the police, came to her and her husband and warned them to keep out of his affairs, she said.
``The way this gangster confronted us, we were thrown off balance,'' Mrs. Lakay said. ``We couldn't move; we felt like vegetables.''
She vainly searches her memory for the moment when her youngest son might have been saved from the gang trap. Now she can only agonize over his future.
``I'm always thinking of the death sentence,'' she said. ``I'm always visualizing how, when he gets this death, he's going to stretch out his arms to me and call for help.''