Human beings are different but yet the same. We are differentiated by culture, religion, politics, sexuality, social class, education, gender and many more facets that make us different from the person next to you.
You see, in the Xhosa culture for a young person to transit from being a boy/girl to being a man/woman, there are rituals that have been socially constructed and date back centuries ago that even today are still practised in communities such as in the Eastern Cape to give rite of passage. Similar rituals can be attributed in the “Western culture” in the form of Sweet 16 and 21st birthdays, similar to the confirmation ritual in the Catholic Church, which signifies that one is mature enough to make spiritual decisions and know their statement of belief. For a Xhosa boy who goes to the mountain to be circumcised as part of the initiation process, it signifies the end of boyhood and the beginning of a journey to manhood, and this process is physically testing, emotionally demanding and spiritually fulfilling.
People from most corners of South Africa always ask what cause we, as young people, are struggling or advocating for, in relation to the Class of 1976. Answers vary that the youth of today are spoilt, apathetic, lazy, confused, you name it. I consider that question unfair and presumptuous (although that is an article for another day). The answers on the other side are troubling and disappointing to put it lightly.
The youth of 1976 had one thing in common and that was eradicating the introduced Bantu Education Act 1953 and subsequent projects implemented with it. Verwoerd said, “there is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” This statement, amongst many other influences of the time, united young people. While this was emotionally draining for parents of the Class of 1976 and the class itself, because of the spirit of unity, nothing stopped them and today I pay homage to them. In paying tribute, I weep for the youth of Manenberg, although make no mistake, Manenberg is a small piece of a bigger puzzle.
You see, the reason I am weeping for the youth of Manenberg, is because I am suffering from what Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi called, “a danger of a single story”. A story that Manenberg is a violent and violence ridden community. That when I search Manenberg on Google, I am overwhelmed by “gunshots, screaming in Manenberg overnight, Manenberg gang member dies after shooting, Manenberg residents renew calls for army to end gang, Manenberg turns into warzone” and many more. How can I not weep for my brothers and sisters who reside in the neighbourhood, who come from both ends of being perpetrators and victims of the perpetuating violence and usage of drugs?
I will foolishly assume that 99% of gang members are males and the reason they are part of gangs is for one reason, it’s not education, unemployment, apathy, laziness, etc., it is the lack of a rite of passage that is meant to socially construct boys to men and be righteous members of society. Joseph Campbell writes, “boys everywhere have a need for rituals marking their passage to manhood. If society does not provide them they will inevitably invent their own”.
So I ask, in my weeping, what is the rite of passage for the Manenberg boy?. Here is a thing; if you are a young man and not admired by an older man, you hurt. The industrial revolution robbed us of our fathers, our fathers are out from the early hours of the morning to work and back late when they are exhausted and temperamental, and this hurts a young boy growing up deeply who then seeks comfort elsewhere. Hence gangs are a group of young men with no older men around them. In the Xhosa community, “abakhwetha” is a group of young men who are undergoing the rite to manhood and are united by the anticipation to cross to the other side. This creates a sense of longing to be a better man and, without details, the process moulds these young men to be better men to lead and head their families and communities. The equivalent of that for a young man in Manenberg are gang groups and you are spoilt for choice with the Americans, Hard Livings, Wonder kids, Junky Funky Kids, Nice Time Kids, Junior Mafias, Bostons and more.
So to answer your unfair question about the cause that the Manenberg youth is advocating for, it is developing a constructive rite of passage that will channel the energy to think deeper and do better, as Jessica Breakey from the University of Cape Town would put it. These gangs provide emotional support for the wounded boys, offer physical strength as they enter in gang territorial wars and spiritual fulfilment as they learn inside language, tactics and anthems.
Senzo Hlophe is a Junior Researcher at the City of Cape Town (Social Development and Early Childhood Development Department) and a Masters Candidate at the University of Cape Town in the Political Studies Department specializing in Public Policy and Administration. His interests vary from South African politics and African history to his passion, which is public policy development and analysis in the developing countries context. He joined the ACTIVATE! network in 2014.