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Cape Town Gangs Seek Out Children

South Africans as young as 9 are recruited. With police overmatched, the criminals have only grown in brutality and sophistication.

September 25, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Whenever Nizaam de Silva hears a gangland shootout, he doesn't run for cover. He races toward the gunshots, heart dancing with exhilaration. For a 13-year-old boy from the slums of Cape Town, watching someone staggering in clumsy agony is sheer entertainment.

"We're excited to hear it; we're not afraid," he said. "I have seen them shooting and stabbing. I just stand there and they're chasing one another." He laughed delightedly. "Sometimes they're running and they fall. It's funny to watch when they fall."

But not when it's someone you know, such as his cousin Tyrone. The two were close and often went snake-hunting for fun.

Nizaam was two blocks away when the 21-year-old was shot and stabbed this spring in an argument over a bicycle. He ran to see the body lying like a rag doll stained with blood: "It made me feel sad."

With overmatched police giving them free rein, the gangs in Cape Town's poor neighborhoods have grown in brutality and sophistication since the end of South Africa's apartheid era. They're better armed, have moved into lucrative rackets such as drug dealing -- and increasingly seek out children as members.

Cape Town, with a population of 3.2 million, has at least 100,000 gang members, according to the South African Institute for Security Studies. Los Angeles, with 4 million people, has 39,000 gang members, according to CAL/GANG, a statewide database maintained by the California Department of Justice.

At least a dozen of the gangs are children-only, some of them all girls with members as young as 9. Almost all gang members are of mixed race.

The gangs have names like their American counterparts: the Sexy Boys, the Hard Livings, the Mongrels, the Junky Funky Kids. Members are covered with tattoos glorifying guns, money and sex. Rape is celebrated, and teenage girls are coerced into prostitution.

Since democratic elections swept away the apartheid era in 1994, gang violence has only worsened. Analysts see no prospect of reversing the trend, with 40% unemployment nationwide, the education system stretched and the government unable to meet the massive demand for social services in the poor areas of Cape Town.

"People go into the gangs because there's nothing else to do," said 14-year-old Sheltino Hanekon, a school friend of Nizaam who saw his father being stabbed to death in gang violence four years ago. "Almost the whole school are in gangs."

BMWs purr like prowling panthers through the streets of the Cape Flats. Down one street, a police car is stopped in the road with its lights flashing and hundreds of curious people pressed around. The atmosphere is so thick with excitement that it seems almost festive.

Those of mixed race were moved from their homes to the Cape Flats in the 1960s under the apartheid government's Group Areas Act. Separated from their relatives, neighbors and friends, they became alienated and angry. With 70% or 80% unemployment in the area, there is little for young people to do but hang around drinking, waiting for the next explosion. Petty jealousies and rivalries tend to be dealt with violently.

When he was 12, Lloyd Jamani began an eight-year string of car thefts, hijackings, robberies and shootings that didn't stop until he was arrested and sent to prison. There, he immediately joined the powerful Number 26 prison gang.

He got into crime to support a mandrax habit, doing jobs for gangs in his area so he could buy the sedative. His life changed when he found a gun during a house robbery. He realized he could get anything from anyone, be it a fat gold chain from someone's neck or a fancy car.

"When you get a gun, there's some different mystique going on. I can use it for a nice time, to make a mark, to draw that respect," said Jamani, now 24 and out of the gangs. "It's like changing emotions; you pretend to be an animal. You take it out, you point it at people. You take what you want.

"You get used to it and you don't care."

He shot "a few people" during carjackings, he said. Sometimes, if someone didn't cooperate quickly enough, he would shoot into the car near the person's leg.

"Some of them just scream. Most of them get scared. They shake. They can't even focus," he said dispassionately. "To be honest about it, there's no feeling. You know that's your own chance. If they're screaming, you don't be soft on them or you're not going to get what you want."

He has no idea how many people he shot, often in a drunken rage. "I can't even count. You don't think; you don't count your enemies. You do a lot of stuff to a lot of people."

He says he doesn't know whether he killed anyone -- he was always drunk, firing into the dark at perceived enemies.

A rash of vigilante killings of gang leaders in the late 1990s did nothing to stem gangs' power. In fact, some analysts argue that the killings exacerbated gangland crime, with the new, younger leaders even more brutal and ruthless than their predecessors.

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