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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Guns, gangs and culture of violence
Children play with toy guns
Many children admire and emulate gangsters
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By the BBC's Carolyn Dempster

South Africa is so steeped in violence, it has become a way of life, a culture that holds a dangerous allure for today's youth.

"I was born in a cruel world, I'm living in a cruel world, and I'll die in a cruel world. I haven't got money so what must I do? I must steal that car to get money to support my wife and children and my brothers. They are all looking up to me."

So speaks "Killer", a gangster working for a car hijacking syndicate in Johannesburg.

Children are fraught with the fear of violence

Lynn Cawood
Childline director
He is typical of the "amagents" - the streetwise gangsters motivated by need, and greed, who fuel the crime wave and the fear which pervades South Africa's townships.

They are mostly young, some only 12 or 13 years old, but they have already been initiated into violence.

In 2000, the child protection organisation Childline ran a national art competition to raise awareness around the issue of child abuse.

Drawing shows rape

The theme was "Rainbow Kids". At least 70% of the pictures submitted by 2,000 children showed images of death, guns, abuse, drugs, drunkenness, poverty and despair.

A young South African HIV carrier
Aids and violence threaten children's future
In one particularly disturbing drawing, two men stand on either side of a semi-naked woman tied to a tree.

One man has his trousers around his ankles and is trying to kiss her.

The other is holding a gun to her head.

Childline's director Lynn Cawood said the vast majority of artworks revealed that South Africa's children are "fraught with the fear of violence and suffering post-traumatic stress".

What is more worrying is that gangsterism is glamorised.

Jill Eagle, a psychology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says when children do not see wrongdoers being punished, their sense of morality is distorted.

"Bad people are seen to be rewarded. Known criminals are seen driving flashy cars and wearing smart clothing."

Apartheid left its own bitter legacy of poverty, inequality and the nobility of violence in the struggle to end an oppressive system.

  Click here to see international murder rates compared

The political transition ushered in uncertainty and more crime. South Africa is no different from other societies like Russia in this regard.

What is different, says Martin Schonteich, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, is that there was already a willingness, deeply embedded in South African society, to use violence to solve fairly minor disputes.

I am used to seeing someone being killed

Tjovito - gangster
South Africa's black youth also had high expectations that democracy would bring more jobs and a better quality of life.

That hasn't happened. In some cases they have taken out their disillusionment and anger by turning to crime.

"Affirmative shopping" is an ironic term used to describe the theft of property from affluent whites by black youths.

It's also an attempt to legitimise crime by placing it in the context of racial oppression and disadvantage.

"I am used to seeing someone being killed. Before, I was scared - I could not watch - but now it's OK with me," a gangster called Tjovito told researchers from the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation.

Brutality earns respect

The more brutal and daring the crime, the more respect there is in the criminal underworld.

"In crime there is a hierarchy," says Tjovito. "You grow from strength to strength until you are up there doing the business where there is a lot of money.

"When you are there we respect you and to us you are like someone working on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange".

What makes it easier for criminals to prosper is the easy access to guns.

Out of an estimated 14 million guns in circulation, only four million are registered and licensed to legal gun owners.

Police inspect body of jilted lover who went on a killing spree before shooting himself
Guns are often a feature in violent crime
Gangsters say guns are easy to buy or steal, and are seen as a critical part of the crime ritual.

Historically, South Africans of all ethnic groups have claimed a right to a weapon, usually the gun, as a symbol of their masculinity and power.

This right is now being claimed by scores of young black men who have been repeatedly marginalised by society.

The anti-gun lobby, led by Sheena Duncan of the Gun Control Alliance, would like the private possession of guns banned, saying guns are used in almost 75% of violent crimes.

The danger posed by a combination of gun culture, violent crime, and South Africa's exploding Aids pandemic, was outlined by Virginia Gamba, head of the arms management programme at the Institute of Security Studies.


"In 12 years time you'll have at least a quarter of a million orphans, with no role models to guide them. They won't care less, because they themselves are infected with HIV.

"They will have access to guns, unless of course the gun control legislation works.

"The escalation of violence could be so great, that it becomes the only determinant of whether life is worth living or not."

The picture she paints is not only bleak, it threatens the very foundations of the democracy upon which South Africa is built.

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See also:

13 Oct 99 | Africa
Fighting back against rape
25 Jan 02 | Africa
SA teachers 'raping pupils'
12 Oct 00 | Africa
SA targets guns
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