The discourse on gangsterism in South Africa has largely centred on Cape Coloured gangs, and more specifically on the dehumanising effects of poverty and substance abuse. Gang rehabilitation efforts have primarily aimed its resources at young boys and men who make up a substantial portion of gang membership. Scant research has been conducted on the role of women within gangs and as leaders of gangs.
Research that does exercise intersectionality, with a specific focus on gender, frequently sketch women as passive actors within gang society, and allocates to them the traditional roles of victim, showpiece girlfriend, and/or property. The marginalisation of female gangsters is part of the more general invisibility in South Africa of women engaged in violence or illegal activities. Women are often relegated to the periphery of gang activity, and are perceived as the primary support systems to male gang members, rather than cunning and violent gangsters in their own right.
Female gangsters are an enigma: conventional ideas and notions of femininity and womanhood complicate our willingness to perceive women as having capacity for aggression. Framed against a backdrop of gender-based violence in which women are disproportionately affected, to assert that female gangsters exist and have the capacity to be as violent as males, creates an unfortunate- and unacceptable- segue that digresses to ‘some types’ of women deserving the violence wrought on their bodies. However, to ignore the significant role women play within gangs is to dismiss women as people with agency, and to render gang rehabilitation interventions ineffective.
The gang structure and system remain controlled and dictated by male gangsters, and interventions aimed at discouraging young men from joining or supporting gangs are of great import. Yet this should not rule out creating programmes that factor the unique challenges women face into consideration.
A policy note compiled by Mark Shaw and Luke Lee Skywalker noted that the dominant idea of female gangsters as vulnerable and exploited members of gangs, rather than and including, as active participants in violent crime must be challenged. It is a one-dimensional analysis that seeks to reinforce the old stereotype of women as moral compasses with inherent goodness; as peace-makers rather than co-facilitators of violence. The idea of women as essentially nurturing, supportive, and non-competitive, fails to see women as nuanced beings, and does not give them the space to deviate.
The ‘women and peace hypothesis’ posits that women are more oriented towards reconciliation-building efforts and methods (such as an openness to dialogue and compromise), but constructivists and feminists alike counter that the socialisation of gender roles have fed this particular attitude towards conflict and peace. Women are not essentially peace-positive, but their exposure to, experience of, and training in stereotypically feminine traits- empathy, kindness, and compassion- have caused them to express peace-positive traits to a greater extent than men who are often encouraged to adopt and act out traditionally masculine traits.
Women are drawn to gangs for similar reasons as men: economic need. In a capitalist, consumerist society, entering a gang becomes a method of survival for the disenfranchised, where engaging in illegal activity is often seen as the only alternative to poverty and the consequences that flow from it. Black women[i] use a multitude of economic means to meet the needs of themselves and their families. In a research paper written by Lisa Vetten, she references notorious gangster Adielah ‘Mama America’ Davids as having entered into gangsterism because of unemployment and in need to support her family. Most notably, Mama America engaged in violent activity, including stabbing the wife of a rival gang leader and fighting with the police.
Women in gangs are typically employed in low-level economic operations, such as the selling of drugs (known as runners), hiding contrabands and weapons, or in rare cases, as treasurer. For women to ‘march’ for a gang is a rarity, but of significance for understanding gang violence in its totality, as well as the effects and impact of this behaviour.
In Shaw and Skywalker’s interviews with one particular female gangster, she elaborately stated that she is exposed to the inner workings of her gang; she knows how the gang accesses drugs, where it is stored and how it is distributed, as well as those gang members responsible for all the above. Women employed in reconnaissance is not an uncommon job title, as traditional feminine traits suggest women are more trustworthy. As perpetrators of violence, women are, also, more likely to get away with physical attacks, because her gender suggests that she does not have within her the capacity for extreme manifestations of aggression.
Gangs in Cape Town, and South Africa generally, are a consequence of apartheid’s Group Areas Act which tore apart communities then dumped them in the tundra, and ultimately led to deep-rooted social and structural inequalities. To stunt the proliferation of gangs and gang activities, it is imperative that research begins to practice intersectionality by including women’s narrative into gang stories. Access and subsequent reformation of the female gangster will provide law enforcers with a wealth of knowledge on the inside workings of gangs, and ultimately disable them.
Danielle Hoffmeester is the Project Assistant for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.