Book on gangs can be a game-changer

From a glossy lifestyle magazine to murky, dangerous, gang-riddled streets, Don Pinnock is a man of versatility, with his latest book, Gang Town, providing readers with the history, background and structures of Cape Town gangs.

He also provides theories and some solutions as to how to deal with them – but says the authorities are unlikely to be happy with all his suggestions.

Last week Dr Pinnock was in conversation with National Institute for Crime Prevention and Re-integration of Offenders (NICRO) national manager Venessa Padayachee at Kalk Bay Books.

A former editor of Getaway magazine, Dr Pinnock who lives in Vredehoek, has written 17 books and various articles, from travel and the environment to history and biographies.

His latest book is the culmination of thirty-odd years of observations and research. At the talk he said it all began in District Six and when he came back to Cape Town after going away for a while, he found that area had been ripped apart. “I was living in Long Street and there were so many kids on the street, so I sat down and spoke to them to find out where they came from,” he told the packed bookshop.

At the talk Dr Pinnock defined a gang as a group of people with common interests who continue to meet over time with common purpose, be it social or criminal. “This can range from corner play groups, through merchant gangs, warrior gangs, to fierce prison numbers, government officials and transnational networks,” he said.

Dr Pinnock added that children as young as 14 are being arrested on gang-related murder charges. “They are drawn to gangs. Their core membership is predominantly adolescent and it’s important to understand why,” he said.

As he began looking at the genetic factors that have contributed to why gangs have reached the scale they have, he was led to the science of epigenetics. Basically, epigenetics studies the environment’s effect on the way in which genetic instructions are carried out. “It means one’s genes express themselves according to the environment they’re in, which prenatally is the mother. So her health or lack of it has an impact on the sort of child which is born. High stress through nutrition shortages or drug and alcohol use codes for greater later aggression,” he said.

Dr Pinnock painted an image of a bunch of wombs that needed to be nurtured for nine months so that they would give birth to calmer, less frenetically-paced boys. Apart from their role as mothers, the only mention that girls got was that they could be as scary as the boys.

On this topic, Sihle Ngobese, spokesperson for Social Development MEC Albert Fritz, said earlier this year the department had worked with the Department of Health to launch their First 1 000 Days project. The initiative is a holistic programme promoting the well-being of mothers and their babies, starting from conception, moving through pregnancy, birth, and the first two years of life, which are crucial for securing a child’s bright future.

After the talk, Lorraine Moko said that as a social worker, this is the kind of work she was doing in Vrygrond.

Mark van der Heever, spokesperson for the provincial health department said research indicates that the physical, emotional and mental development of infants develop rapidly during the first 1 000 days and is the time when the brain grows up to 80 percent of its size. The programme is being rolled out to 1 700 registered early childhood development (ECD) centres, providing parents with advice and support on matters ranging from nutrition to assistance with access to safe and creative spa-ces for children to play, grow and develop.

But at Dr Pinnock’s book launch, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as he offers recommendations for breaking the cycle of gang membership.

He said adolescents need a story to live by, a story which explains to them who they are. “But the problem is that others build stories around them which demonise them,” he said.

Another solution is for prisons to provide inmates with skills they can use when they return into society. They should be centres where people are temporarily housed and trained to become useful citizens able to earn a living on release.”

When the Sentinel’s sister paper Constantiaberg Bulletin was doing research for a story on Pollsmoor, it was found that some of the country’s most dangerous criminals are held in Pollsmoor. These include members of the notorius Numbers Gangs – 26s, 27s and 28s – who have fearsome reputations.

Pollsmoor spokesperson Lewies Davids said prisoners are exposed to a range of skills including bricklaying, plumbing, carpentry and plastering. They have workshops where they produce office furniture and are trained to do welding and upholstery. The prison also has an agriculture section where vegetables are grown for their own consumption and the prison maintenance section oversees prisoner training to maintain broken geysers, electrical work and painting buildings and houses on the premises.

“Correctional Services is committed to ensuring that while offenders serve their sentences they’re equipped with nec- essary skills in line with a variety of skills development programmes so as to ensure that social re-integration becomes a success and offenders become selfreliant and having working opportunities after serving their sentences to curb the re-offending behaviour,” said Mr Davids.

Another of Dr Pinnock’s recommendations is a rethink of education. “To be more flexible because it’s boring. Children born in 2016 will retire in 2075.

“We don’t have the foggiest idea what their world will be like or what skills will be needed. What really needs to be taught is a love of learning and an ability to use our mind and body to engage with the world.”

He also proposes decriminalising drugs. But to find out more about this, read the book.

As Ms Padayachee said, this book is a game-changer and provides tangible solutions. “It will make an incredible difference to our society,” she said.

Dr Pinnock hopes the book will offer the kind of solutions that can find their way into policy.

“Because any government has enough power and weight to change things. I set out to find solutions because if you don’t have solutions, you don’t have policy, and vice versa,” he said.

* Dr Pinnock co-drafted the Youth Justice White Paper for the ANC and is also a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy in Tokai. Gang Town is published by Tafelberg and won the City Press Non-Fiction Award.