Steffen Jensen and Dennis Rodgers on the fascinating parallels of gang life, organisation, and activity in Cape Town, South Africa and Managua, Nicaragua

Words by Edgar Pieterse | 04 Nov, 2019

EP (Edgar Pieterse): Cities are shaped by an endless cycle of movement or desire to move someplace else, often in pursuit of opportunities or to escape the grind of everyday life. In the popular social imaginary, this usually involves rural to urban migration or conflict-induced displacement. You have been doing some pretty exciting work on the complexities of urban identities concerning gang cultures in two very distinct cities in the global south: Managua in Nicaragua and Cape Town in South Africa. Both reveal other dimensions of mobility, paths, and immobility.

DR (Dennis Rodgers): Movement and passageways and immobility have varied a lot over time in Managua. If you look at the city’s historical development, it grew exponentially from 50,000 to 400,000 inhabitants in the 1940s to 1950s to 1960s through classic rural-urban migration spurred by industrialisation. In 1972, however, it was hit by an earthquake that killed 20,000 people and destroyed about 80% of its infrastructure. This led to a lot of local movement within the city in the years afterward as the urban fabric reorganised. Then during the 1980s, the civil war that afflicted Nicaragua led to new forms of rural-urban migration, which swelled the city to over 1 million inhabitants.

Over the past two decades, there’s been much less movement both to and within the city. The city has also transformed spatially, becoming extremely dense and saturated. The only form of “getting away,” in many ways, is now international migration.

Nicaragua is a country that has a considerable amount of out-migration. About 20% of Nicaraguans live outside the country. Many Nicaraguans have left for Costa Rica and the US although increasingly, also for Spain, and many of them have moved from Managua.

SJ (Steffen Jensen): This is a complicated question when it comes to Cape Town. There are so many different kinds of movement going on there. In recent fieldwork, I’ve been looking at three distinct, but very interesting groups of people, who have very different trajectories, all sharing the same space: the “coloured”* group of the townships; black South Africans with generation-long allegiances to the Eastern Cape province; and immigrants—foreign nationals—from across the African continent. Some of the movement is resource-based, some a result of conflict-induced forms of displacement. I ended up with those three because that’s just the makeup of the research site Dennis and I are working on at the moment. Each group represents about a third of the population.

They have very specific forms of claims and histories. For example, many of the coloureds refer to themselves as “back-yarders”. Before arriving on the site, they lived in makeshift structures in the backyards of formal public housing, in precarious sleeping arrangements in the homes of relatives, or moved from place to place. In this way, they have been displaced from the prospect of a formal house. This is a second-order displacement following the original forced removals back in the days of the Group Areas Act during high apartheid in the 1960s to 1970s.

We have been trying to follow some individuals in this group and track their movement back in time. This suggests that the kind of immobility we often see in the townships is mostly relevant for what we could call “front-yarders”: the people who actually own or have claims to their houses.

Those with roots in the Eastern Cape have followed very traditional rural to urban trajectories. I’m sure it is not always like this, but our interviewees maintained solid links to the Eastern Cape. No-one we interviewed in these projects had any certainty that they would remain in Cape Town, so there is a form of circular migration going on at the same time as this groups’ occupation in Cape Town is absolutely permanent.

The third type of migration comes from the rest of Africa. This has everything to do with the historical fact that the whole of Southern Africa has always been part of one economy. With the coming to power of the ANC in 1994, there was nationalisation of that Southern African economy, and that has meant people increasingly have come in in informal ways. This is also the case in our field site. Some are asylum seekers; some come, as they say, “with a passport”. A turn of phrase that can mean different kinds of things.

In most cases, this group has almost no rights. They have no right to the forms of resources and incomes that come via the social grant system, for example. This introduces a very different kind of dynamic.

EP: So, just to clarify, Steffen, that these three groups all coexist in this one research site? Also, Dennis, from your perspective, what is the cultural and social makeup of your research site? Help me get a clear context of the two neighbourhoods, barrio Luis Fanor Hernández in Managua and Lavender Hill in Cape Town.

SJ: Yes, the groups coexist, or rather, they live parallel lives. One of the questions we’ve been trying to ask over the last couple of years is: what are the interfaces or entanglements between these different ways of doing stuff? There are very different ways to cope ... It’s not cultural. It’s based much more on the imperatives of everyday survival. The coloured population, which has been displaced from within the city of Cape Town, have solid family links in other townships in the city. That means that coping is, to a considerable extent, about how to activate those kinds of networks in ways that are really, often, very contentious. That’s because lots of those that they want to try to evoke kinship relations to don’t want to know them anymore.

EP: Dennis, I was curious about your research site. What kind of stratification do you see within that community, or is it much more homogenous?

DR: So, I’ve been working for over 20 years in a poor neighbourhood of Managua that, in my writing, I call barrio Luis Fanor Hernández (this is a pseudonym). It’s definitely much more homogenous than the community in Cape Town that Steffen works in.

Historically, it was one of the most impoverished squatter settlements in Managua when it was founded in the 60s and through the 70s. During the 80s, it was rebuilt under the auspices of the Sandinista revolutionary government’s urban reconstruction and development programme but nevertheless remained within the bottom quintile of neighbourhoods in the city.

In terms of social makeup, it was relatively homogeneous when I first arrived there in 1996. There have, however, been processes of socio-economic stratification at play, mainly due to the rise of drug dealing in the early 2000s. Drug dealing led to gentrification in the neighbourhood as a result of the emergence of a local “narco-bourgeoisie”.

Although the drug dealing has moved on from the neighbourhood, it has left traces, particularly infrastructurally. So you have a community where about 60% of the houses remain prefabricated wooden structures that are more often than not falling apart; they have not been maintained. But the other 40% are usually much more beautiful concrete houses, generally painted in bright and flashy fashion, which include features such as crystal chandeliers, Louis XIV Rococo mirrors inside, and so on.

A significant difference vis-à-vis the community that Steffen works in Cape Town is that racially, barrio Luis Fanor Hernández is very homogenous. This is partly because racial issues play a very different role, or are very different, in Nicaragua compared to South Africa.

EP: Dennis, you mentioned this idea of “narco-bourgeoisie”—a phrase which suggests that the investment that flows into the neighbourhood is through drug-related economies. Drug economies often go hand-in-hand with violence, for example, in the form of gangs. Could you both speak about how the threat of insecurity and fear shape and structure everyday life in these two neighbourhoods?

SJ: Absolutely. I think that the fear of violence is central to everything that goes on in this particular Cape Town neighbourhood. It’s not the same all over the city, but it is fundamental for people that live here. Though the sources of fear are often the same, it’s being understood and experienced very differently across the three groups I mentioned earlier.

For the migrants from the rest of Africa, it is a daily hassle to live with an obvious extortion economy. As one person said to me: “We are money.” And that is true in a very real sense. They’re not only being robbed. They’re also being forced into participating in a rent-share economy where they’re the ones that are bringing the money into a rental economy that is, I think, only second to the drug industry. People who have some kind of claim to land on which people have settled informally have the ability to extort rent from occupants, mostly African migrants.

As we’ve also seen in Johannesburg over the last couple of weeks [September 2019], the threat of xenophobic violence is constant. Every time there is trouble, migrants experience heightened fear that it will turn into xenophobic violence, and their concerns are often justified.

So there is a broader threat of insecurity all the time. At the moment, the Lavender Hill area has a ferocious gang war going on. That means that all sense of knowing where violence could come from has been compromised.

Within the African communities [with Eastern Cape roots], one of the things that they’re worried about is the issue of kids being drawn into criminal organisations.

DR: Insecurity in Managua is experienced differently by different social classes. And the ways of understanding insecurity, fear, and violence in the city are very different, whether you’re looking at the city level or the neighbourhood level.

At a city level, the story of Managua over the past decade and a half has been one of urban “securitization” to benefit the elite. In the 90s, in the post-war period, Managua was nicknamed the Chaotic City. It was a city where you could get carjacked very frequently, and there were high levels of insecurity in the streets.

But for about 15 years, the city was explicitly reorganised through forms of urban planning that have securitized various areas. Walls have gone up around wealthy neighbourhoods, and these have been connected to each other via high-speed roads, which, effectively, have created a disembedded fortified network for the rich. The poor have been left to fend for themselves in areas where there has been very little intervention.

At the neighbourhood level, when I first arrived in barrio Luis Fanor Hernández in the mid-1990s, the greatest fear was the fear of outsiders. A vigilante gang emerged to protect the neighbourhood. They would patrol the area and stop anybody whom they didn’t recognise to try and create some kind of safe haven for locals.

When the gang got into drug dealing, the fear of the people in the neighbourhood became a fear of insiders because the gang turned predatory against local inhabitants. Unlike in South Africa, where drug markets are very much localised, and so you see the drug gangs controlling neighbourhoods mainly to control their market, in Nicaragua, the internal market in poor communities for drugs is limited. A majority of clients come from the outside.

This has meant that the gang no longer tried to stop outsiders from coming in but, instead, turned their violence against insiders, to make sure they wouldn’t try and stop outsiders from coming in.

EP: By “outsiders”, do you mean those from middle-class neighbourhoods in the city or beyond that?

DR: Well, both middle-class neighbourhoods as well as more impoverished neighbourhoods. Unlike Cape Town, where you have drugs being sold quite homogenously around a lot of different townships, in Managua, drugs are sold out of a limited number of neighbourhoods. So, you actually have to move to those neighbourhoods to buy drugs. Not every community has local drug dealers.

There has been a significant shift in Nicaragua. At the moment, there is more fear of the state. As you might know, Nicaragua underwent a popular uprising last year against the government, and it has been quite savagely cracked down upon. So, the primary fear in the city right now, particularly in poor neighbourhoods, is of state authorities or paramilitary authorities who arbitrarily patrol neighbourhoods and create a climate of fear to try and pacify the population.

The other thing that I think is important to comment on is that fear and insecurity in the city is usually gendered. And this is something that is reflected in patterns of mobility. In Managua, you can see that there is a distinct divide. Men are much more mobile than women in the city, and this is very much linked to the gendered experience of insecurity.

EP: Explain, briefly, the nature of gang cultures in the two cities. You have already intimated that there are quite different ways in which the drug economy operates. I presume there are also very different gang dynamics in the two cities.

DR: One of the reasons why we’re interested in gangs and why we’re engaging in this comparative work is because gangs are one of a small number of quasi-universal social phenomena. You find them all over the world, in pretty much every society across time and space. They’re an interesting phenomenon to think about, to try and get to grips with basic human forms of organisation and social structuring, and doing so comparatively is even more insightful.

In Nicaragua, gangs emerged in the post-war period of the early 90s. It was within a context of discombobulation and social breakdown and the gangs emerged as an alternative form of “bottom-up” order.

This “gang governance” is very volatile and changes quite rapidly over time. It’s an epiphenomenon that is influenced by broader social structures. Gang governance in Nicaragua became very predatory and a much more negative phenomenon partly as a result of Nicaragua’s drift towards a predatory elite oligarchy over the past couple of decades.

One of the exciting things we are finding from a comparative perspective is that there are some remarkable similarities between gangs in Nicaragua and in South Africa, in particular regarding how they have evolved and transformed over time. There are certain things which changed in very similar ways, including, for example, the role drugs and the drug trade play. There are also surprising similarities in the gang members’ lived experience, their corporeality, who they are. At the same time, there are also some significant differences. One of them is mobility. Gangs in Cape Town are much more mobile than in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, the limits of the gangs’ world are their neighbourhood boundaries, more or less. In Cape Town, gangs move between different neighbourhoods in, to me, incredibly surprising ways.

The most significant differences are not only in the occupation of space but also in the trajectories people who have been part of the gang take after they leave the group. In Nicaragua, being a gang member often pays a dividend if you don’t die or don’t end up going to jail. It’s quite striking how gang members often end up better off than non-gang member peers. It’s partly because of the skills that they learn as gang members—whether it’s in how to use violence in an informal economic context where violence is often a means through which regulation is achieved; or sometimes the skills learned as a drug dealer, which are transferred to other financial opportunities.

SJ: There is a considerable amount of discussion about whether gangs are primarily isolated to [only] coloured areas in Cape Town. Gangs indeed seem to be more prevalent within coloured areas than they are within [majority] African areas, but that is changing.

Another, more temporal dimension to this, is prison gangs in contrast to street gangs. The relationship between street and prison gangs has changed and is under constant reformulation.

It’s probably true to say that until the end of apartheid, gang culture was relatively stable. It had been organised around the Mandrax (methaqualone) trade. Many of the gangs that emerged from District Six moved into the townships. They formalised during the time of the Mandrax epidemic. Something happened around the time of the fall of apartheid that was not necessarily due to the political changes. About that time, there was a reconfiguration of the relationship between the street and the prison gangs. Both had very strong cultures. It was a publicly known “secret” that the prison gangs were better organised. This started influencing the way that people on the street started thinking about themselves, and the extent to which you needed to have prison credentials to make it on the street.

This led to the street gangs becoming “corporatized”, which has also changed them substantially.

I should add that there are at least two very distinct social categories on the Cape Flats. The one is the merchant, and the other is the street gangster. While they are related, we cannot assume a one-to-one relationship. It is a complex symbiotic dynamic.

So, when we talk about “gang culture”, it depends on where members stand in those hierarchies—both in relation to the prison and to the drug economies. This not only influences the way they organise themselves, but also the culture.


Edgar Pieterse is co-founder and consulting editor of Cityscapes