This paper undertakes a comparative analysis of Coloured gangs in Cape Town, South Africa, and Indigenous gangs in Canadian Prairie cities—Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and others—looking at how members of each engage in street culture. It finds that street cultural participation in both settings is largely a collective response to globally recognizable—yet locally articulated—experiences with joblessness, over-incarceration, racialized poverty, and other forms of structural oppression. The paper uses life history research that was conducted with a sample of 24 gang members in South Africa and with another 53 from cities in Canada. Overall research findings are focused through the individual stories of Gavin and Roddy—research participants from Cape Town and Winnipeg, respectively—to provide personal and contextualized representations of broader key street cultural concepts and processes in each setting. The paper adds to a growing body of gang literature that draws comparisons across national contexts to show how street cultures are similarly used in an attempt to counteract experiences with vulnerability, exclusion, and alienation within distinct cultural contexts, socioeconomic situations, and colonial legacies.
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According to crime statistics from South Africa’s national police force—the South African Police Service (SAPS)—for the first half of the financial year 2021/2022 indicated that there were 318 gang-related murders out of a total of 1,104 total murders in the Western Cape (SAPS 2022). Of course, given the fluid ways people associate with gangs (Standing 2003, 2006), determining what murders are and are not gang-related is a highly subjective process that does not necessarily capture the hidden dynamics and complex associations individuals have with gangs.
Whereas the term “Coloured” may be considered antiquated and offensive in places like the United States, Canada, and UK, in South Africa the vast majority of Coloured people still self-identify with this racial and cultural category, and it is one of South Africa’s four official ethnic categories.
According to Statistics Canada (2021) Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton were among the top-five deadliest cities in Canada in 2020, with 4.93, 4.54, 4.1, 3.19 murders per 100,000 people, respectively.
Recent excavations around the schools found massive unmarked graves, confirming residential school survivors' (possessive) narratives that half of the children who attended these state and church run schools died while in attendance.
Apartheid was South Africa’s social political system of institutionalized racism (1948–1994).
Let us also note that gangs are actually diverse and shifting organizations whose members participate variably in criminality (Thornberry et al. 2003), and that other social groupings—such as fraternities—may have many of the same features as gangs, but largely escape stigma and criminalization (Sanday 2007).
Street capital adapts Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” (Bourdieu 1986, 47), and locates it to local cultural spaces framed within street contexts.
Names have been changed.
Stryker is a term used to describe an individual who has not been brought into the gang, but is working their way in. Strykers are provided tasks to prove their loyalty to the gang and is a way for the gang to vet who is willing to do what it takes for the gang. The position of stryker is equivalent to that of a prospect within biker gang culture.
This notion of the “the game” in street culture was imprinted into popular culture by The Wire’s Omar Little, a fictitious Baltimore stick-up man making a living robbing street-level drug dealers, perpetrating crimes not pursuable or prosecutable in any extrajudicial system because “it’s all in the game” (Anderson 2010).
This application of virtuosity is a play on Bourdieu’s own outline of the objective limits of objectivism (Bourdieu 1977). In pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the street field, they are able to source street capital from places others would not even consider.
Though the last school closed only in 1996.
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Dziewanski, D., Henry, R. Comparative Analysis of Coloured Gangs in Cape Town and Indigenous Gangs on Canada’s Prairies: Connecting Localized Opposition to Globalized Grievances Through Street Culture. Crit Crim 31, 239–258 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-022-09659-4