Gangs: Recruitment often starts with children - being forewarned is being forearmed
Compiled by Annalise Kempen
Imagine a 12-year-old primary schoolchild peddling drugs at school for a gang! This is not a scene from a Hollywood movie, but information that was revealed during an interview with gang unit members in the Eastern Cape who explained that gangs were expanding their operations by also recruiting schoolchildren to help them push drugs into schools. This was apparently happening across Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and other Eastern Cape towns and it was not out of the ordinary to see children as young as 12 years old being part of a gang. Gang bosses are exploiting the fact that younger gang members are more trigger happy and more likely to evade arrest because of their age (Wilson and Van Aardt, 2019).
The younger, the better
The reality that schools are becoming the new playground of gangs may shock readers, but this truth should act as a wake-up call to parents that they have another dangerous topic to discuss with their children. The American Choose Peace/Stop Violence (Nd) collaboration warns that recruitment into gangs often starts when children are aged between ten and 13 years old and gangs start to target youth that are easily convinced to do work for the gang - it seems that the South African situation is not that much different.
Children who grow up in gang-infested areas are being exposed to gang activities from a young age and gangs will use anything possible such as providing cigarettes, alcohol and drugs to lure them or confront them in their neighbourhood, at school or even via the Internet. Gang members will also use peer pressure, fear or intimidation tactics to get individuals to join their gang or by focusing their tactics on all the good things that will happen to someone after she or he has become a member of a gang. These include access to money, cars and nice clothes; being able to attend parties and making many friends who will care for and love them. Young people who feel lost or lack a sense of belonging are attracted to these promises while having a glorified, yet false, image of the gangster lifestyle depicted in movies and music videos (Choose Peace/Stop Violence, Nd).
During the interview with Eastern Cape gang unit members, Wilson and Van Aardt (2019) were told that "recruiting schoolchildren gives you (gangs) an endless supply of bodies and helps push drugs into schools. There is money in schools and once the children are hooked, they will, over time, be recruited into the gangs", the gang unit members said. It was not uncommon for these police members to arrest schoolchildren who were transporting firearms in their backpacks for the gangsters. The gang members use the children to peddle items and if they comply, they are given more responsibility. School principals at both primary and secondary schools in the northern suburbs of Port Elizabeth have confirmed the views of these gang unit members. It was tragic that the children who have already become involved with the gangs were threatening their fellow learners by getting them to be lookouts and sound the alarm if they noticed that the police were doing searches at school. These children complied because of their fear for the gang-affiliated learners.
Capt Priscilla Naidu, a spokesperson for the SAPS in the Eastern Cape, confirmed to Wilson and Van Aardt (2019) that one of the trends was for schoolchildren forming their own school gangs. These gangs were affiliated with more established gangs who oversee the operations, offer protection and supply drugs. A police member of the gang unit elaborated that the children who are involved with gangs are protected by those to whom they are affiliated. When there is a problem at school, "the gang is called to assist - which could lead to shootings or targeting others at the school. Their strategy is long-term and very clear. Recruit youngsters inside schools across the Bay to capture the market and at the same time use it as a recruitment drive," one of the gang unit members said. As noted earlier, he confirmed that the children are first targeted as peddlers who get their friends and classmates addicted, whereafter these child drug peddlers are eventually recruited into the gangs. This police member confirmed that in each of the schools across Port Elizabeth which has been searched, the police has found drugs, with substances such as Tik and crack cocaine being found in one of the primary schools.