Democracy's Children? Masculinities of Coloured Adolescents Awaiting Trial in Post-Apartheid Cape Town, South Africa

By Cooper, Adam; Foster, Don | Thymos, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Democracy's Children? Masculinities of Coloured Adolescents Awaiting Trial in Post-Apartheid Cape Town, South Africa


Cooper, Adam, Foster, Don, Thymos


This study explored the young, marginalised masculinities of 25 boys awaiting trial for various offences in Cape Town, South Africa. The boys came from impoverished areas created by Apartheid legislation and most of the boys were involved in gangs. Through their language and descriptions of practices the boys construct three intersecting discourses of masculinity, as they strive to be the toughest gangster, the sweet "mommy's boy" and a "gentleman" who provides and protects for his family. Although the boys end up in the criminal justice system awaiting trial, they still have a certain amount of agency, as they slide between discourses and temporarily become gangster superheroes. These boys' masculinities are bound up with their context: they live in a place with a violent past and a tumultuous post-Apartheid present, precipitating substantially ambivalent subjectivities.

Keywords: boys, masculinities, post-Apartheid, crime

This study explores the young masculinities of 25 coloured,1 Afrikaans-speaking boys from the Cape Flats who were awaiting trial. The Cape Flats is a wasteland where non-white people from Cape Town, South Africa were re-settled after Apartheid legislation separated race groups in the city. This tumultuous history partly results in Cape Town having one of the highest homicide rates for a city globally, as South Africa has the third highest murder rate internationally and Cape Town is the city with the highest murder rate in South Africa (Louw, 2007). Cape Town's homicide rate is 88 per 100 000 population, much higher than the global rate of 28.8 deaths per 100 000 population (Prinsloo, Matzopoulos, & Sukhai, 2003). The contemporary Cape Flats is a hornet's nest of poverty, gangs, guns and drugs. Sixty-one percent of young people under 30 are unemployed; there are approximately 80 to 100 thousand gangsters and 130 gangs that contribute to 40% of the murders, 42% of the robberies and 70% of the crime generally in the Western Cape (Kagee & Frank, 2005; Kinnes, 2000; Samara, 2005; Standing, 2004). These gangs have become criminal empires, trading in different forms of contraband, with the result that drugs are widely available (Kinnes). Crime, drugs and gangsterism on the Cape Flats are therefore inextricably interlinked and this is the turbulent context in which we are studying the masculinities of these "children of the new South African democracy."2

The boys in this study were awaiting trial for various crimes at a "place of safety," where we were granted permission to conduct research. A place of safety is a location where young men, under eighteen years of age, are kept while they await trial. According to the boys, five were being tried for murder (three of the boys were being tried for two counts), one for attempted murder, three for rape, one for assault, three for armed robbery, seven for housebreaking or car theft, two for petty theft, one for possession of a gun and one for throwing stones on a neighbour's roof (one made no mention of what he was being charged with). Nineteen of the 25 boys claimed to be involved with gangs on some level.

Our study of these young boys' masculinities is informed by two streams of theory, both of which see masculinity as a contextually contingent phenomenon. Firstly, we follow Connell's (1995) sociological approach that identifies the existence of different masculinities and explores how these masculinities are placed in relation to one another and result in some men subordinating others. These different masculinities include hegemonic (which we will explore in more detail shortly), complicit (people who support hegemonic masculinity), subordinate (for example homosexuals) and marginalised masculinities (Connell). The boys in the current study would fall under the category of marginalised masculinity, as Apartheid and colonial dynamics result in them being marginalised by race and class. Marginalised masculinity usually comprises a large degree of machismo, as these men try to regain power lost through class and race subjugation (for other examples of marginalized masculinity, see Bourgois, 1996; Willis, 1977).

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