Cape Town - Counselling could change the lives of thousands of young gangsters who would otherwise be destined for a short and unpleasant existence.
It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of gang members in the South African port city of Cape Town, where rites of passage often include ritual killings and rapes. With myriad gangs competing for control of a lucrative drug trade, bloody turf wars are common.
"Gang life is like a religion to my family," said Tacky, 16, a member of the Thug Life gang. "My father and grandfather were in gangs and they have done time in jail - I will probably end up there as well. It is the way of life here; it is where you learn about respect and get status," he said outside an apartment block in Kutoon, one of Cape Town's oldest townships.
From the dilapidated flats, Tacky and the other gang members sell a crystal methamphetamine concoction known as tik to a constant stream of customers, the most regular users appearing to be themselves. "Tik is great," insisted a gang member known as Humpty, "It makes you aggressive and fearless."
The rise in the use of tik in recent years has been phenomenal. In 2003 only 2.3 percent of patients at drug rehabilitation clinics in the Western Cape Province cited it as their main substance of abuse: in the first six months of last year, the figure was up to 37 percent. According to users, tik produces the same "high" as crack cocaine, but its attraction is that the high lasts for three to four hours.
Street gangs have a long history in Cape Town, dating back to the aftermath of the Second World War, when they grew rapidly due to returning servicemen. Large-scale forced removals of "coloureds", under apartheid during the 1960s, from parts of Cape Town to townships in the Cape Flats eroded social controls, creating an environment of increased criminal activity. South Africa's stubbornly high unemployment rate has also narrowed opportunities for young people.
Gang life is not preordained, but Prof .Brian Robertson, former head of Cape Town University's Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, believes the path to ‘gangsterism’ for many adolescents stems from a variety of mental health issues - coupled with an impoverished upbringing in dysfunctional families.
"What seemed to be happening was that these youngsters committed murder or rape in response to wanting to join a gang, or because they came from a background of abuse or neglect. Almost all of these people came from families where violence was an everyday phenomenon. The conclusion I came to was: the youngsters were not committing serious crimes because of some sort of abnormal criminal streak, but because of the circumstances they were brought up in," he said.
While carrying out research in juvenile detention centres, Robertson and his team also conducted psychological tests and found the majority of those evaluated had some degree of cognitive impairment due to childhood abuse and neglect. This manifested itself in an inability to think and reason properly, and his research recorded psychiatric disorders ranging from depression and post-traumatic stress, to attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity.
"This has huge implications for their criminality, as the kids would often misinterpret people's intentions. Their family experiences dictated that they were mentally wired to react in a certain way: they always expected trouble and never stopped to consider the consequences of their actions," he said.
Michael Leunissen, 47, grew up in the same area as the Thug Life teenagers. He started his criminal career as a gangster by joining the JYO (Junior Young Ones) gang during the early 1970s, only to be convicted in 1974 for multiple murders and sentenced to 20 years in jail, where he subsequently joined the 28s, one of South Africa's most notorious prison gangs.
"Most of the guys are dead now: either shot or stabbed by rival gangsters, or hung on the gallows. I was crazy back then and didn't even think that killing people was wrong. I was stabbed once when I was 14 years old and decided that enough was enough; it was never going to happen again. If people wanted to kill me, I killed them first, and the alcohol used to tell me I was right. But when I left prison in 2000 I was tired of the life and wanted to change - I have kids and I don't want them to end up in jail, or worse," he said.
When asked if he had ever received professional counselling or guidance to help him come to terms with his violent past, Leunissen shook his head.
"I just try to stay away from trouble now, but it is not easy - I have nightmares and other problems that affect me and confuse me. I feel sorry for the young ones coming through the street gangs now, because they don't know what they are getting themselves into. But what can they do? To survive this life they feel they must learn what it is to be a gangster, but all they are doing is creating problems for themselves," he said.
Despite a general acceptance among the psychiatry community that such mental health problems are treatable to a certain degree, Robertson maintains that access to mental healthcare in South Africa's public health system is all but non-existent for young people.
"The demand for a mental health service comes from the people themselves, and that part of the population doesn't realise it has a problem. Although it is not possible to scientifically prove how successful treatment can be, it is generally accepted there can be a level of success if treated at an early stage," said Robertson.
"The kids need to connect to someone who cares before this can happen but, if someone doesn't intervene early, the chances of them connecting to someone who can help becomes less and less," he added.
According to the Department of Correctional Services, as of September 2006, there were 2,182 children under the age of 18 currently incarcerated in the South African prison system – 1,109 awaiting trial and 1,073 serving sentences.
If the department's youth category – young people aged 14 to 25 either serving a sentence or awaiting a trial date – is taken into account, then the total number of young people incarcerated jumps to 60,703.
Despite an overall reduction in prisoner numbers in previous years due to a number of early release initiatives, the authorities acknowledge that too many minors are still in prison and many jails remain overcrowded.
According to researchers from the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town, one of the obvious places where intervention in a troubled young person's life could take place is in the prison system, because they have a captive audience.
The latest White Paper by the Department of Correctional Services, outlining its position on correctional services policy, says young offenders with diagnosed mental illnesses should be treated at an institution having the necessary skills to provide treatment, and that officials in the correctional services must be trained to recognise signs of mental illness and immediately report these.
However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack of proper training in mental health issues among prison staff have ensured that, to date, most young people with mental health problems in jails never receive the type of care they require.
"Currently, being in prison doesn't do anything in terms of rehab, as the prison system operates in such a way as to make mental healthcare and rehabilitation impossible to carry out," said CCR prison researcher, Rosanne Baily.
According to Baily, the children in prison were highly traumatised, mentally unstable, and depressed by the environment they found themselves in, rather than benefiting from any sort of rehabilitation.
In Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town, there is one social worker to take care of all the incarcerated juvenile prisoners, and consequently the children rarely receive sufficient mental healthcare.
"The way that councillors try to tackle their workload is: they ignore those on short-term and long-term sentences, and try to deal with the juveniles on medium-term sentences, but often it is the ones on the long-term sentences who need the most help.
"The department [of correctional services] is trying to cope by involving all the staff units in a prison. For example, prison officers are being asked to rehabilitate offenders, but they have received no training in rehabilitation," she said. "Often they [prison officers] don't believe in rehabilitation, and because there is such [a high level of] understaffing you are left with all these young people just sitting around."
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions