The rise of female township gangs

Pharie Sefali
Groups of school girls are allying themselves with male township gangs. Photo by Masixole Feni.
Pharie Sefali

When people think of gangs in the townships of Cape Town, they mostly picture young boys and men — the Vato, Vura, Hardlivings, Palestinians and such. But there are also female gangs, rarely noticed, because they act differently from the male gangs. GroundUp went to talk to some of the “babes”.

These girls, aged anywhere from 12 to 20 years’ old, form groups such as the Vura Babes or the Vato Babes. They are directly linked to the male gangs, and they play the roles of girlfriend and being a “snitch”, or hiding weapons for the gangs.

When these girls belong to a certain gang they become part of its territory. Rival gangs may attack them to exact revenge. In most cases, the girls are vulnerable if the males are not around to protect them.

Female gang members can be beaten, raped, robbed or abused emotionally. A 16-year-old girl called Neli from Langa said that she belongs to the Vura gang and she calls herself a Vura Babe. Neli comes from a poor family in Langa. Her single parent mother is a domestic worker. She is the youngest child. Her two brothers smoke weed and her older sister left for Johannesburg.

“I joined the gang because my boyfriend is part of the gang, and at school when they known you are in a gang, you become cool and you are respected”.

“In my school, we are 15 Vura Babes and there is the Vato Babe gang, our enemies. We mostly fight about small things, like gossip and about our boyfriends. When we fight, we usually don’t use weapons, but there are incidents where one would have a knife, but that is rare because we are normally searched at school,” said Neli.

Ntombi from Khayelitsha, who is now 19 and no longer a gang member, said that two years ago, she was a Vura Babe. She was gang raped by the Vato gang because her brother stabbed one of them.

“I was very much involved in the gang. My brother used to ask me to hide weapons. I also used to fight with other girls on his behalf and other gang members. That life was the best, because he used to steal things and give them to me. I used to shoplift clothes for the gang. In return, they gave me gadgets they got from robbing … [That was] until I was gang raped and got pregnant … now I am HIV positive,” Ntombi told GroundUp.

Ntombi has not accepted her HIV status. She had an abortion. Since the rape, she hates the gang and feels sorry for the girls who are part of it.

Ntombi’s family runs a successful tuckshop and they are well off. She regards herself and her brother as the blacksheep of in the family of six. Both parents are still alive and married but the older siblings stay on their own.

She said that she doesn’t like her parents because to them money comes first, and they do not spend time together as a family.

Ntombi is very close to her brother. He is 24 years’ old and still a gang member. He dropped out of school due to gang related incidents.

Andiswa from Gugulethu said she enjoys being in a gang and its her choice. She likes the clothes they wear and the style of language they use. She also likes the fact that she feels protected and other girls don’t mess with her.

“Being part of a gang is a swag in Gugulethu; other girls want to be like you … Yes, when we fight, it’s hard. I even have two scars on my back. I was stabbed during a fight with other girls, but it’s one of the thrills I had to experience. Now, I am respected,” Andiswa told GroundUp.

She said that at night, they walk around carrying pangas and other weapons in case they see their enemies. But most times, she said, the pangas are used by the males.

A teacher in Khayelitsha known as Mrs Nomfemele said that the female gangs are not as notorious as the male gangsters in her school. They face emotional and psychological traumas because they get raped; they watch people being murdered; they are often victims of emotional and physical abuse.

Nokwakha Nomvete, an elder from Langa, said that she has sat with the girls trying to understand their involvement in gangs.

“I believe that the girls come from a background that lacks any emotional support. These girls need to belong somewhere, and being in a gang gives them that sense of belonging. Some come from families that are abusive and they feel powerless, so in a gang they get some sense of control and power,” Nomvete said.

What is different from the males is that the girl gangsters attend school. Some of them are doing well. Most of them do not smoke drugs, though they occasionally drink alcohol.

One of them told GroundUp that it was easy to leave the gang, but then life would be boring, she said.

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