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Gangs, Politics and Dignity in Cape Town.


Steffen Jensen

(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 240 pages.

Gangs, Politics and Dignity in Cape Town is an ethnographic study of Coloured residents in the Cape Flats of South Africa. Steffen Jensen refers to the Coloured populace as it was defined in the 1930s by South Africa's Wilcocks Commission, "as a residual group, including 'all persons not of unmixed European descent, or of unmixed Bantu descent, or of unmixed Asian descent.'"

The author profiles Heideveld residents caught in the daily crossfire between the promises of a nonracialized, egalitarian post-apartheid democracy and the reality of a gang-ridden, apartheid-produced segregated township. Jensen argues that apartheid produced the Coloured race by forcibly creating segregated spaces to legitimate and codify Coloured inferiority. In resistance to this domination from above, Coloured individuals in Heideveld defend their dignity in a variety of ways, many of which feed into negative stereotypes.

Jensen uses field research from 1997 to 1999 to explore the thesis that it is in the pursuit of dignity that many Coloured men turn to the male imperative of familial protection, at best, and to violent gang activity, at worst. His research also demonstrates that women's parallel quest for respectability lies in their ability to support family units through formal economic means, to raise sound children--particularly sons--and to distance themselves from violence within the townships. Jensen stresses that the Coloured quest for dignity is gendered, not only because gangs are highly populated by men, but also because of apartheid.

Jensen does not explain why it is that as the apartheid regime drew to a close, gang violence became more prevalent. Instead, he focuses on making academic the ways in which individuals balance the parallel development of political change and gang violence, and situates the contradictory survival tactics employed by average township residents within the context of Coloured individuals' struggles to reconstruct and defend personal dignity in the new South Africa.
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Author:Allen, Nafeesah
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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