STREET GANGS IMITATE U.S. South African 'colored' groups operate protection rackets


MANENBERG, South Africa -- You can tell right away that Ian Africa is an "American." It's written all over him. Literally.

From the "USA" tattoo on his arm to the graffiti outside his house, there are signs that make his identity unmistakable. He also speaks with pride about the White House, the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. flag. Even his faded knit shirt is red, white and blue.

But the 26-year-old high school graduate is not a citizen of the United States.

He's never set foot in that nation. He is a member of a street gang in the Western Cape region that has taken its name and symbols from Uncle Sam and is becoming increasingly popular.

"We've got a lot of kids dropping out of school and wanting to be Americans, but I say no. They must go to school," said Mr. Africa, leader of the gang in Manenberg since his cousin, the former leader, went to jail for armed robbery.

"We Americans are educated," he said, as two fellow Americans nodded in agreement. "If you want to be an American, you've got to have the facts."

The Americans are one of the fastest-growing street gangs in the poor "colored" townships of the Cape Flats, the neighborhoods created for colored or mixed-race people who were forced out of Cape Town under apartheid to make room for all-white communities.

Their growth reflects the strange impact of poverty and U.S. television on a fragile population thousands of miles from the United States but heavily influenced by images of Rambo and The Godfather.

"We don't have any enemies. But all the other gangs hate us because of our pride. Every time you sit in front of a television, there's the flag," said the American leader, a thin man whose body is covered with knife and bullet scars from years of gang warfare.

But the fights here aren't ideologically or racially driven as they are elsewhere in South Africa.

Cape Town has one of the highest murder rates in the world, primarily because of killings in the Flats, where unemployment is high and where mixed-race "coloreds" are stuck between black and white cultures in this country.

Coloreds are descendants of the various groups of white people who settled here at the tip of Africa and intermingled with the natives -- mostly the pastoral brown-skinned people known as the Hottentots. They often identify more with black Americans than with black Africans.

Mr. Africa, a colored who grew up in the Flats, said he has held only one job in his life -- for three months -- and he lost it when he was laid up with stab wounds from a fight in 1987.

"I'm now six years out of school, and I've never worked. The crime rate here in South Africa is high because there's no jobs," he said.

Instead of working, he runs a protection racket in Manenberg, demanding payment from businessmen and taxi drivers to guarantee their safety in American territory.

"I'm a confidence trickster. There is no robbing. People give me their money," he said. "We Americans use our knowledge to make money." He was arrested once on a murder charge and acquitted, but he said he never has been charged in connection with his protection trade.

Police say there are about 12 gangs operating in Manenberg out of 95 gangs throughout the vast region of the Cape Flats, a region of bleak, sandy plains that extend inland from Cape Town.

Although the Americans are the toughest gang in some neighborhoods, they are not Manenberg's toughest.

Here, the most prominent gang is the Hard Living Kids, who police and community activists say is run by drug-dealing twin brothers.

"In Manenberg the Americans haven't got the strength," said police Capt. Arno Lamoer, who estimated that there were 100 Hard Living Kids compared to about 30 Americans.

Last year, police helped to establish a special community forum for Manenberg, a community of 70,000, in an effort to bring gang fights and crime under control.

Captain Lamoer said it has been comparatively quiet this year as a result of the community effort. Last year, police established a special gang-busting unit to tackle the growing problem of gangsterism and related crime. But the unit has only 50 officers so far for the entire Western Cape while gang membership is estimated in the tens of thousands.

Fagrodien Johnson, a former gang member who works as a counselor in a church-sponsored community office, says the gangs emulate what they see on television.

"They want to be like American gangs. Television influences a lot of youths," he said, noting that the gangs also include the Young Americans, Ugly Americans and the JFKs.

Many of the gangsters shop at clothing stores specializing in outfits with American symbols, like jogging suits that say Yankees or Redskins.

Mr. Johnson said that most gang fights are for territory but that there was one fight a few years ago over which gang wore American clothing first.

"America is powerful. It blasted us with its Rambo movies. That has had a big influence," said Chris Ferndale, a social worker for a private organization that works with ex-offenders, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders.

He said unemployment, drugs, disintegration of the family and television have combined to produce the "American" phenomenon in this region at the southern tip of Africa.

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