Recreational facilities play a crucial role in youth development. Research has shown that sports and fitness centres, community halls, parks, libraries, cultural centres and other facilities can keep young people out of harm’s way and reduce crime.
In South Africa, however, these facilities aren’t available to everyone and townships are hardest hit as they continue to have large numbers of unengaged and uninvolved youths who are not in employment, education or training – persons referred to as NEETs.
Research on NEETs found that approximately 17 million people in South Africa between the ages of 15-60 were not in employment, education or training in the latter part of 2020 and more than half were below the age of 35. This significant number of idle youths has an impact on crime and community safety – as many African township youths are forced to achieve a sense of belonging through engaging in crime, violence, drug abuse and alcohol abuse.
Studies in South Africa have repeatedly shown the link between idle youths and troubled social behaviour, including drug abuse and violence. Some studies have also found that access to recreational facilities can help learners to leave gangs.
Our research explored the intricate link between recreational facilities and gang involvement in marginalised communities. It sought to help youth development practitioners better understand the significant role played by recreational facilities in reducing gangs and anti-social behaviour.
We studied the experiences of youths from Nyanga in South Africa’s Western Cape province and Bophelong in Gauteng province, who perceived themselves as excluded from well-resourced and well-managed recreational facilities. We explored the way this exclusion had influenced youth gang violence in both areas, which are African townships characterised by unemployment, low quality education, poor housing conditions, high levels of crime and underdevelopment.
In both communities, young people lacked the facilities that could keep them occupied and off the streets. As a result some of them passed time by joining gangs and were then compelled to join in violent, criminal and anti-social behaviour. This ranged from “ukubloma emakhoneni” (being idle on street corners) to drug use and physical assault.
So the study revealed a link between youth, troubled behaviour and exclusion from recreational facilities. The findings show that youth development practitioners – such as those employed in the public sector, private sector and civil society to serve the needs of South African youths – have excluded African youths from actively and fully participating in recreational activities.
Nyanga and Bophelong both battle with the issue of gangs, substance abuse and the subsequent illegal activities that are a direct consequence of gangs and drugs.
For our study, we interviewed 18 unemployed youths aged between 14 and 35 years, 18 former gang members between the ages of 14 and 35, and 36 practitioners working on the issue of youth and gang violence. We took an exploratory, qualitative approach to obtain an in-depth understanding of the participants’ perceptions of the topic.
We asked questions about how a lack of access to well-resourced and well-managed recreational facilities has intentionally or unintentionally influenced the issue of gang violence. Other questions included the benefits of recreation in the prevention of youth delinquency, gang involvement and violence.
The responses showed a strong link between idleness and crime. Many young people said youths had too much time on their hands, “which is a recipe for mischief”. Especially former gang members attributed their involvement in gangs and crime to a lack of programmes that could keep them busy with developmental activities. One former gang member admitted:
If we had things to do, we wouldn’t be having all this time to be killing each other. We have too much time here, gangs and drugs keep us busy.
After school, we have nothing to do … We have too much free time and we are free to move around with guns and knives, not books.
Some practitioners, too, noted that youths with too much time on their hands are vulnerable to social ills such as substance abuse, crime or gangs. These findings echo other studies about problem behaviour.
Gangs take over neglected facilities
The South African government has an Integrated Youth Development Strategy which highlights the importance of programmes for youths from underprivileged backgrounds. But practitioners and young people in our study said that children growing up in townships joined gangs and abused substances because they lacked youth-friendly facilities.
A former gang member from Bophelong indicated:
Our homes are too small, they are suffocating us. There are no facilities for young people in this area, young people have nothing to do … We need facilities or else we join gangs and do drugs just to forget about our circumstances.
Both practitioners and young people in our study pointed out that some of the few facilities that were available were either abandoned or unsupervised. As a result some of them had been used as a space for antisocial behaviour by gangs and drug lords. Instead of serving as areas of recreation to keep young people safe, these spaces were now traps for the vulnerable. As one practitioner put it:
Then there was a park and then this park was captured by gangs simply because there was nobody who was owning the space, so they decided that the space is theirs.
Meeting real needs
Recreational facilities should meet the real needs of marginalised young people. But our findings highlighted that they didn’t. This defeated the whole purpose because the facilities failed to attract the very people they were meant to serve. An unemployed youth from Nyanga said:
Sisteri, ekasi (Sister, the African township) is full of useful people doing useless things. A lot of talents and gifts are wasted ekasi because of limited resources, that’s why people end up using their gifts for wrong things like crime … There is a lot of frustration … for example go around Nyanga and look around, the facilities are not attractive.
These findings indicate the importance of understanding specific youth needs and contexts to bring about targeted programmes that prevent and redress antisocial behaviour. Well-organised and well-managed recreational facilities play an important role in removing youths from the streets of marginalised, crime ridden communities and keeping them occupied with constructive activities.