Softening the ‘Iron Hand’: Re-Thinking Punitive Approaches to Addressing Gang Subcultures in South Africa


  • Theodore Petrus University of the Free State, South Africa.
  • Chijioke Uwah University of Fort Hare (UFH), South Africa.
  • Desira Davids Helenvale Youth Enrichment Project, South Africa.
  • Branton Jonas Department of Safety and Liaison, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.


Gang subcultures, gang-related crime, South Africa, gangsterism, Port Elizabeth, Covid-19


Shortly after the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the South African government instituted a nationwide lockdown, in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. However, a critical part of this process was the policing of communities under lockdown. In various communities throughout South Africa afflicted by gang-related crime, while the lockdown initially had an impact on gang activities, this did not last long. Gang subcultures continued despite the lockdown measures, as well as the joint military and police operations to maintain order. This article focuses on the relevance of punitive approaches to addressing gang subcultures in South Africa, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 environment. It is based on research conducted by the authors in a gang-affected community in the city of Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha), located in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The main argument is that punitive approaches are no longer effective (assuming they never were), and are certainly no longer relevant for addressing gang subcultures in the Covid-19 era.

Author Biographies

Theodore Petrus, University of the Free State, South Africa.

Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State, South Africa.

Chijioke Uwah, University of Fort Hare (UFH), South Africa.

Department of English & Comparative Literature, University of Fort Hare (UFH), East London, South Africa.

Desira Davids, Helenvale Youth Enrichment Project, South Africa.

Helenvale Youth Enrichment Project, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Branton Jonas, Department of Safety and Liaison, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

Department of Safety and Liaison, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.


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