Gang life: How to leave and stay out

12 December 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Shaun Swingler. Read time 10 min.
Research by UCT PhD graduate Dr Jane Kelly sheds light on desistance from gangs and maintaining a reformed lifestyle.
Research by UCT PhD graduate Dr Jane Kelly sheds light on desistance from gangs and maintaining a reformed lifestyle.

While gangs are found all over the world, including in South Africa, gangsterism in Cape Town is a critical problem that needs urgent intervention. Part of the complexity in dealing with gang involvement is that research exploring why and how former gang members leave and stay out of gangs is sparse.

Dr Jane Kelly’s* recently published PhD thesis makes a much-needed contribution to the research. Titled Narratives of gang desistance amongst former gang members, Kelly’s research examines how former South African gang members understand and make sense of ceasing gang involvement, focusing on exiting gang life and maintaining a reformed lifestyle despite the possible challenges and temptations to relapse.

“I was interested in not only the process of exiting the gang but how they maintained that after they had left the gang because thereʼs often a risk of rejoining, particularly in the context of poverty and unemployment,” said Kelly.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Psychology PhD graduate conducted two rounds of life-history interviews with 12 former gang members, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 60s. All of them live in one Cape Flats community known for high rates of gang violence and which has several high-ranking gangs competing in the area. While there has been some investment in the community to uplift and rebuild, it remains an impoverished area with high levels of unemployment.


“Thereʼs often a risk of rejoining, particularly in the context of poverty and unemployment.” 

Many of the participants came from broken homes and families where a sense of belonging and of love were lacking. Most were at a “foot-soldier level” although three or four were more senior. The majority had spent time in prison and eight of the 12 had also joined prison or “numbers” gangs, as they are more commonly known, while maintaining their affiliation to their street gang.

Three of the interviewees had been in gangs for approximately 15 to 20 years. All had been out of the gang for at least one year, a requirement for participation in Kelly’s study.

“Thereʼs a high risk for relapse [so] I was interested in those who had successfully exited … and werenʼt at high risk of rejoining,” she said.

Identity transformation

Findings revealed two overarching themes: identity transformation and the act of leaving the gang and maintaining a transformed lifestyle.

Kelly’s research showed that the participants had transformed from a hard, stoic and typically masculine gangster identity to a reformed, prosocial man with a desire to care for his family and be a role model in the community. This transformation was marked by key turning points such as incarceration and religious experiences.

For the majority, identity transformation had been facilitated by a growing disillusionment with the gang because of negative experiences. When they initially joined the gang, they encountered a sense of brotherhood and belonging. Then, over time, they came to realise that the brotherhood and camaraderie were, in fact, false.

Kelly pointed out that disillusionment with the gang and choosing to desist is not a single event: “This is a process that unfolds over time, [with them] coming to realise that, ‘No, they're not there for me. That isnʼt what I want for my life anymore’.”

With a subset of participants, religion or a religious experience enabled them to feel absolved for their past crimes and gave them a sense of meaning. 

“What was interesting for me is that it transformed them into these emotionally aware and very sensitive people, which completely goes against the kind of violent gangster stereotype,” said Kelly.

Agency, desire and support

The second overarching theme was leaving and staying away from the gang. All the former gang members had made a conscious decision to desist; it didn’t come from an external party. Therefore, Kelly argued, there is agency in the desistance process.

But again, itʼs a process because while they might have wanted to change, they didnʼt necessarily know how because they didnʼt have the right resources on which to draw.

Religion emerged as a key factor, giving them a sense of meaning, belonging, absolution and a new community. What was of interest to Kelly was that gangs respect religion and wanting to become “a man of God” as a way of exiting.


“It transformed them into these emotionally aware and very sensitive people.”

“It felt a bit counterintuitive to me, you know, thinking of gangs as these hardened people, but they seem to have this fundamental, inherent respect for religion,” she said.

Another mechanism of support was social – family members, loved ones or friends they could turn to when they wanted to make a change. An additional, crucial element was the availability of substance abuse rehabilitation programmes. Nine of the 12 former gang members had been addicted to drugs and so a significant part of their desistance process was stopping drugs.

A final sub-theme here is the desire to be better people, whether through being caring, giving fathers or by being a positive role model in the community. Kelly found that this supported them in leaving and staying away from the gang because they had people looking up to them.

“It also gave them a huge sense of purpose to be doing something and giving back after living this life of crime and violence.”

Risks and challenges

One of the major threats to maintaining a reformed lifestyle is whether former gang members can secure employment. In the international literature, finding employment and a meaningful job is a way one can exit a gang. With South Africa’s worsening unemployment rates, the challenge for former gang members is amplified.

Returning to the same community in which their former gang operates holds the potential for recidivism. Added to this is that when they return, it is to an impoverished community where the same conditions persist that led many to gangsterism in the first place.

Drug addiction relapse is another problem area. Kelly explained that former gang members might return to drug use and then active addiction which could, in turn, mean a return to gangs to fund the addiction.

Further challenges and risks include reformed gang members’ safety, particularly from rival gangs; and having the former gang constantly watching to ensure the individual is keeping their word regarding their reason for leaving.

Supporting desisters

As is evident from Kelly’s research, once an individual has decided to leave a gang, they are likely to face an array of challenges. It is, therefore, crucial that there are continuous interventions and a network that offers both practical and emotional support.

Because desisting gang members may be attempting to recover from drug use while exiting, and because relapse could lead to recidivism, interventions should include substance abuse rehabilitation.

Kelly also suggests that intervention initiatives with gang-involved youth include a focus on positive role-modelling as this presents the desisting individual with the “sense of responsibility, accountability and meaning [that] occupying a prosocial identity position can provide”.


“It also gave them a huge sense of purpose to be doing something and giving back after living this life of crime and violence.”

Religion can serve both as an intervention and a support network. And because of the respect gangs afford religion, offering interventions in prisons that are faith-based could mitigate the powerful hold the numbers gangs have over the prison system.

For individuals, particularly youth, to go through with their decision to exit and then to maintain a reformed lifestyle, they must have access to protective resources such as the United States-based CureViolence and HomeBoys initiatives where they can receive job-readiness training and mental health assistance.

Support networks can be made up of and include family members and loved ones, faith-based leaders, parole officers and recovery support groups.

Families and loved ones can play a key role in the desistance process as gang members often turn to them first with their intention to desist. Because of this, they need to be educated on and equipped with the skills that’ll help them support the individual.

Kelly added that support for the families can also include programmes that focus on strengthening their parenting skills and which enable them “to have warm, loving and nurturing relationships with their children”.

Whatever the interventions and support networks, they must go beyond the desisting individual and be continuous. As is evident from the research and the participants’ narratives, the desisting gang member needs to experience meaningful turning points and must “form a purposeful intention to make a change”.

*Kelly is now the Assistant Director: Policy and Research in the Department of Community Safety, Western Cape Government.

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