Apartheid is often cited as a catalyst behind Cape Town's gang culture. When South Africa introduced the Group Areas Act of 1950, black people were expelled from the inner city to live in overcrowded parts of the Cape's periphery, where resources and territory were sparse, leading to fights and the eventual formation of gangs. By 2013, the South African Police Service estimated that there were 100,000 gang members in the Western Cape area alone.
One of the more notorious Cape gangs are the Americans, known for pioneering the local meth trade as well as their penchant for all things American. They're currently the largest operating gang in the Cape Flats and subsequently, one of the most violent.
We wanted to know what it's like to be in the Americans. So after a bit of internet work we tracked down a guy named Neil Moses. He was a member for 12 years, until he eventually wound up in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. Here's how he described living in a gang with a literal death wish.
VICE: What was your childhood like growing up in Cape Town?
Neil Moses: I was brought up in an area called Mitchell's Plain. My mother never allowed my brother and I to go past the front gate so of course we got a lot of hidings. But when I got to high school it all started. A friend of mine was sitting at a light post and another group shot at him, for no reason. So I told him if he needs me for anything, I'd be there.
So he needed you to fight?
Sort of. He was part of a group called Da Boys. They liked to drink, smoke weed, and go out clubbing, but then they started fighting other rival groups. So I told myself, No man, if I'm going to do the wrong things, I'd rather join a real gang . So in 1996 I joined the American gang. I was 21.
How did you approach them?
It was a Saturday. Me and my other friend, we went to the gang leader's house where they sold drugs and told him we wanted to become Americans. But he told us to come on Sunday. That's the day they sit kring (hold meetings).
"The day I got my tattoo they told me, 'This is the day that you sign your death wish. You could die today, tomorrow, you could die anytime.'"
What was it about the Americans that you liked?
I loved the American flag. The colors. And you can say it was an area thing because the Americans were the biggest in our area. When I was in primary school there was the Knife-Time gang and I used to draw their gang slogan on the walls. But then the Americans took over, so I started to like the Americans instead.
What's their philosophy?
It's all about the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, the White House. It's like a whole long story. For an example there are six white stripes on the American flag. Well the six white stripes represent the 26 gang, which means money. And the seven red stripes, they're for blood. And the blue is the police. It's a whole big story, a long story.
For more on gangs, watch our doc 'Inside a Biker Gang Full of Former Nazis':
Was your time with the Americans happy?
There were good times and there were bad times. I was happy with them because they were my family. But there were bad times too. There was an incident one night when a rival gang hit my friend and his head was covered in blood. So we had to retaliate and go get his blood back. But none of the Americans wanted to do it and I was standing there crying. I'd put my heart into the gang but they wouldn't help him. If a rival gang shoots me, or stabs me, then my blood is flowing right? Now we must go do the same to the rival gang, their blood must also flow. That's how we take the blood back. The day I got my tattoo they told me, "This is the day that you sign your death wish. You could die today, tomorrow, you could die anytime." And I was ready for that.
Did you ever kill anyone?
Yes, I killed someone with a knife. I feel bad now because who am I to take someone's life? But at the time, you just did it. When you're on drugs you don't feel anything. It just happens, and then it's finished.
I was on drugs every week. Maybe I wasn't on drugs two days a month. The times I didn't do drugs were when the body needed to recover. I was on meth, Mandrax (downers), dagga (weed), cocaine, and I did heroin once but it wasn't for me. I loved uppers because they keep you awake. When you're in a gang you must be awake. You must always be alert, that's the thing.
You were eventually sent to Pollsmoor prison. Why was that?
That was in 2000 for armed robbery. I got two years.
What was your day-to-day experience at Pollsmoor?
For me, it was all about survival. At Pollsmoor, the way you are outside, you must be on the inside. So I was with the 26s and 27s, who are called the Sonop, the Sunrise People. They told me, what's mine is mine, and I just kept strong.
So the 26s and 27s are part of the infamous Numbers Gang in Pollsmoor. Can you tell me about their role?
The 26s are the money gang. To join you must show them that you're a skelm (thief). You must steal, and you must climb into someone's head—you have to change their whole mindset to get something. It's a psychology gang. Then the 27s, they are the blood. If you want to join the 27s gang you must stab a warden or someone in prison. And the 28s, ah, how do I say this? The 28s sleep with men. I was with the 26s and 27s. To survive in prison, you must belong to a numbers gang. That's the only way.
What was the moment you decided you wanted to leave gang life?
The reason was because my daughter never knew me. I left my daughter when she was four months old. This year she will be ten years old, and she doesn't know about my past life. When she asks me about my tattoo, I tell her that one day I'll explain everything.
What would be your advice for kids who look up to gangs in Cape Town?
I would always tell people that to join a gang at this time would be stupidity, because it's not the same. Years back, the gangs used to stand with each other. But today's gang members have got no respect for big people. Meth is taking over Cape Town. Americans are killing Americans; your own brothers are killing each other. The way it is now makes my heart ache.
Illustrations by Michael Dockery
Interview by Charlotte Yates. Follow her on Twitter.