- Recreational spaces like parks or sports centers can deter young people from harmful behavior and reduce crime.
- But these facilities are rarely available to South Africa’s most vulnerable, unemployed and uneducated township youth with few options.
- Creating targeted programs that include proper supervision helps keep these young people busy and away from dangerous activities.
Recreational facilities play a crucial role in the development of young people. The research has show that sports and fitness centers, community halls, parks, libraries, cultural centers and other facilities can protect young people and reduce crime.
In South Africa, however, these facilities are not accessible to everyone and the townships are the hardest hit as they continue to have large numbers of unengaged and uninvolved young people who are not working, not studying or do not follow training – people called NEET.
Research on NEETs revealed that around 17 million people in South Africa aged between 15 and 60 were not in employment, education or training in the latter part of 2020 and more than half were under 35 years. This large number of inactive youth has an impact on crime and community safety – as many young people in African townships are forced to gain a sense of belonging by engaging in crime, violence and abuse of drugs or alcohol.
Studies in South Africa have repeatedly showed the link between idle youth and troubled social behaviors, including substance abuse and violence. Some studies have also found that access to recreational facilities can help learners exit gangs.
How these young people pass the time
Our research explored the complex link between recreational facilities and gang involvement in marginalized communities. It aimed to help youth development practitioners better understand the important role recreational facilities play in reducing gang and anti-social behavior.
We studied the experiences of young people from Nyanga in the Western Cape Province of South Africa and Bophelong in the Province of Gauteng, who perceived themselves as excluded from well-resourced and well-managed leisure facilities. We explored how this exclusion influenced youth gang violence in the two regions, which are African townships characterized by unemployment, poor quality education, poor housing conditions, high levels of crime and the underdevelopment.
In both communities, young people lacked the facilities that could keep them busy and off the streets. As a result, some of them passed the time by joining gangs and then were forced into violent, criminal and anti-social behaviors. It went from ukubloma emakhoneni (idleness on street corners) to drug use and physical assault.
The study therefore revealed a link between youth, behavioral problems and exclusion from recreational facilities. Findings show that youth development practitioners – such as those employed in the public sector, private sector and civil society to meet the needs of South African youth – have excluded young Africans from actively and fully participating in recreational activities. .
“The recipe for evil”: the association of idleness and crime
Both Nyanga and Bophelong struggle with the problem of gangs, drug addiction and related illegal activities which are a direct result of gangs and drugs.
For our study, we interviewed 18 unemployed youth aged 14 to 35, 18 former gang members aged 14 to 35, and 36 practitioners working on issues of youth and gang violence. We adopted an exploratory and qualitative approach to gain an in-depth understanding of participants’ perceptions on the topic.
We asked about how the lack of access to well-resourced and well-managed recreational facilities has intentionally or unintentionally influenced the problem of gang violence. Other questions focused on the benefits of recreation in preventing juvenile delinquency, gang membership and violence.
The responses showed a strong link between idleness and criminality. Many young people said that young people have too much free time, “which is a recipe for mischief”. Former gang members, in particular, attributed their involvement in gangs and crime to a lack of programs that could occupy them with developmental activities. A former gang member admitted:
“If we had things to do, we wouldn’t have all this time to kill 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 have also noted that young people who have too much free time are vulnerable to social ills such as drug addiction, crime, or gangs. These findings echo other studies on problematic behaviors.
How gangs and drug lords trap teens
The South African government has a Integrated Youth Development Strategy which emphasizes the importance of programs for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But practitioners and youth in our study said children growing up in townships joined gangs and used substances because they lacked youth-friendly facilities.
A former gang member from Bophelong said:
“Our houses are too small, they suffocate us. There are no facilities for young people in this neighborhood, young people have nothing to do… We need facilities or else we join gangs and do drugs just to forget our situation.
Practitioners and young people in our study pointed out that some of the few facilities available were either abandoned or unsupervised. As a result, some of them had been used as spaces for antisocial behavior by gangs and drug lords. Instead of serving as recreation areas to keep young people safe, these spaces were now traps for the vulnerable. As one practitioner put it:
“Then there was a park, then that park was taken over by gangs just because nobody owned the space, so they decided the space was theirs.”
Create tailor-made programs for young people
Recreational facilities must respond to the real needs of marginalized young people. But our findings showed that they did not. This defeats the whole purpose, as the facilities have failed to attract the very people they were meant to serve. A young unemployed man from Nyanga said:
“Sisteri, ekasi [Sister, the African township] is full of useful people doing useless things. Lots of talents and gifts are wasted ekasi due to limited resources that’s why people end up using their gifts for bad things like crime…There is a lot of frustration…eg going around Nyanga and watching around, the facilities are not attractive. ”
These results indicate the importance of understanding the specific needs and contexts of young people to implement targeted programs that prevent and correct antisocial behavior. Well-organized and well-managed recreation facilities play an important role in taking young people off the streets of marginalized and crime-ridden communities and keeping them engaged in meaningful activities.