Pilgrims of Belonging: Family, Gang, and Religious Script(ure)s to Live By

  • Jan-Louise Lewin University of Cape Town
  • Javier Perez University of Cape Town
Keywords: Gangs, Prison, Coloured identity, Masculinity, Conversion


Understanding gang culture through a conceptual lens that views (ex-)gang members as “pilgrims,” invites us into a world where men are invested in a continuous quest for sanctified sources of belongingness. We witness men undertaking lone journeys between institutions of family, gangs, and religion in search of this need, relying on hallowed rituals, scripts, and symbolic structures to find and salvage this meaningfulness. This explorative study attempts to unpack the meanings of ‘coloured’ masculine identity by focusing on the intersections of gender, race, place, and religion in the process of “becoming” and “being” a man during and after incarceration. The research question asks, what meaning(s) do ‘coloured’ men derive from their belonging to street and prison gangs? Furthermore, how does gang and prison culture as sites of belonging influence the process of identity formation? This in-depth qualitative study explores the life history narratives of six ‘coloured’ men from the Cape Flats, who are between the ages of 21 and 35 years. It employs feminist theoretical frameworks broadly modelled on the theory of Intersectionality, Feminist Standpoint Theory, and Critical Men’s Studies. The narrative analysis revealed that family was a central theme in the life histories of the men. Family bonds were constructed around moments of contradiction, crisis, and trauma in the gang space, which ultimately transformed into an epiphany of religious conversion. Instrumental in this process of meaning-making was that the brotherhood that gangs provided replaced family units in times when families of origin were in states of precarity. The aim of this study is to refute dominant, negative representations of ‘coloured’ masculinity as only absent, aggressive, criminal, and/or violent. An investigation of ‘coloured’ masculinity is compounded by the multiple and problematic ways that ‘colouredness’ is perceived as synonymous with gangsterism and thus critical to understanding the gendered and racialised experiences of incarceration and reintegration, particularly in the South African context.