CNN Photos

The life of a Cape Flats gangster

Apartheid was officially abolished by South Africa in the early 1990s, but the lingering effects of racial segregation can still be seen in Cape Flats, a violent, gang-infested area of Cape Town.

More than 50 years ago, the government forced multiracial people out of central Cape Town and into the flat, low-lying region on the outskirts of the city.

Since that time, there has been a constant struggle for power and survival in the suburb.

“I'm in one of the toughest townships, and now there's shooting there, there's fighting every day,” said Italian photographer Gianmarco Panucci. “People die almost every day.”

Panucci has been spending time with Cape Flats residents, many of whom are in gangs that represent a different street or a different block. Panucci said extreme poverty and a feeling of hopelessness fuels their criminal activity.

“The situation is unbelievable,” he said. “Things don't change, and no one cares about them. ... There's no way out.

“I know youths about 13, 14 years old that don't want to be a gangster. But they must because they are struggling and they need money. And it's also a matter of protection, to be safe.”

Panucci visited South Africa for the first time in 2011, to work on other projects. But while talking with people, he kept hearing about the dire situation in Cape Flats.

He wanted to learn more about the issue and try to show, through photos, what it was like to live there and even be part of a gang. So he made some contacts and eventually earned the trust he needed to gain access.

“Of course, at the beginning, it was very difficult because they thought I was maybe a police infiltrator or maybe a member of another gang,” Panucci said. “You are the only white inside the area, so of course they’re going to look at you stranger. It's something that they are not used to.”

Panucci’s photos show people in Cape Flats carrying weapons and doing drugs, including marijuana and crystal methamphetamine that they call “tik.”

“They smoke, and they fight. That's the life of a gangster,” he said. “And the other people, some of them go to work, some of them have no work so they stay with the family. Of course, they struggle to get not just the food but also electricity for their house or water. Everything, you know? It's a very hard life.”

Panucci says life in Cape Flats is unsafe and unpredictable.

“It’s like a city at war sometimes,” he said. “You feel that anything can happen anytime. There’s a lot of tension.”

But while he was on the streets, shooting photos, Panucci never felt in danger, he said.

“It was not about fear,” he said. “It was more about sadness or something you just don't want to accept. You see guys 15 years old, 20 years old, 25, they are very young and they died for nothing. Really, they died for nothing.”

- Kyle Almond, CNN