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Revolutionaries, barbarians or war machines? Gangs in Nicaragua and South Africa

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The view of gangs as proto-revolutionary vanguards has continued to inform the analyses of many gang researchers over the past few decades. During the course of our own research on gangs in respectively a poor neighbourhood in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, and a coloured township in Cape Town, South Africa, we have found considerable empirical resonance between Fanon's vision and the real-life discourses of many of the gangsters that we have interviewed and spent time with. Although narratives of fighting with the authorities, only stealing from the rich (or the racially dominant), and protecting local communities and neighbourhoods have long been features uncovered by research on gangs, we found these to often be actively framed in explicitly revolutionary terms. Nicaraguan gang members, for example, frequently compared their behaviour with the actions of the Sandinista revolutionary regime, while gangs in post-Apartheid South Africa explicitly justified themselves as ANC-inspired forms of resistance against institutionalised racism. We wish to propose that gangs are a phenomenon that can be understood using Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the 'war machine'. This captures not only the ambiguities of gangs, but also the underlying similarities between gangs that have emerged in very different contexts, each with their own localised histories of accumulation and marginalisation. In doing so it allows us to better understand what it is that gangs and their violent practices really represent, and what relation they have, if any, to revolution.

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