Author Interview: Don Pinnock

Conservationist and son of an honest Queenstown cop, Don Pinnock immerses himself in, among many other things, the wilds of Cape Town’s ganglands…

Words: Nancy Richards

Pictures: supplied

GangTown_Cover_Draft15_FINAL“Technically I’m still a member of the Mongrels. I didn’t do any robberies or drug deals, but I was deep inside their space.”

Don Pinnock’s warm, shambling, conservationist’s charm belies his insight into the dark underworld of gangsterism.

“Syndicate bosses are nasty but 80 per cent of gangs are teens. Like anybody else, if someone shows an interest in these youngsters, they appreciate it. I’ve sat with characters that would horrify the middle classes – gold, glinting teeth caps, tattoos, guns tucked in their belt – but you know, if you think you’re going to die at 24 as they do, you become a philosopher. I’ve had some extraordinary conversations.”

Gang Town is not the first book that Pinnock has written on the subject. Thirty years ago for his masters at UCT, he wrote The Brotherhoods. “It looked at the impact on families ripped apart by forced removals, how kids hit streets and became gangsters.”

Well over a decade later, towards a post-doc, he wrote Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage.  “I was studying ancient social rituals in the Transkei, and discovered that gangs in Cape Town were doing the same kind of thing. I thought, ‘What is it about adolescence that requires ritual in adulthood?’ Seems like every time I’m near academia, I end up writing about gangs!”

But this third book, which won the City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award, far from being the ‘dust-off’ of earlier research he’d anticipated, “took me in a completely different direction. My adopted city had changed almost beyond recognition, [requiring] an entirely new perspective and a new criminology of deviance. It’s also the first book on criminology I know of that uses epigenetics [refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off] as a way to understand delinquent behaviour.”

DonPinnockThe depth of his experience, which included being part of the three-person team who wrote the White Paper for the Child Justice Act, and his investigative skills gave Pinnock the insights to write this book – one that has become a policy manual. But it’s his compassion that makes it more broadly meaningful. While he had to explore the entrenched toxicity of gangs, he was determined to add chapters of hope, “a rethink… an alternative life path”, as well as a “toolbox of things I’ve found to be useful game-changers for parents, teachers and community workers”.

But gang reports are far from the only markers on Pinnock’s ‘zig-zagged’ career path, which pours out in a torrent: “Initially I studied electronic engineering…worked for the SABC… moved into print, The World [newspaper], lived in Soweto, then on to the UK – it was that or get arrested… wrote for a London communist paper, for The Herald in Zim, The Argus in Cape Town. Then I realised I really didn’t know what was going on so I went to study…”

To cut to the academic finish line, he now has a PhD in political science (producing Writing Left, a partial biography of Ruth First), an MA in criminology and a BA in African history. For a while he also lectured in journalism and radio at Rhodes.

“While I was there Getaway editor David Steele sent me some copies to assess. I ripped into them. Strangely later they offered me a job.” He went on to become editor, a much-published travel writer (he even got to Antarctica) and successful photographer.

Never short of spoken words, two things that get Pinnock going are his passion for conservation – he writes copiously for Francis Garrard’s Conservation Action Trust – and writing. “I just love ‘enwording’ a story, then reducing it to the very fewest required.” But when you have as many stories to tell as he has, that could take some time.

Gang Town (R225) is published by Tafelberg, www.tafelberg.com

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