At Prom Night in South Africa's Gangsterland, Teenagers Look Forward to One Carefree Night

Lauren-Lee Scheepers and her prom date are cheered by neighbors who have come to see her in her prom gown. In Manenberg, families that can barely afford food save for prom gowns, tuxedos and limousines. For many of them, it's the first time a family member has finished high school. Ilvy Njiokiktjien

In the swish part of Cape Town, tourists stroll on palm tree–lined boulevards and visit the white sand beaches in the suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay. But just 12 miles from the center of the city, in the township of Manenberg, residents live in a very different reality: Gang warfare, unemployment and drug addiction create an environment that is anything but calm.

The legacy of racism still looms over Manenberg, which was formed in 1966 under apartheid as a neighborhood for "coloureds ," the South African word for citizens of mixed race. Gangs like the Hard Livings, the Clever Kids and the Americans rule large swaths of the north, east and south sides of the township, while smaller gangs, like the Soldier Boys, Chesters and Dixie Boys, preside over whatever remaining territory they can claim. In 2015 to 2016, in a township of just 60,000 people, there were 60 murders (three times the national average), 130 attempted murders and 2,508 drug-related crimes, making it one of the top 10 worst precincts in South Africa for drug crime, according to police.

One August day in 2013, I was sitting in my car in Johannesburg, where I live and work as a foreign correspondent, when I heard on the radio that the schools in Manenberg had been closed to protect students from getting hit by stray bullets. I called photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien to see if she would go with me to Manenberg. Over the next three years, we traveled to the township several times to interview teachers, students and families about the experience of attending high school in such a dangerous place.

We learned that completing high school is a rare achievement in Manenberg. Only 22.2 percent of the township's population over 20 has graduated. For some, life as a gang member, or the girlfriend of a gang member, seems more desirable than getting a job, and probably more attainable.

But there is evidence that getting a high school diploma is worth the effort. The youth unemployment rate in the township is a soul-crushing 48.6 percent for people aged 15 to 34, but earning a "matric" certificate, as graduation is called in South Africa, can improve job prospects. Nationally, the unemployment rate for 25- to 35-year-olds with less than matric was 47 percent, compared with 33 percent of those who had matric, and 20 percent for those who had some higher education, according to the most recent national census.

In 2013, Njiokiktjien photographed a small group of students celebrating their graduation from Phoenix High School in Manenberg as they prepared for their senior prom, or matric dance. Families who can barely pay for food or utilities save up for ball gowns, tuxedos and even rented limousines. For many of them, it's the first time a family member has finished high school.

Njiokiktjien focused on two students in particular — Lauren-Lee Scheepers, then 18, who goes by Lolla, and 18-year-old Riyaad Grever. Scheepers lost her father, a former member of the Clever Kids gang, in a shooting when she was young and had her daughter, Nerusha, at 16. Grever barely knows his father, who was serving a prison sentence for attempted murder and robbery and has since died in prison. The high school student was in a gang until his grandmother sent him to a mosque to contemplate his future, which set him on the course to graduate high school. I filmed Scheepers and Grever at the dance and for the two weeks leading up to it. That became part of a project about the larger community between 2013 and 2015. Our web documentary, "One Carefree Night," was released at festivals in 2016. (Watch above)

The stories of Scheepers and Grever have unfolded since prom night with a mix of hope and disappointment. Grever, who has not been able to find a job since he passed his matric, makes 160 rand ($12) a week selling the scrap metal he collects during the day. He has dreams of becoming a nurse or a tour guide, but no one in his family can pay the tuition fees for the further schooling those jobs require. Scheepers must retake her exams to pass her matric, but she is doing well, working as a cashier at a high-end department store, where she hopes eventually to work in administration.

But that future seemed far away on the prom night captured in these photographs. The dance was held in a Cape Dutch building with high ceilings and wood floors, unlike anywhere the teenagers had ever been. Although the building once belonged to colonizers, being there gave the teenagers a sense of dignity, a welcome moment of hope.

Two men smoke crystal meth from a beer bottle in their apartment in Joyce Court, where Lauren-Lee Scheepers lives, in Manenberg. Ilvy Njiokiktjien
A view of Manenberg, South Africa. Table Mountain, a big South African tourist attraction, can be seen from almost everywhere in the township. Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Members of the Anti-Gang Unit search boys for drugs and weapons in Manenberg, where jobs are scarce for young people and gangs are a tempting alternative to finishing high school. Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Eighteen-year old Lauren-Lee Scheepers tries to study in her room while her 2-year old daughter Nerusha tries to get attention. Lauren-Lee wants to graduate so she can go on studying to be a police officer, or go into the army. “This is not the life that I want,” she says, nodding toward the courtyard of her building. “I don’t like the way people treat each other here. They never stop swearing. Everybody sticks their noses into everybody’s business. I want to finish school so I can leave this place, and my daughter doesn’t have to see this any more.” Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Riyaad Grever in the backyard of his grandmother's home. He barely knows his father, who is in prison, and his mother died of cancer when he was 12. Grever was running with a gang until his grandmother persuaded him to finish high school. “It’s kwaai, cool, to be a gangster,” he says. “They’ve got the money, cars and girls. There are no jobs here. Joining a gang is the only way to survive.” Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Lauren-Lee Scheepers gets ready for prom in the family home, where she stays together with her grandmother, mother, aunt, daughter and niece. Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Riyaad Grever gets ready for prom in his grandmother's home. He rented a tuxedo for the occasion. Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Lauren-Lee Scheepers dances at her prom night, organized by Phoenix High School. Ilvy Njiokiktjien