The Western Cape is the gang and drug hub of the country, says Community Safety MEC Dan Plato.
He said it is estimated that about 60 percent of gang and drug related crimes are committed in the Western Cape, but the province only houses about 10 percent of South Africa's population.
Speaking at the Centre for Conflict Resolution's public dialogue on Gangsterism in South African Schools on Tuesday evening, Plato said due to the endemic nature of gangsterism in the Cape, children were growing up with family members and friends of the family belonging to gangs.
They were exposed to gangs on their way to and from school and grew up in an environment where they were used to running for cover "when the bullets start firing".
It was a situation where the local rugby club is run by "a notorious gangster" but parents wanted their children to participate in sport.
As a result, his department, in conjunction with other provincial government departments, was involved in a number of initiatives tackling safety at schools and was continually engaging with communities in an effort to combat gangsterism and crime.
Initiatives included random search and seizure operations at schools, establishing over 100 sport development MOT centres in previously disadvantaged areas, identifying talented hard-working youngsters who were then provided study bursaries, and facilitating meetings between business and recently matriculated youth in order to assist with job opportunities and recruitment.
However, it was only when communities "stand united" that criminals would be caught.
"I believe we are in control of the situation at school level," he said, "but the bigger problem is one not so easily contained."
Fellow speaker Irvin Kinnes, who is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Criminality at the University of Cape Town, provided statistics from recent studies.
Kinnes said in 2011 there was a known gang presence at 31 schools in the Western Cape and 63 gang shootings took place on school premises last year.
"We must know we have a crisis at our schools," he said.
He said there were situations where gangsters informed parents that a shoot-out was going to take place at or near a particular school and there was "pandemonium" when parents rushed to the school to fetch their children.
In communities where gangsterism was so prevalent, even children who wanted nothing to do with gangs were often marked by rival gangs simply because they lived in a particular area. A culture of gangsterism led to young men being forced to show they are "unafraid to challenge or be challenged" and develop machismo and bravado.
Educators themselves often contributed to this, he said, through a lack of love and respect toward pupils.
At Cape Flats schools the education system itself was "in the business of reproducing gangsters at school level".
In order to address the situation we needed to stop focusing in the gangs, he said, and focus on developing and providing opportunities for the youth.
This meant proper funding for NGOs working with youth, providing extra mural activities and sports at the schools, bringing in counsellors and properly assessing disruptive children, and even re-examining the design of our schools which, at the moment, had more in common with jails than safe places where creative learning was encouraged.