Bullets and brass neck

Described by Francis Drake in 1580 as the “the fairest cape in the whole circumference of the earth”, Cape Town has long since been the jewel in South Africa’s crown. Set at the southern most tip of the continent against the majestic backdrop of Table Mountain, the city’s eclectic charm has resulted in a steady rise in popularity in recent years. Frequently topping tourism polls as one of the world’s top five tourist destinations, it has also become a must on the global backpacking route.

In a country still recovering from the bloody legacy of apartheid, Cape Town is certainly South Africa’s most picturesque location. Earning over R9 billion (£694.3 million) a year in tourism, the city is the cover girl of the new South Africa, and has emerged on the world’s stage as a rival to the traditional darlings of global tourism like Sydney and San Francisco.

But for all its natural beauty, Cape Town is a city deeply divided. A stone’s throw from the luxury of the Waterfront development and the arthouse bohemia of Long Street’s cafe strip is a different world entirely. What most visitors to the Mother City do not see, and what Cape Town Tourism does not advertise on its website, is the reality of South Africa’s transition to majority rule. A reality that finds more than two thirds of Cape Town’s three million residents inhabiting an area known as the Cape Flats.

The Flats, which comprise townships and informal squatter camps, house the majority of the city’s black-African and mixed-race population. Deliberately hidden from view on the outskirts of the city by the architects of apartheid, the sprawling urban ghettos were originally intended to segregate blacks and coloureds from “whites only” areas. But twelve years into democracy, the population of Cape Town remains visibly polarised and, according to one researcher, in “urban crisis”.

And while the politics that created such social fragmentation may have brought down some barriers, economics and the huge social trauma inflicted by years of brutality have ensured that the city remains divided – both spatially and racially. Cape Town today is far from the idea of an integrated “Rainbow Nation” proffered by Nelson Mandela when he swept to power in 1994 as the first democratically elected president.

Affluent whites still almost exclusively inhabit the city’s salubrious suburbs. Pretty colonial brick houses stand at the end of sweeping driveways on tree-lined streets. Walking in Cape Town’s privileged suburbia you could be anywhere in Europe, until you notice that every property is gated, alarmed and protected by armed, private security firms. Brick walls are topped with electric fences or rolls of barbed wire and bulletproof glass.

Life in the Flats is very different. Apartheid’s Group Area’s Act divided the community into three classifications of race – white, black and coloured, the latter being a term coined to describe the Afrikaans-speaking, mixed-race migrants to the Cape. Under the Act over 60,000 black and coloured Capetonians were forcibly removed from their homes in the bustling District Six area and relocated to housing projects 15 miles away on the Flats.

These forced removals, combined with the growing number of migrants flooding into the city in search of work, resulted in sprawling informal settlements, consisting of thousands of tiny corrugated iron and cardboard shacks, springing up. And the townships themselves became the canvas against which the resistance struggle was fought.

It is against this backdrop of brutality and loss that a disturbing culture of social exclusion and antisocial behaviour has flourished. Unemployment, disease and rising crime have become rife in the townships as disaffected communities continue to battle the social handicaps that the apartheid regime left behind.

In a 2003 study for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) into organised crime in the area, Andre Standing noted that “on the Cape Flats the criminal economy is substantial, its various boundaries blur with other economic and social activities and it involves thousands of people”. It is, according to Mr Standing’s study “a core dimension of the community”.

Comparing the Flats with Brazil’s notorious favelas, Mr Standing cited “ill health, stress, the adverse effects of drug dependency, family fragmentation, school truancy and exceptionally high levels of inter-personal conflict, especially domestic violence and assaults involving knives and guns” as key components in the townships’ spiralling crime rate.

The statistics seem to bear out these claims. In a crime survey, released by the ISS in 2004, the Western Cape was found to have “by far the nation’s highest rate of murder – 85 murders per 100,000 citizens in 2002/3”. Furthermore the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) has ranked the country as having one of the top five highest murder rates in the world.

Mr Standing’s study found that in 2001 more than 100 murders were recorded on the Cape Flats, and in 2003, 37 murders were directly attributable to gang violence. The study also documented that in March 2003 “on separate evenings, stray bullets from gang fights hit five children, four of whom died from their injuries”.

In 2006, South Africa’s weekly newspaper the Mail & Guardian reported that police had been deployed on separate occasions to two different schools in the coloured township of Hanover Park to ensure the safety of pupils “when gangsters brandishing rifles chased each other on the school grounds” and in a separate incident “an armed gunman was seen running next to the school fence”.

Inspector Bernadine Steyn of the South African Police Service (SAPS) acknowledged that the problem is immense. “The gangster phenomenon has been in existence for years in the Cape Flats,” Inspector Steyn said. “The high unemployment rate is a factor. Drug lords and gang leaders create job opportunities for individuals seeking a means to support their families financially.”

But, Inspector Steyn said that beyond mere survival, people were also attracted to the money to be made by turning to a life of crime. “Gangsterism is, in fact, a very lucrative business,” she said. “There is a sustainable market for substances such as dagga (marijuana), Mandrax (a sedative) and alcohol. Because of this, a constant struggle for markets exists. For one group to expand their business, the market or turf of another must be taken. It is this expansion that leads to violent clashes between opposing groups.”

In 2003 the Cape Times reported that “the Safe Schools call centre [had] recorded 1561 incidents ranging from abuse, burglary, vandalism and other crimes to gang violence” and that “in 2004 the figure rose slightly to 1958” and [in 2005] 2778 incidents were recorded”. In the same article the Member of the Executive Council for Education Cameron Dugmore stated that the “Western Cape Education Department, in partnership with the Community Safety Department, [had] identified 400 high-risk schools that needed additional resources to control crime”.

The leader of the opposition party Tony Leon publicly called on the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to crack down on crime in the area by “aggressively” enforcing South Africa’s Prevention of Organised Crime Act, which made gang membership an offence punishable by six years imprisonment. The ISS, Mr Leon told the Mail & Guardian, estimated that around 70 per cent of all crime committed on the Flats was perpetrated by criminal gangs and that “there [were] over 130 gangs… with a combined membership of about 100,000 people”.

Among the numerous townships, it is the coloured areas of Manenberg, Mitchell’s Plain and Hanover Park that have become the stamping grounds for the transformation of street gangs to crime syndicates, and their rise can once again be traced back to the years of minority rule. During the final years of apartheid and in the wake of international trade sanctions and resistance uprisings, prominent gang leaders incarcerated under the old police state were released. This tactical move was designed to provoke further race tension between the ANC-led resistance struggle and the coloured community.

According to Mr Standing’s 2003 study, it was in this volatile climate that gangsters developed tacit relationships with the security forces. Gang leaders, such as the infamous Rashaad and Rashid Staggie of the Hard Livings gang, were used to “plant bombs and carry out political assassinations” in exchange for “weapons… immunity from the law…[and] relative freedom to conduct illicit trade”.

And it was these covert liaisons that enabled such criminal empires, to flourish after the ANC’s historic election in 1994, allowing gang ‘turf’ to expand into formerly “white” areas such as Sea Point and City Bowl. Moreover, as the new democracy opened its borders, it became a site of great interest to international crime syndicates frustrated by the tightening of security in Europe and the USA.

Gangs such as the Hard Livings, the Americans and the Sexy Boys became power bases within their communities, and gang leaders were elevated to celebrity status, offering hope, quick justice and “easy” money to the decimated communities traumatised from years of minority rule and disillusioned at the new democracy’s slow progress.

At a time of huge transition as South Africa attempted to rebuild itself, gang leaders like the Staggies cashed in on their old allegiances within the political arena and the security forces to strengthen their grip on the city. “There have been consistent allegations of police complicity with gang members,” criminologist Irvin Kinnes wrote in his 2002 paper for the ISS. “This was once more revealed in January 2000 when police officers assisted the Hard Livings gang to break into a police base in Faure to steal firearms.”

One person who has also witnessed the corruption first-hand is Capetonian filmmaker John Fredericks. Born and bred in the Flats, Mr Fredericks has widely documented gang culture in his films and has also worked extensively with Section 21 non-government organisation and Creative Education with Youth at Risk. “There is always corruption,” Mr Fredericks said. “Some SAPS members are in cahoots with the gangs and will supply confiscated drugs to their gang buddies.”

But according to Inspector Steyn measures to reduce corruption within the police force are already underway. “We have a zero-tolerance drive to purge the SAPS of fraud and corruption,” she said. “There are also ongoing investigations to identify corrupt police officials and arrest them. Corruption is caused by a small minority of our members and these members are arrested… and successfully prosecuted.”

Inspector Steyn also said that there was an effort to combat fraud by a system of “specialised” police stations located in areas with the highest crime rates. These operational centres, of which there are 10 in the Western Cape, were guaranteed to have adequate personnel, vehicles and technology, she said.

But widespread disillusionment at the perceived incompetence and corruption of the authorities has also led to extreme acts of vigilantism within the townships. One such case culminated in the televised murder of Rashaad Staggie by the fundamentalist group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in 1996.

“PAGAD took out most of the gang bosses in the nineties,” Mr Fredericks said. “But there are always new chapters starting up in all the townships.”  And as the news of Staggie’s assassination swept through the Flats, many hailed him as a folk-hero martyred for his cause.

According to Mr Fredericks gang crime continues to rise in the Cape Flats and children as young as 10 are recruited to join gangs. Mr Fredericks said that “poverty, unemployment and affirmative action” were the main causes, and that children were attracted by “the allure of drugs, sex and material things”.

“There is widespread poverty and whole families have nothing at all  – not even food. The gangsters recruit children by buying them meals like KFC. This entices them in and then, after a while, they are asked to ‘earn their keep’ for the gang,” he said.

Such acts of ‘philanthropy’ by gang chiefs are a well-known phenomenon of Cape Town’s crime syndicates, and policing is frequently met with resistance from locals who come to view gang bosses not as criminals but as benefactors. Offering financial support, protection and dispute resolution to communities often still hostile towards state institutions and conventional policing, the type of quick-fix justice offered by gangsters can soon become an attractive option.

Mr Standing documents incidents where crime bosses have funded community centres that feed underprivileged children, sponsored local football teams and funded various community events, including the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, a prestigious dance troop that has become a key tourist attraction.

There is also the more crude practice of literally throwing money into the townships. In his own study Mr Kinnes described how Rashaad Staggie would “drive his car up and down the street and tell the children that he would be throwing money out when he returned. As a consequence, hundreds of people, including adults, were drawn into the street.

“They would wait for the car to pass and everyone would scramble at the first sight of fluttering money. Adults, children old and young would run around to get their hands on some money. In this way, the gang leader would sometimes throw up to R20,000 out of his car window for the community.”

The hero-status enjoyed by the city’s criminal elite was demonstrated once again in April 2006 at the funeral of gang boss Gavin Atkins, who was allegedly shot dead by a rival gang at a shopping complex in Cape Town. The Mail & Guardian reported that as Atkins’ “long white hearse cruised by, carrying a cream and maroon coffin with gleaming gold handles… scores of residents stood in hymn-singing tribute… commemorating not the thug and drug dealer, but the patron they went to for help when they were failed by what many see as an inadequate state support system”.
Atkins’ funeral, the report said, represented the, “mainstreaming of the gang world” – where a well-known methamphetamine dealer had channelled his ill-gotten gains into ‘legitimate’ investments and charitable endeavours. Among his good deeds for the community, Atkins had donated a building to one of the Cape Flats’ churches.

But gang culture is so endemic in South African society, there is almost nowhere that it hasn’t penetrated – and the country’s prisons provide another hunting ground for gang leaders to recruit young members. The prison gangs, known as “The Numbers,” can be found throughout the country’s jails and consist of three major gangs, the 26s, 27s and 28s. As with all of Cape Town’s gangs, service is rewarded with protection, and disloyalty is punished by death.

“There is status to be gained from spending time in prison,” said Mr Fredericks. “New inmates are beaten up and need protection so are referred to gang leaders inside where allegiances are made. Once they are released they return to their communities and, if they’re not already, are initiated into gangs on the outside.”

It was through his work with Creative Education with Youth at Risk, in Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor prison, that Mr Fredericks met Mario van Rooy. A Capetonian hip-hop artist and activist, Mr van Rooy worked in the prisons to educate the largely illiterate prisoners, but was tragically murdered in the Flats in 2004 when he intercepted a mugging on his father.

“As a hip-hop artist he would make lyrics from their stories and in that way brought them awareness. He managed to turn a lot around and rehabilitate them,” Mr Fredericks said. “Everyone became quiet when Mario spoke [and] he already had a following in the Flats. These children were in prison for murder, hijacking, rape and robbery – serious stuff. But they were often frightened; they are set up by older gangsters who know that as juveniles they will serve less jail time. We saw children as young as 14 coming into jail in their school uniforms.”

As well as their work inside prisons, the pair held roadshows in the townships and often worked with school groups. But, Mr Fredericks said, despite being frequently intimidated by gang members, they persevered. “We were passionate and wanted to make a difference. We were showing the children that they didn’t have to walk in fear all their lives.”

Mr van Rooy’s death understandably hit Mr Fredericks hard. “I shed a lot of tears watching this talented young man at work and then dying for some obscure reason at the hands of the very same youth that he dedicated his life to rehabilitating,” he said.

In Cape Town’s ghettoes the road to rehabilitation for gang members is rarely smooth and often rare, but Mr Fredericks said, inspiration could be found among the most desolate of urban landscapes.

“One of the most moving moments for me came whilst I was at work at a school in the township,” he said. “Turning to one of the teachers, I asked him ‘where is the hope?’ At that moment one of the children turned, looked at me, and said simply ‘I am the hope’.”

© Laury Jeanneret (first published in se7en magazine), 2006.



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