Calls for help and safety today from fed-up communities within the gang-riddled Cape Flats are reminiscent of the calls from the 1990s that gave birth to community vigilantism at the time and resulted in the area becoming a war zone. While the vigilantism has all but disappeared, the gangs live on and the number of victims continues to rise. Indeed, the situation is no better. In the absence of safety and hope, and in territory synonymous with some of the worst crime statistics on the planet, Peter John Moses believes we are seeing a new call to arms.
When the apartheid government created the group areas act and forcibly moved non-whites into ghettos, they let the genie of violence out of the bottle. Families like mine were told to go and live on the Cape Flats because it was the new law of the land. Tight-knit communities and a vibrant way of life were destroyed. I heard many wonderful stories of life before the unjust laws, told to me by my gran and my dad. I doubt it was that great, but it certainly was a much better life than what the flats had to offer us.
The dusty streets of my family’s new home was like the old west in America, except there were no heroes in cowboy hats to save the day.
The regime of the day was intent on crushing the anti-apartheid struggle. Added to that, they cared little about law and order in the ghetto. My dad was no thug, but even he had a knife for protection.
As the years passed street gangs took control. Desperate young men found freedom and purpose in the outlaw life. They saw the government as oppressive and unjust. They decided to bring their own brand of justice to the streets of the Cape Flats.
The streets where children play and gangs rule
On these streets where my friends and I would play, only the most ruthless and heartless survive, becoming feared idols. It was a fast crazy existence and your time was short, so it was best to enjoy it while it lasted.
Gangsters had their own styles of dress and they rocked it. They wore expensive jewellery and proved you don’t have to work hard to get paid. They lived for sex, drugs and knife fights. We lived to watch it all and emulate where we could. Like the old west, every kid on my block wanted to be a modern day ‘Billy the kid’.
Then the regime had an epiphany: Why don’t we use the gangs against the comrades of the anti-apartheid movement? The rationale was that as long as they, the gangs, stayed within the borders of non-white communities and not threaten white lives it was acceptable. The regime’s agents would support the gangs covertly with drugs and weapons in exchange for information on the anti-apartheid movement.
A death blow to hope
Money that was made from the drug trade may not have been the root of all the evil, but it certainly added fuel to the fire. The gangs had no scruples and no dog in this fight for a country’s soul. They despised both sides equally. If selling out the comrades of the struggle movement meant more power to the gangs then there was really no point in hesitating. Once the gangsters were just an eyesore, now they tasted real power and they liked it.
By the late eighties the government realised their miscalculation, but they were fighting battles on all fronts and the Cape gang problem was not high on their list of priorities. It still isn't today. That same moment my friends and I were blossoming preteens finding our way into the fast life. Petty crimes gave us a taste and we liked it.
At the time of the first democratic elections in the nineties policing was in transition. Jackbooted apartheid police were replaced by a more service friendly force. Corruption was high and weapons were being sold on the black market. Cape gang bosses thought Christmas had come early.
Even my little gang of thugs I joined in high school were graduating from home-made zip guns to proper handheld weapons. The already-bloody streets were going to get bloodier.
Corrupt cops and former government chemists were not only selling weapons, but also new designer drugs. The ghettos and the inner city were flooded with ‘rocks’, ecstasy and ‘tik’. We saw large amounts of cash moving about and the gang life becoming flashier by the minute. It was the life portrayed in the movies we watched and the songs we sang along to.
From ashy to flashy
Big money brought with it violent power struggles. Young lions like my friends and I were pushed to the front lines locked and loaded. Drug induced bravado made us feel like gods.
Gun battles became a routine affair as the drug wars started to grip not only the cape flats but also the city of Cape Town itself. It was no longer just a non-white issue and apartheid’s legacy left society with a cancer so vast only ‘surgery’ was going to help.
The police were ill equipped to deal with the new violent breed of criminal menace, who roamed the streets without fear of the men in blue. Communities decided the time had come to take matters into their own hands and soon vigilantism reared its head. People living in fear of stray bullets, young thugs and flamboyant drug lords wanted their streets back. Pagad was born out of this hunger for justice. Known as People against Gangsters and Drugs they became the tool of justice the community had been calling out for.
We, on the other side, noted their presence. They swooped in with a militant Islamic flavour to them and promised to make the streets of the Cape Flats save again.
Pagad's marches on drug dens all over the Cape were followed by the media and drew huge crowds. They were like predators circling their prey, stalking but not yet ready to strike.
Many of my friends were worried, the rules seemed to have changed but nobody bothered to tell any of us. The gang bosses scoffed. Who did these masked idiots think they were dealing with? The gangs controlled the streets and they feared no one, not even the law and certainly not some masked cowards making idle threats.
The gang leaders laughed and told us, their foot soldiers, that we had nothing to worry about. That was until the first body dropped.
For years Rashaad and Rashied Staggie, leaders of the Hard Livings gang, built their drug empire in the township of Manenberg. Murder, assault, rape and many other crimes were the order of the day as they enhanced their fearsome reputations. They thought themselves untouchable and above the law, so did many of us on the lower levels of the outlaw life. To us they were rock stars.
It was not the law that would deal their empire a heavy blow. Pagad threw an upper cut that shook the foundations of my world. Pagad decided the time for talk was over. Action was needed to create change. A showdown loomed large. In August of 1996, Rashaad Staggie would become their emphatic statement of intent to the world.
Hundreds of masked Pagad supporters marched on Rashaad’s residence in Salt River to deliver an ultimatum: cease your drug dealing or suffer the consequences. Rashaad wasn’t at home, but arrived on the scene as the large group converged on his house. With police and the world’s media present, the angry mob became violent and gunshots rang out. The once-untouchable Staggie was hit several times as he sat in his bakkie. Paramedics on site rushed to give him medical attention as soon as the shooting stopped, but while they were busy attending to him Pagad members doused Rashaad in petrol. Then they set him alight.
Video footage of a burning gang boss running down the street would shock the world. He didn’t get far as multiple gun men stepped out of the crowd to end his life in a hail of bullets. Face down in the gutter, a hard living man ended his days dying even harder.
The gangs were angry, but it was an anger driven by fear. Paranoia took over most of my day to day and even the drugs couldn’t bring me joy. If they could do that to a Staggie, they could do it to any of us.
The six years following Staggie’s death escalated to an all-out war. Not just between Pagad and the gangs, but also the police. Pagad was soon classified as a terrorist group after bombing local businesses and their leadership were hunted down and jailed for various crimes.
The gangs, on the other hand, survived this violent period like cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust. They were soon back to ruling the streets of Cape Town with an iron fist while police attempts to deal with them still had no effect.
I’ve moved on from those bad days and follow a better path, but I see the bodies of young men still falling weekly on the streets all over the cape flats. These streets are still no place for young men who want to be old men one day. I hear the call to arms made by communities that are fed up. We are on the verge of history repeating itself.
Young lions roam the streets, thinking themselves as untouchable. They don’t see the sleeping giant stirring.
Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development