Cape Town - Sacks Circle, Bellville, is like much of the Cape Flats - forgotten, grey, and beset with gangsters, poverty and, curiously, a number of evangelical churches.
In Bellville a few weeks back, in search of Hard Livings gang leader and convicted rapist Rashied Staggie who was on parole as a cleaner in former-gangster Ivan Waldeck’s evangelical church Staggie was playing table tennis. His day parole was subsequently revoked and he was to appear before the parole board this past week.
The church where Staggie worked also doubles as a “rehab centre” for gangsters and drug addicts, and the charismatic “reformed” Staggie claimed to be a “born-again believer in Christ”.
I guess many on the Cape Flats bereft of any relief from their miserable lot in life are driven to gangsterism or God – or, perhaps and often, both. It emerged last month that Staggie was the mastermind behind a new political party the Patriotic Alliance formed by convicted fraudsters Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie.
Convicted fraudsters are usually hot property for the 26s, a gang of wily thieves, mired in mysticism and imbued with a deep symbolism.
Perhaps at this point it is worth delving into a smidgeon of the history of the Number prison gangs in South Africa. The Number gangs’ history reaches as far back as the 1800s. South Africa’s foremost historian, Charles van Onselen has written extensively on it as has scholar Jonny Steinberg, including his authoritative book, The Number.
In the author’s note to his book, Steinberg writes that the Number gangs – the 26s, 27s and 28s – all originated from bands of outlaws which plagued late 19th century and early 20th century Johannesburg.
“The most memorable of these… was called the Ninevites; its rank and file were lumpen proletarians – young black men who had left their ancestral land in the countryside but had refused to take up wage employment for white bosses in the early mining town.
“The Ninevites were led by a charismatic young Zulu migrant, ‘Nongoloza’ Mathebula. (He) shaped his crew of outlaws into a paramilitary hierarchy. It borrowed its rank structure and its imaginary uniforms from the Natal Colony’s judiciary and Transvaal Republic’s military,” he wrote.
“Perhaps most interesting of all, Nongoloza imbued his bandit army with a political purpose. ‘I reorganised my gang of robbers,’ he reported to his white captors in 1912. ‘I laid them under what has since become known has Ninevah law. I read in the Bible about the great state of Ninevah which rebelled against the Lord, and I selected that name for my gang as rebels against the government’s laws’.”
In his essay “The small matter of a horse: the life of ‘Nongoloza’ Mathebula, 1867 – 1948” published in 1984, van Onselen writes: “Where the criminal sanctions of the Masters and Servants’ legislation failed to restrict the employee to the mining industry, the buttressing pass laws ensured that the absconding labourer would almost certainly be confined to another largely male institution – the urban prison – thus contributing to the development of an emerging working class culture richly informed by prison experience.”
Interviewed by the department of correctional services, Mzuzephi or ‘Nongoloza’ said he was deeply aggrieved by what he saw as an “obvious injustice” when in his first month of employment there one of the horses he cared for got lost.
Steinberg writes that among the Ninevites favourite pastimes was to rob black labourers as they went home on payday.
“It was said that he and his bandits established an underground world in a disused mineshaft complete with shops, beautiful white women and a Scottish bookkeeper. It was also said that Nongoloza himself was imbued with magic, that the bullets of white policemen and soldiers bounced off his skin,” Steinberg writes.
“(He) was undiscernibly brutal (but) enticing because he showed that even the poor can inspire terror.”
Yet as Steinberg says, the Number gangs of today continue to hold on to Nongoloza’s original ideology – all three gangs are organised around the largely mythical narrative of his career.
“All three agree that he became a bandit because blacks were being disinherited of their land and forced to work like slaves in the mines. In other words, throughout the century, South Africa’s prisons have incubated a fiercely anti-colonial ideology.”
The Western Cape’s premier anti-gangs crusader, Major-General Jeremy Vearey, explains how he came to understand and speak the two dialects of the Number gangs, Nyaza and Shalabom, part of his unparalleled expertise in this area.
It is a fascinating account.
Arrested in 1987 under the then Terrorism Act for his activities with the Western Cape’s Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) structures, Vearey was held in solitary confinement in Pollsmoor Prison. Held under Section 29 for interrogation as the police prepared their case against him and his unit, he was put in a cell with hardened generals of the 26s and 28s. Like other highly trained political prisoners, he used the available limited infrastructure available to him – gang structures – to obtain and smuggle out information, telling me recently he, among others, read the Cape Times, Argus, and the alternative press South and Grassroots, thanks to his fellow inmates.
Once sentenced he was sent to Robben Island, but while at Pollsmoor, Nelson Mandela was held there too, and Vearey says gangsters worshipped the imprisoned ANC leaders, including gentle struggle giants such as Walter Sisulu.
In short, these hardened criminals considered MK operatives, as “Mandela’s foot soldiers”, and themselves part of the general civil unrest gripping the country – but Vearey is clear that they were criminals, and not political activists – an essential distinction and political morality that must be clear.
But the gangs were on to something. Basically disempowered and disenfranchised, with growing anger mounting in South Africa’s black townships – symbolically acted out by the countless lives lost by necklacing of suspected izimpimpi (informants), rocks hurled at a brutal police force, and the acceptance of exiled ANC president, OR Tambo’s call to make the townships ungovernable – gangsterism perhaps offered people an opportunity to take their lives and their community into their own hands.
Couple that with the breakdown of families through centuries of migrant labour, problematic gender relations and patriarchy, a burgeoning international drug trade and unemployment, and you have the perfect storm.
Marxist experts on policing and criminality such as Vearey refer to the concept of the “commons” – the common spaces which are contested – the parks, the roads, the schools – now governments and municipalities, hegemonies and so forth.
Much has been made of crony capitalism in South Africa – the political connections which are the lifeline necessary for many in this country to lift oneself out of a life of poverty enabled by ANC membership, usually by becoming a councillor in a ward.
There’s also been much written on the social distance between the governing party and citizens, and if social movements and protests are anything to go by, that social distance is widening and extends as far down as between an ANC branch executive and its members, to be frank.
McKenzie and Kunene’s Patriotic Alliance could be seen as an opportunistic and audacious example of the dangers of the ANC ignoring this problem. For far too long the party is perceived to have neglected the coloured vote in the Western Cape, and most people in that province will tell you they’ve seen no benefits from democracy.
In a funny way, even ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, in what was a startling admission, said last month that the people of that province, had not yet experienced freedom because the province was ruled by the opposition.
And if sources in the province are to be believed, it would be not be conjecture or guesswork to suggest that McKenzie could benefit from winning a ward in the municipality and contracts from the city council.
One is left wondering about the motivations behind Kunene’s curious – yet brief – flirtation with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Presumably there are several tenderpreneurs in that party too looking to benefit from tenders, contracts or pursuant political connections, who would also run far when that well has sprung.
But then in any analysis of the Patriotic Alliance one also has to factor in the power of the Number.
Experts on the 26 Gang tell you that McKenzie was a prominent gang leader; and that if and when he gives the order for its members to vote for him, they certainly will.
And yet again, it will be about alienated and disempowered young men, fighting to take the power back. When we visited the church where Staggie was working, my colleague insisted I pose for a photo with Staggie and hug “the nice Christian man”. Remember he raped at least one young woman, and to be a 28 you have to kill someone, imbibe their blood among other things, so it was no wonder I recoiled – and then composed myself – when I caught an unsurprising evil, glassy glint in his eyes.
But for my companion and colleague, he was a believable reformed, born-again nice coloured man, who deserves a second chance, who’s going to fight for “die bruin mense”, vir “onse mense”, “for the people of colour”, those of “us who’ve been forgotten” by “the government, by the ANC”.
For those people of Bellville, they are reclaiming the Commons and there’s no turning back now.