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When the underworld seeps into the mainstream

Published Aug 4, 2003


Reports by Michael Morris, Lynette Johns, Johan Schronen, Henri du Plessis, Norman Joseph.

It's not what you think: 'Gangland' in Cape Town is not on the Cape Flats. It reaches every corner of the city. Whole communities, not just gangs, depend on and profit from, an extensive, multi-million rand underworld economy. And there's a good chance you are part of it.

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In the popular mind, gangsters are simply tattooed, ruthless and reckless individuals who are by nature callous.

It is no doubt true enough of many of them. But this view obscures the fact that many of the kingpins of gangland are sharp entrepreneurs, and the thousands of poor men and women who benefit from, and help sustain, the only economy that is, practically, available to them are making rational

economic choices.

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Researcher André Standing argues in a sobering paper on the subject that the benefits for "ordinary" people - the income, cheap goods, patronage, philanthropy - are accompanied by damaging and exploitative elements: everything from death and injury in turf wars or crossfire or landing up behind bars in prison to being trapped in an economic cycle of dependency that offers little hope of a better life.

Standing's paper, published by the Institute of Security Studies, is part of a bigger project to rethink solutions to a problem most people mistakenly believe should be dealt with through tougher policing and longer jail terms.

His fundamental point is that organised crime in the Cape - which extends well beyond the Cape Flats - is a "complex social contradiction" that politicians, top cops, journalists, business people and taxpayers have tended to analyse simplistically.

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Arrests and jail terms, he argues, will do little in the long term to shut down the multi-million rand underworld economy.

Ultimately, too many people depend on it. And it reaches into the formal economy, the professions, business, local government and even the police.

Cape Town, Standing says, is typical of cities elsewhere in the world where there is a dramatic polarisation of wealth.

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"It is (a city) where the criminal economy is filling a vacuum which the state is not filling. And as capitalism evolves, certain areas are neglected because they are not profitable or important. And in these areas you find the criminal economy becoming increasingly important."

Part and parcel of it is the emergence of vigilantism - the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) of the 1990s and the anti-crime initiatives, and kangaroo courts, of taxi-driver groupings in suburbs like Khayelitsha and Gugulethu - but also, for instance, defiance of government regulations such as fishing restrictions.

From its very beginnings as a company town in the 1600s Cape Town has nurtured an underworld, but the contemporary setting owes more to the social fragmentation of the apartheid decades which manufactured the gulf between communities.

It is a threatening gulf that was highlighted a week ago by city manager Wallace Mgoqi, and, in general terms in the past few months, by, among others, intellectual Neville Alexander and economist Sampie Terreblanche.

For years, headlines promising tougher action on gangs have been routine and repetitive.

Standing says that the state has "shown a tendency towards aggressive, if somewhat sporadic, policing tactics" focusing on establishing law and order.

"Thus, in the past five years the Cape Flats has witnessed a series of special operations designed to arrest gangsters and well-known criminals. While most acknowledge that these efforts have failed to significantly reduce crime in the area, some sense that the local authorities are increasingly turning to punitive measures to control areas deemed 'ungovernable'."

The prisons are filling, but the underworld economy endures.

Standing says the problem is misjudged. The usual view of gangsterism is that it is "anti-social and loathsome" and "a social virus".

But "while the related violence will never cease to shock and depress, the criminal economy can not be perceived as a force that is simply an external threat to society; it is no longer a fringe activity perpetrated by outsiders who can be easily separated from a normal legal society containing good citizens".

He adds: "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 ... a core dimension of the community."

Furthermore, "in impoverished areas that have been neglected by both capital and the state, the criminal economy can develop social dimensions. Organised crime may represent a rational response of survival and resistance".

To understand the impact of organised crime, he argues, it is necessary to understand how the "anti-social dimension" of it "both co-exists and relies upon" the broader community.

His paper argues that "certain prominent members of organised crime" receive a significant degree of community support. In part, the kingpins' local power means many crime bosses develop relations with local police officers and local politicians - albeit with a minority of these.

"Although these relations may be based on bribery, they are at times also based on political and strategic associations - the crime boss can offer information and influence in 'his' community and in return the police and politicians can offer a degree of respectability and perhaps protection."

Standing says the underworld economy "comprises various criminal domains centred around powerful men who rely on corrupt connections in civil society, as well as the vast pool of criminal labour supplied from street gangs".

In socially excluded communities "organised crime is not a fringe activity but rather a core dimension of society".

Standing goes as far as saying the criminal economy of the Cape Flats "can be viewed as a rational, not deviant, response to governmental and economic crises".

"Organised crime provides an income increasingly seen as both normal and necessary. It supplies commodities and services that are in demand and have become normalised.

Furthermore, the wealthy criminal elite assume the role of benefactors and community regulators."

He adds that the "seemingly positive financial and community aspects of organised crime generate community support, which re-confirms the criminal economy as a reasonable response of survival and resistance".

Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in this: the criminal economy "perpetuates the conditions it seeks to ameliorate - poverty, social fragmentation and a lack of efficient, just governance".

A divided city

Greater Cape Town is "home to a vast number of people and families who precariously exist outside the formal economy", André Standing says.

They are people, he says, who many social scientists refer to as being socially excluded.

This is in sharp contrast to people living elsewhere.

"Cape Town provides one of the most vivid examples of urban crisis attributed to late modern capitalism," Standing writes. "It is a city of stark contrasts and social fragmentation - built first on the policies of apartheid and now seemingly exacerbated by the dynamics of a marketised economy. The population of Cape Town is deeply polarised; economically, socially, racially and spatially."

The crude division is between whites who "live in an affluent cosmopolitan area at the base of Table Mountain and on the fringe of the coast, a region rapidly becoming the darling of global tourism" and the vast majority of people who are not white who "live in a sprawling suburban region established through 'forced removals' during apartheid", the Cape Flats.

It is an area that is "unacceptably impoverished" and where unemployment has reach "exceptionally high levels": he cites research suggesting that something of the order of 46 percent unemployment.

For those under 30, unemployment was recorded at 61 percent. And even those who do get a regular job "face low wages and a highly 'flexible' labour market".

Jobs are "uncertain, occasional and insufficient".

But Standing notes that "in addition to failing personal wealth, the infrastructure of the Cape Flats is also unacceptably poor" - partly the result of the apartheid legacy, but also the modest impact so far of post-1994 improvements.

"It is in this context that one finds depressing social features shared by numerous other urban ghettos worldwide... 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".

In the police

Police corruption associated with gangs affects all ranks in the Western Cape police.

Typical of it is a secret payment to an investigator to write up a case docket in such a way that the prosecuting authorities decline to try a suspect.

The financial rewards can be sizeable, and alluring.

On a smaller scale, a policeman might ask a hawker or shebeen owner, whose business is under the control of a gang, to deliver fruit and vegetables or liquor at a certain home address - to be picked up later - in return for the "loss" of a docket.

In due course, the policeman might ask for cash payments from hawkers in exchange for silence.

According to a senior investigator - whose request to be anonymous reflects the sensitivity of the subject - police salary scales have been improved in the past two years, but in the past, officers who lived beyond their means became vulnerable to gang-related corruption.

However, police director Gerhard Jantjies says 95 percent of the police service are committed to "service delivery", and corruption is not tolerated. Several members have been arrested this year following allegations of corruption, and he appeals to communities to give police information on corrupt police officers.

"Corruption hampers service delivery," he says, "and can lead to mistrust by the community."

In the sea

Twenty years ago perlemoen filled the reefs off the Cape Coast, it was cheap and common but today the battle to save the abalone seems all but lost.

A commercial quota system and strict controls on recreational permits make the animals hard to find. But more than that, they are hard to find because they have vanished into poachers' bags.

The Cape's gangs are primarily responsible, through a multi-million rand coalition with Chinese Triad gangs.

The formula is basic: Cape gangs organise the poachers and establish export points while the Triads deliver to the seemingly insatiable Far East. Sophisticated processing plants have been set up and huge firepower is employed to protect the multi-million rand trade.

Experts admit that 14-year-old poachers can make more money in a single night than their teachers do in months.

On the roads

For many taxi drivers being a member of a gang is simply a pre-requisite for their job.

It is an economic and physical necessity as their routes snake through the turf of several different gangs.

Passengers, who have no other way of travelling, are effectively paying for their own protection.

Road tolling has long been an institution on the Cape Flats with taxi operators paying tariffs to enter specific areas.

Those who refuse to submit to pressure to align themselves are allowed to operate but they risk danger and must pay to enter each turf instead of having a protection dispensation from one group.

Running gun battles at ranks are often just the physical manifestation of a much bigger economic war.

Taxi associations say drivers are hesitant to lay charges because they fear for their lives and do not trust police.

And this allows gangs control, over one of the most basic public services - transport.

In business

Illicit income-generating activities such as prostitution and dealing in drugs, arms and stolen property, are a major sector of the underworld economy.

The behind-closed-doors nature of some sex businesses, such as hostess clubs, assures gangland "investors" a discreet entry into the mainstream economy, in part to launder dirty money, but also to develop further opportunities to make money, such as through prostitution, drug pushing and extortion.

Prostitutes who steal credit cards, cellphones and other valuables from their clients have often been linked to gangsters who act as their pimps.

But the "elite" of the underworld - roughly, Standing believes, between 20 and 30 men - have much broader business interests and contacts that blur the divide between the formal and criminal economy.

Many of the leading figures have moved from the Cape Flats to more affluent areas, though retaining close ties with their local power base.

"Most importantly, they control the distribution and sale of alcohol and drugs in their areas."

But, Standing notes, it is rare that illicit trade is their only interest. Each has "a broad business portfolio, incorporating hotels, nightclubs, public transport, garages, shops and commercial fishing".

The spoils of crime are "concentrated among a tiny minority, some of whom have become multi-millionaires" ... (and) the fortune of the criminal elite is spent on lavish goods or is invested, as recommended by business consultants, in property and businesses, almost all of which are based in prosperous regions outside the Cape Flats".

The activities of the criminal elite "bring them into contact with various professionals who help protect and expand their criminal fortunes, particularly lawyers and business consultants".

On the pavement

Risking their lives, drug mules swallow condoms filled with cocaine; dagga is hauled into the city on trucks; ships bring the products hidden among goods and mandrax is manufactured here.

Cape Town is a drug merchant's heaven. Drugs can be found almost anywhere in the city - if you know whom to ask. And the people to ask are invariably controlled by the Cape's gangs.

Last year the police confiscated millions of rands worth of drugs, but for every million rands worth seized it is estimated that up to R12m-worth gets on to the streets.

Gary Lewis of the United Nations office on drugs and crime says no-one knows how much the trade is worth. Conservative estimates set it at hundreds of millions of rand.

Gang territories are like country borders, and the price is often a life if one gang muscles into the other's area.

In delivery

Cape gangs do not just content themselves with controlling the importation of drugs. They insist on controlling the point of delivery as well.

And that means getting their marketing machine into nightclubs and other places of entertainment.

Revellers dancing the night away in a club are a captive market for the competing drug cartels. Rival gangs fight bitterly over who has exclusive access to these most lucrative points of sale.

Extortion rackets and bouncer wars are among the consequences of this cut-throat business.

Intelligence operatives have identified well-organised protection rackets concealed by various front operations, including security services.

The legitimacy of these fronts enables underworld figures to demand monthly fees disguised as "above board" charges for security services, while in fact it is extortion money for drug kingpins.

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