Pagad, gangs mix it up with politics

The fight between Pagad and gangster groups has political ramifications for the Western Cape, reports Stefaans Brmmer

PAST links between political parties and the antagonists in the Western Cape’s escalating violence between vigilantes and gangsters have come back to haunt government and security agencies.

This week, a year after People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) first took to the streets to counter gang rule on the Cape Flats, the Western Cape violent crimes unit head, Leonard Knipe, warned of a descent into near-war – and said police were struggling to curtail the violence.

Said Knipe: “This is almost a civil conflict … it’s almost as if armies are on the loose out there attacking the houses of so-called gangsters.”

Knipe said police had logged 23 acts of “naked terrorism” – mostly houses shot at or bombed – by alleged Pagad elements in the first three months of this year alone. During the same period 96 cases of gang- related crime were recorded.

The spiral of violence has forced tough choices on politicians. Justice Minister and African National Congress Western Cape leader Dullah Omar, for one, is in the unenviable position of having to deal with Pagad supporters as an important part of his Western Cape constituency. But his justice portfolio binds him to a politically neutral approach when the law is contravened.

Both Pagad and the anti-Pagad Community Outreach Forum (Core), an umbrella organisation of Western Cape gangs who claim to have “reformed” and to be working towards peace, have appealed to political sentiment to advance their aims. Pagad, which in principle unites communities across the board in service of its cause, is historically a predominantly Muslim organisation, and members have tried to enlist government members like Omar in the service of their cause on the basis of a shared religious background.

When Omar and the ANC did not give Pagad the sympathy it thought it deserved, Pagad started flirting openly late last year with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The alliance was an easy one to form: the PAC’s former military wing, Apla, had operational links with the Islamic fundamentalist body Qibla during the armed struggle against apartheid. Qibla has strong relations with Pagad, among them the fact that the two bodies share a number of their top leaders.

In spite of the escalation in attacks on alleged gang leaders’ homes, it is not clear to what extent Pagad officially supports using the military option. Pagad has in recent months formed its “paramilitary wing”, also called the G- Force, into small cell structures at neighbourhood level, which have the capacity to operate undetected and independently from central organisational control. Some cell members are said to be veterans of armed Islamic campaigns in hotspots like Bosnia, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Said Jeremy Vearey, the commander of police intelligence co-ordination in the Western Cape: “Pagad seems not to be in any position to control the actions of its members. There is very little centralised control … and the energy unleashed by the Pagad cause could reproduce itself in a pattern of militancy with a life of its own independent of direct structural ties to Pagad.”

Nevertheless, the threat of more violence must be counted as an important bargaining chip in Pagad’s attempts to extract concessions from government and security authorities.

Core has made a similar play of political expediency. Rashied Staggie, leader of the influential Hard Livings gang and now a leading light in Core, appears to believe the ANC owes the gangs a debt for support given during the liberation struggle.

A former ANC soldier confirmed that there had been a degree of co-operation between gangs and Umkhonto weSizwe members. Guerillas often had no choice but to use safe houses and safe routes supplied by gangs. But he insisted the co-operation was no more than “operational expediency” and that no promises were made to the gangsters.

He said that before the 1994 elections, ANC intelligence operatives again had no choice but to “interact” with gang leaders to ensure ANC election campaigners had safe access to gang territory. He claimed that at the time there had been active collusion between apartheid security forces and gangsters to harass ANC activists, which the ANC had to counteract.

That charge is not far-fetched. The Goldstone commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have heard accounts of security forces in other regions enlisting gangs in attempts to smash activist networks.

While the ANC in government can clearly not afford to associate with gangsters, there are reports that, in a few individual cases, links have remained. An unsubstantiated claim has been made to the Mail & Guardian that a senior ANC politician, who appears to have long- standing links with the Staggie family, was involved in a recent arms consignment to a Core member.

Formed last year in reaction to Pagad marches and attacks, Core has made a play for the government to crack down on Pagad and simultaneously help gangsters transform their “business interests” – traditionally based on the drug trade, prostitution and protection rackets – into legitimate areas.

There are precedents for this: in Malaysia and Burma, authorities are said to have helped drug lords channel their illicit profits into legal businesses, expecting them to walk the straight-and-narrow afterwards.

There is some sympathy for a similar approach among police and intelligence bodies in the Western Cape.

One police intelligence officer this week hinted that “agents of influence” may have been used to help establish Core; the rationale being that a more visible and unified gangster body would be easier to control. Another said there was a similar strategy to “bureaucratise” Pagad. When leaders are tied into official processes, and given the capacity to control their followers, violence can be curtailed.

But Core, and even more so the gangs who are not part of it, will be difficult to transform. Gangsterism on the Cape Flats represents a decades-old social alternative which, in some neighbourhoods, young men especially find extremely hard to escape. Gang crime, a multi-billion rand industry, provides a livelihood for thousands of people. Said Vearey: “The factors that generate gangsterism cannot be addressed by the appearance of gang leaders on a stage and a confession.”

Whether Core is genuine about reforming gangs, or whether it is just a superficial response to the pressures brought to bear by Pagad, it holds its own aces for concessions from the authorities. Staggie appeared recently to flex his muscles on the “debt” the ANC owes him when some Core leaders let it be known they would support Bantu Holomisa’s new party.

There has also been talk of Core going it alone as a political movement. Especially in the Western Cape, where the coloured community is first prize in the votes struggle between the ANC and the National Party, the gangs have tremendous potential to secure for themselves – or to deliver – constituencies. Gangs arguably have better organisational networks on the Cape Flats and in towns across the Western Cape than either party, and have shown themselves adept at “winning hearts and minds” by providing livelihoods where government is still struggling to fulfil its promise of a “better life for all”.

For the politicians it is a tough call: give in to the demands of the gangsters or Pagad – but not both simultaneously, as they are so implacably opposed to each other – or face their wrath and alienate a potential constituency.

Alternatively, make no concessions and concentrate on neutral policing to put the worst offenders behind bars. But both forces are so deeply rooted in society, and their passions so pervasive, that a few offenders behind bars will hardly stop the crime.

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