The ruby red BMW roadster races down the main road in Eldorado Park, past rows and rows of grim council houses. At full throttle, the front doors open and close to simulate a bird in flight.
The Majimbos are in town – the gang’s symbol is a flying bird and Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, is their turf. The township is run by makweras (crime-syndicate chiefs) and gangs like the Majimbos who do the drug-running and car-hijacking that keep them in business. The makweras are the dons of this township, where the noose of unemployment has been loosened by the pickings of crime.
In this subverted economy, car theft, drug and cellphone syndicates provide employment and career paths. Its downstream industries are chop shops and specialist stolen goods networks, where it is possible to furnish a home from the pickings of crime.
Eldorado Park is not a glitch, but a universal. Economies like these are replicated across the country where the social net is not big enough to catch the fall-out of an unemployment rate which is spiralling as school-leavers struggle for years to find jobs and retrenchments unleash hundreds more on to the streets.
Eldos, as it is known by those who live there, was a product of forced removals and was classified as a coloured group area, but many Africans have moved in. Built in 1973, it is home to about 300 000 people who live in everything from solid middle-class homes to train houses, new “RDP” houses, council flats and shacks.
In this mixed masala, there is one constant and that is unemployment. Community workers say six in 10 employable people do not have formal jobs.
The streets mill with people at midday during the week in what should generally be work-time. To make money, some women sell Niknaks outside schools. But there’s not enough money around to sustain large-scale hawking, so many people sit on the corners warming up in the early winter sun.
“We’ve all got good matrics. That guy over there has an exemption in maths and physics,” says France Khawulela, the spokesperson for a group of young men.
Their stories blend one into the other. “Everywhere there’s plaques saying `No Job’ and `Letters of regret'”, and “I’ve tried everywhere, Telkom, Standard Bank. Nothing comes.”
Thulani Makhubo says what has lingered unspoken in the air: “We can’t always depend on our parents. Many of them don’t work. We end up being tempted [by crime].”
They often become the foot- soldiers of crime syndicates, earning salaries which in turn support homes where state pensions of R410 a month are often the only income of extended families. In Eldorado Park, the makweras are the only symbols of prosperity and chance of a job.
In Bushkoppies (a wealthier part of the township) Papi Jones runs a fleet of taxis, but his other businesses (apparently drugs and stolen cars) earn him a lifestyle which includes a personal helicopter. Another makwera drives a Lamborghini. Most choose the flashiest BMWs with mag wheels and sun roofs; they wear lots of gold and the best labels.
The makweras have carefully defined turf and trades. Some deal in drugs (dagga, mandrax and cocaine, which is known as “gafifi”), others run five well-known chop shops where stolen cars are cut up in a day for their parts. Residents report some local police and flying squad members are often seen outside the chop shops, picking up their bribes from wealthy owners.
Makweras employ different gangs as their drug-runners and dealers, car thieves and cellphone snatchers. In addition to the Majimbos, there are many other gangs, like the Dogs, the Tavaras, the Matarianas, the Bizza Boys, the Young Ones and the Cajala Boys.
They divide their turf by suburb, preying on the wealthier northern and western parts of Johannesburg, and gang wars usually mean one group has tried to infiltrate another’s trade routes.
Car thieves specialise in either BMWs, Golfs or Caravelles which they steal on order. The car costs their clients (both inside South Africa and across its borders) anything between R5 000 and R30 000, and a few thousand more can also secure the relevant papers. Informants say networks of contacts in the police and traffic departments mean makweras can almost guarantee “clean” cars that will never be traced.
The smaller crime bosses have cornered a lucrative trade in stolen cellphones which are “cleaned” of their serial numbers and easily sold as pay-as-you-go cards become more popular. You can pick up a Motorola on the streets for about R75, while an Ericsson or Nokia will cost about R400 (about a fifth of the going rate).
In addition to the gangs, others work in the chop shops, or take the cars over borders, or run cellphone shops where everyone knows the goods are hot.
Crime-rands are laundered when the makweras start legitimate businesses. Makweras from Eldos and Soweto are known to run taxi fleets, estate agents, spaza shops and hairdressers.
The syndicates are just one layer of Eldo’s economy of crime; hundreds more people are employed by hijacking rings operating there. The area is a hot-bed of stolen goods. Recently a cargo-load of Carducci suits was quickly flogged, while residents with connections know exactly where to buy stolen electronic goods, M-Net chips (fitted into decoders so you don’t have to pay subscriptions), computers and even truck-loads of bricks if you are building a house.
These goods are not sold only in Eldos, but also in the wealthier neighbouring area of Lenasia and to retail outlets in the centre of Johannesburg.
“If a lanie [corporate boss] says, `I’ll give you a thousand rand a month’, you think `I can make it in a day,'” says Elias Petersen, who lives within sight of one of the bigger chop shops. He works at Makro and his salary of R1 400 a month keeps a family of eight going.
Petersen has watched his brother Joshua looking for work for two years. Despite a matric and several leadership courses under his belt, Joshua Petersen has hit his head against a brick wall. In anger he blames affirmative action and nepotism, and cites a case where a coveted job at Edgars was given to the human resources manager’s nephew.
“I get frustrated,” he says. “Many times I think of crossing the line [to crime]. The way things are bad around here, they steal wet washing off the line and they steal dogs to sell as pets.”
In an area where the economy is so dependent on crime, policing is almost non- existent. There are two cars for 45 detectives, and they often have to push one of them away from crime scenes because it gets stuck so often.
The poor in Eldorado Park survive on a blend of welfare payments and the takings of crime. Social worker Eileen Maleka says most families live on pensions meant for the old, and often disabled and mentally handicapped people are not put in care facilities because their grant of R410 a month also supplements the family income.
The incidence of depression is growing and alcoholism is rife. A study by the Centre for Peace Action found endemic alcohol abuse and high levels of violence in the home. “There is a higher injury rate in areas where there is unemployment because people are idle and they drink during the day,” says community worker Gerald Williamson.
If you change the characters, the story is the same in many parts of South Africa where jobless people with little help from a cash-strapped state will make a plan to survive. As Joshua Petersen says: “Skelms [thieves] are not born, they’re made.”