Police and members of Cape Town’s gay community now believe the gory massacre at the Sizzlers massage parlour in Sea Point last week was a message from Cape Town gangs who felt their turf was being invaded.
The massacre occurred shortly after Cape Town announced a bumper tourist festive season. But the murders have revealed another side of the Mother City — an underworld of gangs and drugs that has steadily crept from the Cape Flats to other areas in the peninsula as prostitution, protection rackets and narcotics provide lucrative markets throughout the city.
A memorial service was held last Saturday at the local Anglican church for the “Graham Road Nine”, as those murdered at Sizzlers have become known.
Only one victim survived the massacre. Seven people were found dead in the little white house at 7 Graham Road after the survivor stumbled to a local garage and raised the alarm. Two others died later in hospital.
Most of the young victims came from across South Africa to escape poverty and were aged between 17 and 24; only the owner and a client were in their fifties.
There appeared to be little doubt among the mourners that the murders were connected with organised crime. The brutality — all the victims were tied up and most had their throats slit before being shot at point-blank range — was meant to set an example, they said.
These types of execution-style killings are unfamiliar in the white areas of Cape Town, but regularly occur in the gang-dominated Cape Flats.
Police are now investigating the involvement of gangs operating in the drug underworld, including gangs from Johannesburg. This week it emerged that Cape detectives have been in touch with their counterparts in Gauteng and are also tapping into police intelligence networks.
Sea Point occupies a special place in the city: its Jewish and gay communities are well established, and it has been a haven for black South Africans since the apartheid years. A strong middle-class presence remains because property prices are high thanks to Sea Point’s proximity to both beach and city. This means those with money mingle with street prostitutes, who tout for dollar-rich tourists.
Some of the priciest hotels in Cape Town stand near budget dives and properties from which slum landlords make a quick buck.
But Sea Point’s connection with the drug underworld is not a new phenomenon. It was already an open secret in 1996 that Hard Livings gang boss Rashied Staggie had moved to the suburb from his home turf of Manenberg on the Cape Flats.
His house at 3 Conifer Road, around the corner from Sizzlers, was a drug outlet. Police raided it several times, confiscating Mandrax, crack and dagga.
The house was severely damaged in a pipe bomb attack in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1997. But it was only in October 1998 that local police served notices threatening to confiscate it. Their attention caused the gang to shut up shop in Conifer Road and at the nearby Kingway hotel, which the Hard Livings had turned into a brothel.
Meanwhile, in moved other Cape Flats gangs, such as the Americans and the powerful drug cartel The Firm, which controls the countrywide Mandrax distribution networks. Nigerian groups, which control much of the cocaine and crack market in Gauteng, also established a base in the suburb, albeit subordinate to the powerful Cape Flats gangs.
By 1999 it was clear that private security company boss Cyril Beeka, said to be linked to alleged Mafia mobster Vito Palazzolo through interests in the central Cape Town clubland, had extended his reach into Sea Point. There he had allegedly teamed up with Staggie and The Firm to bolster their position in the face of violent clashes with People against Gangsterism and Drugs.
In November 1999 a pipe bomb rocked the gay Blah Bar, injuring nine; in August 2000 a car bomb exploded outside Bronx, a gay club; and in June 2000 two people were injured in an explosion at New York Bagels. None of these cases has been solved.
In the wake of last week’s murders, questions are being asked about the lack of a local police presence, particularly because resources concentrated in the nearby Waterfont and central Cape Town have displaced crime into surrounding areas such as Sea Point.
“Sea Point is unrecognisable from what it was five years ago,” said one long-time resident.
Most residents had noted the increase in crime and lack of official willingness to deal with it beyond removing visible signs like street people. Last year’s deployment of the municipal police became a joke as they merely handed out traffic citations.