Comforting words from Abdus-Salaam Ebrahim bring Jennifer Fredericks to tears.
“If you feel things get too heavy, if you ever need us, give us a call and we can take it from there,” Ebrahim tells the 61-year-old Cape Flats resident.
The national co-ordinator of People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) is busy resurrecting his movement after nine years in jail and a two-year parole — which ended last November — that meant his movements were restricted and that he couldn’t speak to the press or attend meetings.
“I was under house arrest. I could go to mosque only on a Friday,” says Ebrahim, who was jailed for public violence in 2002, after being tried — and found not guilty — for the 1996 murder of Cape Flats gang boss Rashaad Staggie.
But even as a Cape high court judge found him not guilty of the murder, evidence showed that Ebrahim, as leader of Pagad, was seen as a vital part of the movement that saw Staggie beaten, shot and burned to death.
Fredericks, an unemployed pensioner, lives in Manenberg with her 83-year-old mother and two of her three drug-addicted brothers. In Cape Town her struggle is not unique.
Fredericks tells Ebrahim how her brothers have stolen her possessions to fund their addiction. She talks about how she and her mother have to lock their bedroom doors at night, because “some nights we can’t sleep” when one of the brothers brings home “gangsters and women”. She holds up the empty plastic packets in her home that once contained the highly addictive drug tik.
Her mother sits at the entrance of their tiny, troubled house — listening, hardly speaking — and soon one of her brothers enters the house. He is angry.
“I told him that Pagad was coming today to fetch him. He was scared,” says Fredericks, who approached Pagad members in Manenberg to speak to her brother about his addiction.
“My mother is old and she can’t handle him. I wish he would go for help. He earned a good salary and had everything. Now he’s completely mad. He lives in his filthy clothes. My mother can’t eat. He takes food out of her hand or mouth. He is abusing her mentally.”
Fredericks’s brother is incoherent when he walks into the house. He starts arguing loudly that he does not “worry with the women” in the area but would rather “masturbate”. Walking in and out of the lounge where we are seated for our interview, he interrupts Fredericks again: “The internet is not good.”
She is shaken. Her mother, who asked to remain anonymous, speaks: “Tell them about the helicopters and search lights.”
“He will shout that there are helicopters in his head,” says Fredericks. “He says the government is busy with his head and there are cables running through his head. He starts swearing at the neighbours at 2am.”
Ebrahim indicates that it is best that he and another Pagad member leave the house. He places his hand on Fredericks’s right shoulder as he departs. She is wiping tears off her cheeks.
Ever since his parole ended, Ebrahim has been making house calls like these to win back grassroots support for Pagad. As he leaves Manenberg, Ebrahim says that jail time has not deterred him from Pagad’s “fight against drugs and people who sell drugs”.
“We handle them with love and force. We respect them, but if they don’t respect us, then we will use strength to show them that they must listen. If they think that nobody can do anything to them, then we will use some force to calm them down,” he says.
Ebrahim says that a revived Pagad will have branches in various neighbourhoods nationwide. Branches have been established in Cape Town and Durban, with efforts under way to launch in Johannesburg. The various branches will inform a regional executive committee about, say, a “drug dealer that is destroying their community”.
“A task team will respond to that. We have mass motorcades to drive to drug dealers’ homes. It’s a massive task, but if we don’t do it then this country is going down.”
Gang violence on the rise
Pagad’s re-emergence has come with a spike in gang violence on the Cape Flats, which peaked in July and August this year and has led to numerous funerals, mostly of residents caught in the crossfire of gang warfare.
Leading role-players, including Dan Plato, the Western Cape MEC for community safety, have been drawn into public debates on crime, gangs and drugs. The province’s police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Arno Lamoer, reported that police had seized R7.9-billion worth of drugs in the past nine months in the Western Cape.
Robert Macdonald, the province’s spokesperson on drugs, told local media recently that the Western Cape’s drug treatment budget had increased by 50% in the past two years, and that the province was treating almost 5 000 patients annually while drug-related crime has steadily increased.
Police efforts still seem to make little progress, which has left some residents pleased to see Pagad back at work.
Earlier this year in Mitchells Plain members of the community police forum joined Pagad. Some saw this as a sign that working with the cops was failing.
In July the group organised a motorcade in Colorado Park, Mitchells Plain, to a drug dealer’s house.
Police shadowed Pagad and prevented it from taking any action in the area, which led to an “altercation” between Pagad branch leader Martin Dampies and the police; Dampies was arrested and Pagad was again branded as a public threat.
But the incident with Dampies is not the only altercation that has found Pagad members in court. Four others were arrested for carrying firearms at a legal Pagad protest — which is against the Pagad constitution. Two more were arrested and charged for possession of an unlicensed firearm.
Lieutenant-Colonel André Traut, spokesperson for the Western Cape police, says that “we will not tolerate the law being taken into the hands of the public” in response to queries about Pagad.
“Those individuals who take it upon themselves to police the streets can expect to be dealt with in terms of the law,” says Traut.
In God’s name
But it is God’s work that Pagad says it is doing.
Osman Sahib, one of the Pagad executive committee members, says that the movement is open only to “people who believe in God Almighty”.
“If you are a communist or an atheist, then there’s no place for you in Pagad. Our foundation is based on moral behaviour and belief. Whether you are a Christian or Muslim, we have the same moral values that we adhere to,” Sahib says.
“In the past the organisation was labelled as an Islamic movement. We don’t want to confuse Pagad with religion, but the fundamental basis of this programme is that you have to believe in a creator.”
But their God-loving overtone has historically gone hand in hand with violent vigilante responses to stop the local drug trade. Sahib puts that down to “people joining Pagad in the past and they had their own agendas”.
“There were people who were robbing, cheating, stealing and who had businesses. They were in this for their own interest. The organisation was big and people who were behaving like gangsters jumped on the bandwagon,” he says.
“We also had people who were deliberately placed in the movement to stop us. People will do anything to stop Pagad because there is a lot of money involved in the drug business.”
And even though Pagad’s resurgence has seen recent run-ins with the law, Sahib says that they want to work with the police. He maintains that they “don’t want any kind of violence”.
But critics have long been vocal about the group’s vigilante tendencies for years.
Irvin Kinnes, a criminologist based at the University of Cape Town, who has done extensive research into local gangs, noted in one early report that Pagad “should try to work with the authorities and other community-based initiatives. You can’t fight crime by disregarding the law.”
On the front lines
On the Cape Flats many would agree with Sahib’s views that the police do not have clean hands. A teenager from Lavender Hill, who did not want to be named because “some of my family are gangsters”, told the Mail & Guardian that “Pagad is more efficient than the police”.
“The way Pagad goes about it is wrong, but it’s for the best. They are violent. But the police are not doing their job. I think 90% of Pagad’s work has been successful. If the police were called now, they would say that there are no vans or cops available.
“In our community if they catch a criminal they would beat the crap out of you. We would then threaten to kill this person and tell the police that if they don’t come out in 15 minutes, then we will kill this person. That’s the only way to get the police to help us.”
He says gangs such as the Corner Kids, Junkie Funky Kids and the Americans “make you live in fear” in Lavender Hill.
A former convicted prisoner from Heideveld — who also does not want his name published — says: “Pagad knows where to find drug merchants.
“There are police officers who give the drug lords information before a police raid happens. They give the merchants info because they get pocket money from them. That’s why they don’t they find drugs at the houses where we know drugs are sold. Ten minutes after the police leave a house, people go to that house to buy drugs.”
The ex-con says: “Drug lords have more respect and fear for Pagad than for the police. We know where the drug merchants live. We give Pagad an address and they need to go and warn the drug merchant.”
Even Fredericks, a soft-hearted woman who cries easily, wants Pagad back on the block.
“I have nothing against Pagad,” she says after meeting Ebrahim.
“There is stigma and fear around Pagad. What happened a few years ago is something else. If you are doing a good thing now and can help, then go for it.”
A brief history of Pagad
People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) was started in Cape Town in 1996 by a coalition of religious groups and non-governmental organisations to stir mass mobilisation against continuing crime on the Cape Flats.
Shortly after its inception, it changed from a multi-religious platform to a group of mostly Muslim men who violently took out gangsters and drug dealers across Cape Town.
The group gained notoriety in the late 1990s for a series of alleged pipe-bomb attacks on various targets and is believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the Planet Hollywood restaurant.
The high-profile murder of magistrate Pieter Theron, who was presiding over a court case involving Pagad members at the time he was killed in a drive-by shooting, was also linked to the group.
Even Muslims who did not agree with Pagad’s modus operandi were attacked, including Islamic studies professor Ebrahim Moosa, who fled the country with his wife and children after threats to his life. Moosa is now teaching at Duke University in North Carolina.
But the group’s most public act was the murder of Hard Livings gang leader Rashaad Staggie. Images of Staggie’s burning body were broadcast worldwide.
In 2001 police arrested most of Pagad’s top leaders. Nine of its members are still in jail, serving long-term sentences for various crimes, including murder.
Pagad by the rulebook
Pagad is a non-profit group with a 12-page constitution claiming that it is “mindful of our duty to the Creator as a community” and among its spiritual leaders can be an “imam, priest, traditional spiritual leader or rabbi”.
The constitution requires that “all members shall be people of belief in the Creator” and not “associate with drug dealers and gangsters – whether for financial gain, personal favour or friendship”. Conflict resolution, as well, should also “be based on the criteria of Divine Scripture”.
Though Pagad has been largely viewed with suspicion because of violent reproaches, its code of conduct states that “no firearms shall be allowed” at public marches. Instead of bloodshed as a response to suspected drug dealers, it proposes a “protocol of repentance” for those who want to “come clean”. Drug dealers or gangsters are expected to repent “publicly, disclose past activities [and] stop all drug and gangster activities immediately”.