When warring Westbury gangs made peace in the 1990s, the gangster heavyweights agreed to leave their lives of violence behind. But their peace pact did not eliminate crime and brutality.
About three months ago, the police made a chilling discovery in the backyard of an old woman living in Westbury – the unmarked graves of seven boys stacked on top of one another.
The boys had worked for a druglord known as Clinch* in this notorious Johannesburg neighbourhood with its gangsters, drugs and soaring unemployment. Sniffer dogs had alerted the police to the bodies.
An investigation unit from Cape Town had been called in to execute the raid on the house. The reason for using investigators from outside the area was found in a little black notebook that belonged to Clinch, the old lady’s grandson. The names and cell numbers of many Sophiatown police officers were listed in the book.
Clinch was arrested at the end of July. Residents, however, have since seen him cruising the streets of Westbury in a fancy car, as if nothing happened.
The Hawks and the national crime intelligence unit apparently oversaw the raid and, according to a police source who cannot be named for reasons of security, have been investigating Sophiatown police station for several months. This, the source says, led to the suspension of police officers, some of whom were believed to be on Clinch’s payroll. A senior police official was also said to be under investigation for corruption.
But Brigadier Neville Malila, the provincial head of corporate communication for the Gauteng South African Police Service, denies the allegations. “No members at Sophiatown police station were arrested or suspended as a result of an internal investigation. Allegations of alleged corruption that are levelled against members are continuously being investigated. The allegations of the arrests and suspension of members are therefore baseless and untrue.”
Westbury falls within the Sophiatown police precinct. The tiny former coloured township is a rich feeding ground for corruption. Gangs that went by the name of Fast Guns, Spaldings, Vultures, Majimbos and Varados roamed its streets, fighting a bloody internecine turf war that dragged on for decades.
When the warring gangs sealed a peace pact towards the end of the millennium, druglords such as Clinch, and others who go by the names of Malut, Capone and Sekkie, moved into the power vacuum and became the new gangsters. They turned Westbury into the place to be if you want to score, use or deal in drugs. Tik, cocaine, nyaope, cat and dagga are available on its street corners.
In an area with soaring unemployment, boys and young men are drawn into the drug trade and become drug runners and often addicts as well.
Some believe the gang wars are a thing of the past and Westbury is a safer place. But the seven bodies and the death of a three-year-old who was recently shot dead when a druglord’s stray bullet hit him in the head give the lie to this.
Westbury remains a gangster’s paradise.
Who corrupts the police?
The sun beats down relentlessly on the Bowling Green in Westbury, a walled-off oasis with wide lawns and a community hall that looks like a big farmhouse with large windows that let in ample light.
About 30 men and women are running in circles, pushing big tractor tyres around. A man stands at the back of the lawn and yells out military-sounding commands. The group drop to their knees and start doing push-ups. A minute later they are running around the lawn again.
Bobby Jansen lives in a smaller house behind the community hall. An Alsatian is chained to a pole in the yard; he tries to shake off a swarm of flies that buzz around his eyes and nose.
Jansen works for the Together Action Group, a nongovernmental organisation that aims to create a safer and stronger community by providing a restorative justice programme and an after-school programme, designed to keep pupils off the streets.
The men and women working up a sweat have been arrested for drugs possession. They have been placed in a “diversion
programme”, part of the restorative justice project, designed to keep their criminal record clean. If they participate in the programme, the possession charge will be dropped.
Jansen, who wears green overalls, has lively eyes, a greying beard and a few missing front teeth, is also a former gangster. He ran with the Spaldings gang in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Despite his criminal past, he has little sympathy with the people on the lawn.
“These boys and girls have been caught with drugs. Now they have to pay,” says Jansen.
The violent, gang-riddled history and current prevalence of druglords in Westbury have led to a substantial police presence in the neighbourhood. Drive through any of the meandering streets that branch off into dead ends and courtyards where children play football, and a white-and-blue police vehicle isn’t far away. Yet, ask any of the residents living in the colourful houses along these streets and they will tell you that the police do not serve and protect them.
Jansen is a dissonant voice among this chorus of complaints. “Yes, the police are corrupt. But who corrupts the police? The community.
“They all scream police corruption and violence when they’re arrested, but just look at them. Sometimes they come here to the programme and the drugs fall out of their pockets. They say the police are corrupt, but they offer the police bribes, so who is to blame?”
It is hardly a comment you would expect from a former career gangster who did two stints behind bars.
Jansen grew up in Westbury, known as the Western Native Townships during apartheid. It was a place where the police fuelled local disputes in order to divide and rule, where they enforced harsh pass laws and often looked the other way when crimes were committed.
Oom Zakie, Jansen’s friend and chairperson of the community policing forum of Sophiatown police station, was also a member of a gang. He joined the Vikings, a gang that roamed the streets of Westbury in the late 1950s, following the forced relocations.
“We couldn’t go to the police at that time, because the police were oppressing us. So we had to resolve our own problems and we looked up to gangsters, called them sterkman [strongman],” he says.
The two men sit in the living room of Zakie’s Westbury house, reminiscing about the past, while they drink tea served by his wife.
Life of a gangster
Jansen describes how his evolution into a sterkman started with child’s play. “The Spaldings and Fast Guns went to school together. We were friends and classmates, in standard six, in the year 1966. We played a game that involved hitting each other with cardboard. Then one day, I put a stick in my cardboard, so it would hurt more. That led to fist fights and the fist fights turned into knife fights by the time I was 16 years old.”
Two groups emerged. The Fast Guns named themselves after the 1958 western The Last of the Fast Guns. The origin of the name Spaldings is less heroic. According to Jansen, it was a name they saw scrawled on a wall. Spalding was a producer of sports equipment, mainly basket balls.
The southern part of Westbury, from Florida Street down towards the flats, belonged to the Spaldings and the northern part of the township, from Florida Street up, was Fast Gun turf.
“Little fights would break out at the dance hall on Friday night. The fight would then spill over on to the football field on Saturday morning. Sometimes we would fight over a girlfriend, sometimes over nothing.”
Gangs would have about 30 to 40 members and numbers would shrink when members died or were arrested and grow when new blood was recruited.
Other gangs were formed. The Majimbos hailed from Eldorado Park, and the Varados aligned themselves with the Spaldings. As the Spaldings died off, a new band of brothers appeared on the scene, who called themselves the Vultures. All gangs were involved in robberies, car theft, extortion and small-scale drug dealing, mainly in Mandrax. Shopkeepers also paid them for protection.
“We stood in front of an open grave every week, burying our brothers. These were boys, were family members or friends, we went to school with them and still we killed each other. It was stupid and senseless,” says Peter Faver, a pastor and former leader of the Fast Guns.
Jansen had a few run-ins with the police. “The police were rough, especially the armed robbery and murder squad of the Brixton police station. They would torture you until they had a confession. We deserved it though. There is no honour among thieves. The police always came afterwards. They were never there when you were shooting and chopping. They arrived after someone had died.”
According to Jansen, the police were neither a deterrent nor a threat to the warring gangs. “When we were chopping each other, we would run for cover to the police station. Then we could live another day. The cops would be sitting behind the barracks, smoking and gambling, and they had no guns, so they also started running when they saw us.”
The senselessness of the incessant and often lethal violence came to a halt in the late 1990s, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was spreading the message of forgiveness throughout the country.
Road to reconciliation
“It all started in jail, when opposing gang members had to share a cell while they were awaiting their trial,” said Faver. “When they got out, a meeting was called at the Southgate Mall in Johannesburg, on neutral ground.”
Community elders had complained about the ongoing violence and the incarcerated gangsters had heeded their calls and decided the violence had to end.
“There were 12 gangsters there, of the Vultures, Fast Guns and Varados. The Spaldings by this time had ceased to exist. Three pastors had agreed to join the meeting. We were all nervous, wondering if the other party was armed.”
By the end of the lunch, though, there was no telling who was Varados and who a Vulture, as everyone sat eating, laughing and chatting together.
At a public event on February 28 1999 at the Cecile Payne football stadium in Roodepoort, Westbury residents turned out in droves. Thousands of mothers, fathers, pastors, community leaders and children cheered as the former gang leaders burned flags displaying the insignia of their gangs and firearms were handed in. Faver and Jansen found God when they left the gangs.
While Jansen was trying to help youngsters through his work in the Together Action Group, he saw his son descend into a life of crime and drug addiction and found he could not stop it.
“My son started hanging out at the groot boom, a big tree in the middle of Westbury. It was the place where all the wannabe gangsters hung out, the young generation who took pride in naming themselves the Young Fast Guns or the FBI. They were all dealing drugs for the druglords.”
When his son started dealing and using drugs and refused to leave the gang, Jansen resorted to a drastic measure. He stabbed his son.
“I said to him: I brought you into this world and I will take you out. It was a last resort. I didn’t divorce him though; he is and remains my son. He is an addict now and I cannot stab him anymore. I can only pray for him. If we have to bury him, then so be it.”
Druglords order a hit
Jansen’s family tribulations reflect the changes that have swept through Westbury. The hope and promise generated by the gang’s peace process has been dampened by the rise of drugs and druglords in the area. Unemployment is still sky-high and neither the government nor the corporate world has, despite promises to do so, invested in the neighbourhood. Since 2001, unemployment has more than doubled, as reported by the 2011 Census statistics on household income. About half of the residents reported they had either no income or earned less than the median annual household wage for Gauteng (R44?196).
When the municipality recently hired a Soweto-based construction company for maintenance work on several blocks of flats in Westbury, some residents reacted and took to the streets. Holding placards with “Govt Give Jobs!” “Poverty Kills Our Community” and “Poverty, our kinders suffer”, about 30 men, women and children blocked off streets, burned car tyres and toyi-toyied in protest.
Community leader Charl Joseph told the Citizen newspaper: “If you are idle the devil has work.”
According to police statistics, drug-related crimes – using and selling – in the Sophiatown precinct have doubled since 2012 and are six times higher than 2011. The police mainly arrest drug users and small-time dealers and, allegedly, leave druglords like Clinch untouched.
The Westbury druglords are becoming more brazen. Ishmael Daggee, a former Fast Guns gangster, was shot on April 15 when he got out of his car to open his gate. A hooded youngster pointed a gun at him, shot him and ran away. Daggee lifts his shirt to show a dark bullet wound in his upper chest, close to his shoulder. “Someone ordered a hit. I don’t know who or why.”
The reason, he surmises, might be druglords afraid he may move on to their turf. Daggee served a 20-year sentence for two murders. “The Spaldings killed my uncle. They cut off his private parts and stuffed them in his mouth. Since that day, I shot every Spalding I saw.”
Daggee got the death sentence, which was commuted to a suspended life sentence in 1989. He was released on parole in 2006. “I have a girlfriend and a four-year-old daughter. I run a tuck shop with my mother and generally keep to myself.”
When Daggee does get together with other ex-gansterss it’s for a braai. On a bright and brisk afternoon in July, he joins other former Fast Guns. One chops wood, while another peels a carrot.
Jango, a heavy set man, hikes up his shirt to show his tattoos. “I was shot with seven bullets. One is still lodged in my spine,” he says.
Daggee did not report his recent shooting to the Sophiatown police. “They visited me in hospital, but I don’t trust them. They are on the payroll of these big druglords and I suspect one of them is behind the hit. Reporting this crime would just endanger my life more.”
With little trust in the protective powers of the police, Daggee sees no other option than to buy a gun. “I can’t run away, I can’t protect myself and I know they will be back. I will end up dead or in prison.”
A toxic mix
A mutually beneficial marriage between the druglords and the police is something every resident spoken to speaks of when asked whether they trust the Sophiatown police.
The toxic mix of the drug trade and addiction and an allegedly inactive, or even complicit, police force, has led to repeated calls to close the Sophiatown police station. Every year Westbury residents hand a list of known drug dealers to the police, but they say not much happens.
Zakie and Jansen are not convinced the Sophiatown police are corrupt – it is a South African problem. “Every police station in South Africa is corrupt,” says Zakie.
He gets worked up when corrupt policing is discussed. He gets up from his easy chair, yanks the curtains to one side and points to the dark street outside. “Our community has to take responsibility. See that pole outside? That pole belongs to me. The street belongs to me, I am taking ownership. See that house on the opposite side of the street? We know it is used as a drug house. I have now petitioned the police to do something. As a community we have identified the house and we are taking action.”
Jansen nods in agreement. “[Susan] Pitout, the Sophiatown station commander, has an open-door policy. We are all family in Westbury. We need to take charge and solve our own problems, without blaming the police.”
*Not his real name
• The Wits Justice Project has investigated the Sophiatown police station and the areas it covers. The choice was based on the suburb’s rich history and present diversity. The police station serves an area that includes the poorest and dispossessed as well as the comfortable middle class. Sophiatown can be seen as a microcosm demonstrating South Africa’s violent past, its struggling present and its potential for the future. Visit sophiatowncritical.co.za