PE gang war could settle election score

Children play in the notorious Kobus street in Gelvandale, one of four gang infested areas in Port Elizabeth. (Photo: Brian Witbooi)

Children play in the notorious Kobus street in Gelvandale, one of four gang infested areas in Port Elizabeth. (Photo: Brian Witbooi)

A four-year gang war raging in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro’s northern areas is threatening to tip the scales in the upcoming local government polls and possibly force a coalition council.

The Democratic Alliance hopes to unseat the ANC and opinion polls show the official opposition firmly in the lead.

The frequency of deaths in the war between the Dustlifes and the Upstand Dogs has been increasing over the past two years and spiked two months ago following the assassination of one of the city’s most notorious drug dealers, Donovan “Staal” Berry, who was shot 31 times.

[Anti gangsterism activist Na’eem Desai, known as the ‘Rambo of PE’, was assassinated by the Sestien Honde gang in May this year.]

Although the Dustlifes and the Upstand Dogs are the two main gangs in the northern areas, both have affiliated groups that run the drug trade, organise killings and take part in battles for control of street corners and smokkel huise (smuggling houses). The violence is concentrated in Bethelsdorp, Gelvandale, Helenvale and Schauderville.

The combined voter population in these four areas is about 50 000, according to the 2014 national elections registration figures.
Together they make up slightly less than 10% of the overall vote in the municipality. This support will be crucial in this year’s election, given that the ANC won 49% of the total vote in the 2014 election and the DA received 41%.

The smaller gangs include the Paparazzi, Blink Boemelaars, Sestien Honde, Von Boeties, Shooters, Boom shakas and Untouchables.

Last week the Mail & Guardian was granted access to the area by a high-ranking member of the Dustlifes. In a tense two-hour interview, interrupted by sounds of gunfire, the man refused to reveal his real name, describing himself as a “general” following Staal’s murder.

The general spoke of a near-military chain of command, in which 30- and 40-year-olds give orders to teenagers. He portrayed his gang as a group concerned about the “poverty of coloured people”.

“Die laaities vat net orders. As hy sy taak voltooi en die man val, kry hy ’n odd. As hy te bang is, word hy gestraf. Is net so. Ons mense kry mos fokol by die council nie, so ons sit die laaities op ’n pos en gee werk,” he explained in a calm tone.

(These kids just take orders. If he completes his task and the man falls, he’ll get some change. If he’s too scared, he gets punished. It’s just like that. Our people get fuck all at the council, so we give these kids a position and give them work.)

The general also said the socioeconomic conditions in these areas has led to his gang extending a helping hand to families whose sons are foot soldiers and victims of the violence.

Despite their reign of terror and violence, the Dustlifes say they enjoy the support of residents; the gang distributes food parcels, provides electricity and helps to pay for school uniforms.

The general corroborates this, pointing to the home of a single mother in her 50s, who he says received a microwave, TV and school uniforms after her son was recruited into the gang.

Speaking anonymously, she says: “Ek vra maar net’ie wa’ hy die kos en ander goed kry nie van ek wil nie weet nie. Maar hoe moet ek maak? Ek doen wasgoed en stryk vir Westering mense ... maar die pay is te min. Maar dis beter as hulle ophou met die drugs en moorde. Dan is ek tevrede om te sukkel.”

(I don’t ask where he gets the good and other stuff from and I don’t want to know. But what can I do? I do washing and ironing for people from Westering ... but the pay is too little. But it’s better if they stop with the drugs and the murders. Then I will be content to struggle.)

The gang war is believed to have started after a truce collapsed in May 2012, which Gelvandale residents said followed a string of break-ins at private security firms in Port Elizabeth (PE). It has left the predominantly coloured communities caught in the middle of drive-by shootings and assassinations, which have also claimed the lives of innocent bystanders such as Angelique Tee, a 12-year-old gunned down a few weeks after witnessing Staal’s murder in Bethelsdorp.

These are the same communities the ANC hopes will be swayed by its incumbent mayor, Danny Jordaan, to keep the governing party in control of the metro council after the August 3 polls. But the 2014 provincial election results data, available on, reveals that the DA has already made significant inroads in these areas. An average of about 80% of people who took part in the election voted for the DA in the areas where gangsterism is rife.

But the uptake in gang violence appears to have led to more people turning their backs on conventional political parties.

“My wife was bringing me coffee from the kitchen at about six o’clock on Thursday morning. Suddenly we heard about five or six shots. She didn’t even flinch and even said she doesn’t know if people are hammering or shooting, the way it happens so regularly,” said a respected activist and church leader, Justin Oliphant, who lives in Gelvandale.

A 10-year-old asking for spare change outside a KFC in Gelvandale echoed these sentiments. The boy admitted to seeing more than five bodies riddled with bullet holes. He smiles and laughs when asked whether he cried when he saw them, as if the question itself was absurd.

The DA has attempted to gain leverage from the gangsterism and has accused the ANC of having “blood on its hands” by failing to deploy the army to quell the violence.

Police Minister Nathi Nhleko promised to deploy the South African National Defence Force during the launch of Operation Lockdown, a tactical response and intelligence unit collaboration meant to restore peace during the Easter holidays.

“The gangsterism crisis in PE’s northern areas needs rapid intervention and political will‚ both of which will not materialise under an ANC government,” said the DA’s mayoral candidate, Athol Trollip, during a campaign speech in March.

Last week, Jordaan assured residents of the gang-ridden areas that decisive action is being planned, but he was left red-faced when the ANC’s Eastern Cape secretary, Oscar Mabuyane, demanded something more urgent.

“Where is the government to protect that community? Where are the police?” he asked the ANC’s regional task team.

Several locals said, although the ANC and DA are competing for their votes, they have found refuge in the Patriotic Alliance, founded and led by former gangster and inmate Gayton McKenzie.

The PA’s Eastern Cape leader, Marlon Daniels, said their ward candidates live in the affected communities and command the respect of both residents and gang members.

“The PA will unashamedly and urgently attempt to negotiate a truce if our candidates are elected in those wards ... Win or lose we will continue our programmes to help gang-ridden areas. We must change the norm because parents are coming to crime scenes with kids on their shoulders and having casual conversations as if it’s nothing,” Daniels said.

Support for the relatively new party exists predominately in coloured communities. It objected to the potential deployment of the army.

“All the army is going to do is kill our own kids, who are in the gangs. Until we address the lack of jobs and economic development in these areas, the kids will continue to be recruited,” he said.

The PA has already recruited antigangsterism activists such as Oliphant, who runs the Endangered Species initiative, which aims to rehabilitate former gangsters and convince young people not to join the gangs. Oliphant will be contesting for a ward councillor position in Gelvandale.

“We believe the best way to stop a bullet is with a job,” Oliphant said while sitting in the local KFC, where he is frequently greeted by members of the community congratulating him on his attempt to restore peace in the area.

In addition to this, the PA appears to have the backing of at least one of the gangs, with the Dustlife general saying McKenzie’s party members could be “the only people” who could negotiate a truce.

The police units co-ordinating Operation Lockdown said that since the deployment of tactical response teams and intelligence units several people have been arrested.

Both the ANC and the DA are adamant that gangsterism will not deter their candidates from conducting door-to-door campaigns in the affected communities. The PA has said it will hold a prayer march involving all political parties and independent candidates to illustrate its commitment to peace.

But the general hinted there is an easier way to achieve peace.

“Daar’s nog twee generals wat moet val. As ons hulle kry, sal dit maybe kalmeer,” he said.

(There’s still two generals who have to fall. If we get them, then maybe it will calm down.)

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