A packet of a well-known brand of cigarettes costs R60. A bottle of alcohol which usually retails at R170, is now being sold at R400. Business is booming on the black market.
The illicit economy that underpins Cape Town’s crime underworld has not gone into lockdown like the rest of the city or the country. But while turf wars, shootings and sporadic gang violence have been at their lowest in years, the gang economy is still operating.
A leader in the Mongrels gang in Steenberg, Cape Town, whose full name is known to the Mail & Guardian but wants to be identified only as Toufieq, said the truce is in direct response to the Covid-19 lockdown.
There are fewer people on the streets and not much interaction between rival gangs. Also, the increased police and military presence has made gangsters more vigilant about standing on corners to mark their territory.
“In some places, there’s a ceasefire but here by us its full peace. No one is shooting. It’s probably because of the coronavirus. People are taking it seriously. I am. I’m washing my hands, wearing a mask. Also, there’s a lot more police patrolling nowadays,” said Toufieq, a man in his thirties who’s raising a daughter.
Despite the lockdown, he’s still being kept busy — the illicit trade is still ongoing.
“Those things are happening. People must do what they can to survive. You won’t find much alcohol being sold in this area at the moment, a lot of it is sold out. But cigarettes, yes. Other drugs, of course.”
Toufieq won’t say what kind of drugs are being sold. But in communities such as Steenberg, mandrax and tik are common. Even people who don’t use the harder, more illicit substances are turning to ‘merchants’ and gangsters for their fix of nicotine and alcohol.
“It’s difficult to give up. The aunties, the uncles, they are all coming to us for their cigarettes and their dop. This lockdown story is making it difficult for everyone, but people are willing to pay. People are thirsty,” said Toufieq.
But the anxiety and stress of a global pandemic are enough to take its toll on even the most hardened of gangsters.
For Toufieq, he worries about succumbing to the virus because that would mean no sales and no money to support his family. “I don’t feel too good through all of this. I also have a daughter. This whole corona business is making me think of her. My life at the moment just feels like it’s on a road to nowhere.”
The silence is noticeable in areas known to be hotbeds of gang violence.
Mark Nicholson runs a local Covid-19 feeding scheme in nearby Lavender Hill where he feeds hundreds of children a day. The field where he currently dishes a daily plate of food is usually the area to avoid as rival gangs fire pot shots across the open space.
Children these days spread out and sit two metres apart to encourage the practice of physical distancing. They sit down to eat in peace. This would not have been possible just weeks ago.
“No shootings are happening right now. The truce has been going on for about a month now. And it’s helping me. The gangs know what I’m busy with to feed the children. And them shooting will just cause chaos here,” Nicholson said.
“There are regular police operations here now. They come regularly to known drug dealer’s houses. There’s more searching in the area, also making sure people adhere to the lockdown. So the police are also doing their part to make sure there is less drug dealing,” he added.
Policing and gang analyst Eldred De Klerk said the move by gangs to lay down the guns and concentrate on business was expected and strategic.
Gangs will not sacrifice their members to a pandemic. Manpower is their most important resource.
“Criminal gangs are engaged in conflicts on multiple fronts — amongst themselves, with law enforcement and the community. So with everyone trying to get them, you add to that coronavirus, they’re like any organisation that asks ‘how do we keep our members safe and how do we protect our business,’” De Klerk said.
Western Cape Police and the Anti-Gang Unit said they would not comment officially, saying they’d rather concentrate their efforts on dealing with the coronavirus lockdown plans.
But police officers at station-level in gang hotspots who spoke to the M&G said they’re being freed up to concentrate on responding to community calls for help in dealing with food assistance and petty crime.
But it’s not just organised criminals who are capitalising on people’s thirst.
One family on Cape Town’s west coast who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity has resorted to selling alcohol from their home. They’re not advertising broadly, rather sending WhatsApp messages to people they know and trust in their neighbourhood.
The message reads: “We are selling Jack Daniels Old No. 7, Wellington VO, Bells, Captain Morgan Spiced Gold, Amarula and Olmeca Tequila.”
A person in the family said it’s a way to get by, not necessarily to make a profit.
Lockdown has been tough on people. Financial uncertainty has led to people taking drastic steps.
“My dad is a pensioner, my mom doesn’t know if she’s going to be paid by clients at the end of the month. So we are having to do what we do. My mother is one to buy in bulk. Everything, washing powder, milk and alcohol. We will have food until the end of the lockdown. But we needed to make a plan to pay rent, pay our cars,” a family member said.