Gangs and activists

What does it mean when a community takes justice into its own hands? Revisiting the case of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in Cape Town.

Image credit Suren Pillay.

A few years ago, I found myself among some youths who were familiar to me. I did not recognize them at first, because their faces were covered by the checkered scarves that we associate now with the Palestinians. It was in a community called Rylands, one of the two group areas designated by the apartheid state for so-called ‘Indians’ in Cape Town. It was also the neighbourhood I grew up in. The last time I had seen youths covering their faces in this manner in the neighbourhood was about ten years earlier. And at that time I happened to be one of them. It was during the school boycotts of 1985. We used the scarves to protect our faces from identification by the police as we set up barricades of burning car-tires in the street, and when we hurled petrol bombs at the ubiquitous canary-yellow police vehicles that surrounded our schools.

This time the youths I met were participating in a march organized by a newly-formed group called PAGAD—People Against Gangsterism and Drugs. It was formed by local community leaders, particularly teachers, who were fed up with the proliferation of gang violence and the drug trade on the Cape Flats. Their unhappiness was framed within a particular religious-moral discourse. They were overwhelmingly Muslim, and it was to Islamic scripture and symbolism that they turned to articulate their desire to, in their words, “rid the community” of gangs and drugs. The strategy was to call public meetings, at the end of which a march would proceed to the house of a drug dealer. He or she would be given a 24-hour ultimatum to cease selling drugs, or face the consequences. Most people covered their faces during these marches for fear of retribution from the drug dealers and the gangs they were part of. Some did it, no doubt, because the drug dealers might recognize them as former clients.

Image credit Suren Pillay.

The movement grew rapidly, but largely unnoticed by the mainstream press in Cape Town. That is, until one of these marches, to the house of Cape Town’s most feared and powerful gang leaders, became a spectacle. The Staggie twins, Rashied and Rashaad, were leaders of the Hard Living Kids—the HL’s, as they are known on the Cape Flats. By the mid-nineties, a turf war was unfolding between the Hard Livings and the other big gang on the Cape Flats, the ‘Americans.’ As the marchers stood outside the house, one of the twins, Rashaad, arrived in his SUV. He drove into the thick of the crowd, jumped out of the vehicle, and started mocking those assembled. A scuffle broke out, and in the darkness, shots rang out. When the crowd surrounding Rashaad moved back in panic, he remained standing, shocked, with blood oozing from a gunshot wound. Within second, more shots penetrated his body, and he fell into the gutter. A petrol-bomb was flung at this limp body, bursting into flames upon impact. In a surreal moment, Staggie then stood erect and briefly walked, arms flailing, shrouded in flames, before finally collapsing on the tarred road. I can describe this event in detail, because it was recorded and photographed by the press contingent present. The image of the flame-shrouded Rashaad Staggie’s final steps were played over and over on the local news in the following days, and the pictures were similarly ubiquitous. Pagad was no longer just an organization that those of us from the Cape Flats knew about. It was now a national security concern—more so than the issues its members sought to address.

My concern at that time was with the representation of Pagad in academia and the media. Even though this was long before the hysteria post-9/11, all kinds of Orientalist phobias about Pagad were circulating, such as that it was instigated by the Iranians. In the months that followed, I went to Pagad marches, spoke with members, and attended their meetings. That’s when I realized that I knew some of the youths involved. They were part of what was called the G-Force—a group whose identity was closely guarded, because they were armed, and were most likely involved in a spate of pipe-bombings that ensued during this time. I had been to school with some of them; I knew others from around the neighbourhood. A number of key gang leaders were killed in drive-by shootings, all after having been warned by a Pagad march. When I asked some of them why they were resorting to violence, they said they felt that the new South Africa was not protecting them sufficiently, and they had to take the law into their own hands. Of course, the state could now allow its monopoly over the legitimate use of force to be threatened, and Pagad itself was quickly criminalized.

I had grown up in Rylands—a mostly middle-class, so-called “Indian” neighbourhood. It is more homogeneous in class than ethnic terms, however; and in racial and religious terms as well. Rylands is bordered by working-class communities, then designated for “coloured” people. Silvertown, Bridgetown, Mannenberg, Bonteheuewel, Heideveld: these neighbourhoods were also the product of the Group Areas Act, which dumped people into strictly-racialized neighbourhoods. They were also places where some of the most powerful gangs on the Cape Flats flourished. Our neighbourhoods were not sealed off; people moved among them, and many kids from surrounding areas attended the local schools in Rylands.

Between 1983 and 1984, when I was around twelve, my friends and I were passing through a painful process of male puberty and its attendant horrors. Some of this involved the opposite sex, of course, as well as cars. But we were also deeply fascinated and fearful of those older boys at school who belonged to the gangs. One character in particular, Youssy Eagle, filled us with awe. He was a member of a gang called the Five-Bob Kids, and was a few years older than us. He would challenge anyone to a fight, and was known to carry a knife longer than the palm of your hand in the inner pocket of his school blazer. We had all clamoured to see him beat the daylights out of some poor contender at the back of the school where the fights usually took place.

We found ourselves talking the gangster talk and walking the gangster walk. This meant using the colloquial phrases of gang language, which were unavoidable on the Cape Flats. It also involved wearing American-style clothing—not the hip-hop influences of today, but the zoot-suit look of button-down shirts, pleated slacks, Jack Purcell sneakers, or the really prized Florsheim shoes. And your pants had to hang down really low at the back, indicating that you were a veteran Mandrax smoker—because one of the side-effects of Mandrax was that your butt disappeared. Mandrax at that time was the most widely-used drug on the Cape Flats. You crushed up the tablet and smoked it with marijuana out of a bottleneck. And you had to carry a three-star Okappi, a pocket knife which you could buy at most corner shops, and which, after hours of practice, you could flick open in one single-handed rhythmic maneuver.

Image credit Suren Pillay.

Like myself, most of my friends did not, strictly speaking, come from working-class families. Most of us did not have any traumatic family history. We mostly went to bed with a full stomach, slept on a comfortable bed, and had mothers intensely concerned with our well-being—a teenage boy’s nightmare, of course. Yet there we were, talking like gangsters, hanging out with gangsters, dressing like gangsters. If there was a hero at that time, other than the iconic Bruce Lee or Rambo, it was the local gang leader, whose recognition we craved. We were, in retrospect, wanna-bes. We didn’t aspire to a life of crime; rather, we dabbled in stealing apples from the local shop in order to establish our criminal credentials.

My own future as a gangster—not that, by all indications, it would have been a particularly successful one anyway—was disrupted by the intrusion of student politics in 1985. I grew attracted to a different vision of personhood, and a different vision of society. But it was also a vision that glorified the figure with a gun. This time, it wasn’t the gangster who was idolized, but the AK-47-wielding guerrilla fighter, operating in secret, striking at the state, and landing a blow for justice. This was violence that needed no justification: it was on the right side of history.

I became a member of the student representative council, chairing it for two years during the state of emergency. SRCs were banned under the state of emergency, so it was rough going. Some of the activities we organized were mass rallies, which brought together diverse schools on the Cape Flats. We would often walk to the neighbouring schools, and sometimes students would get robbed by gangsters along the way. I would have to negotiate with the gangsters to return what they had stolen. Perhaps I’m prone to nostalgia, but the gangsters would often return the goods. After all, we wielded greater violence than they did, and our form was condoned by large sections of the community. Some gangsters would tell us they thought we were crazy—they spent all their time evading the police, and we were fighting them in the streets. But they also grudgingly respected us.

There were schoolmates, or rather comrades, who were in charge of organizing this violence. At our school we called them the A-Team—the action team. Their faces were always covered when they went out to stone or petrol-bomb a police or army vehicle. By 1986, the army had been permanently installed in our areas, and there was an abundance of targets and battles to plan. Successfully blocking off a road for a few hours became a huge cause for celebration. For a few hours, it was a liberated zone. Without psychologizing, I do think some were better-disposed than others towards these kinds of activities. And some would probably have joined criminal gangs if they hadn’t been in our political gang. In fact, some gangsters, like the much-feared Johnny Laughing Boy, renounced their gang membership and became some of the bravest of the street-battlers. Skipping the country to become a guerrilla fighter was the ultimate status symbol for many. It was widely aspired to, but few of us summoned the courage to progress from stones, petrol-bombs, and militarist posturing to “taking to the bush,” as we called it. At the end of the day, I suspect that many of us found mother’s cooking and the girl we had a crush on more captivating!

Some of my school-friends did graduate from wanna-bes to hardened criminals; some are still in gangs, and some are drug-dealers. One is in jail for rape. The last time I heard, our lead gangster at school, Youssy Eagle, was in jail for murder. But others do more socially-accepted things, like being lawyers. Youssy’s brother is now a member of the ANC.

Image credit Suren Pillay.

The violence of the gangs, and of the young students, had one thing in common. And it was not their common relation to the means of production, as Don Pinnock, for example, has argued in the most well-known text on the Cape Flats gangs. It was the image of heroic grandeur that was most captivating, and that provided something to aspire to. It is that grandeur that provides the ethical sensibility governing the self’s conduct in the everyday existence of the gangster, or the young political soldier who moves from the wanna-bes to the veteran, to—in the words of the criminologist—the “hardened.” A profound sense of one’s own conduct is required to be a gangster; it is not a condition of lawlessness. The “skollie,” as the gangster is derogatively called on the Cape Flats, is intensely governed by law. But it is not a law whose founding violence is legitimated by invocations of “the nation,” or “the community,” or of “national security.” The skollie is anti-social, if you view him as a member of one form of the social. But to the aunties, mothers, and supporters who lined the streets at recent trials of notorious gang leaders in Cape Town, who have spoken glowingly about the positive roles they play in the community, about how they pay rents, take care of school fees, resolve disputes—this is another account of the social. It is an account that sublimates its own founding violence, and the violence which keeps its own laws in place, to its own sublime objects of desire.

Further Reading