These days tourists are flocking to sample the delights of Cape Town. But in the suburbs a war is raging between local gangs and the vigilantes out to destroy them
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Ernie "Lapepa" Peters, the 5ft 4in neighbourhood Big Man, has already ordered one of his henchmen to bring his flash motor round the front. The souped-up, red-and-white Ford Capri - soft-topped and imported from Michigan - stands purring opposite his shebeen. The car has seen better days but still brings a touch of tacky glamour to the run-down square with its patch of worn grass and battered mobile shop, where withered young women, plagued by posses of kids, struggle to eke out the housekeeping.

Lapepa's boys abandon the pool table to shadow him to the Capri. These are dangerous times and Lapepa, 32, his four front teeth missing and his neck dripping with gold, is their meal ticket. An incongruous mural, plastered across the shebeen's outside wall, gives the first hint that these are also confusing times. In it, three dearly departed gangsters float like angels above an empty desert road and the grave warning that "Gangsterism leads to jail or death".

Curiously, it was Lapepa, the gang leader with 40 men on his payroll, who sponsored the mural. Its message seems lost on those now drooling round the car. After a few parting orders, the boss dons designer shades, pockets his mobile phone, cranks up the stereo and roars out of Belhar Extension, on the Cape Flats, leaving behind the men and a blur of monotonous paint-peeled houses, separated by rusting corrugated iron.

Lapepa might be better off with less ostentatious wheels, however. For the Muslim vigilante group Pagad (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs) has threatened to kill him. Lapepa jokes that he knows his time has not yet come. Pagad believes that Allah has decreed differently.

BEHIND the gangster bravado Lapepa, on the face of it the sweetest and most courteous of gangsters, must be worried. Last year the world watched live on television Pagad's execution of Lapepa's gangster buddy, 40-year- old Rashaad Staggie. With his "psycho" twin Rashied, Rashaad had dominated the poverty-ridden Flats, the vast, sandy plains - sandwiched between rich white suburbs - which are home to hundreds of thousands of poor, coloured (ie. mixed-race) Capetonians.

Then on the night of 5 August 1996, a baying mob dragged Rashaad from his customised jeep, shot him through the head, set him ablaze and, just to be sure, pumped him full of bullets.

As he lay dying in the gutter the police looked on, and did nothing. Some were clearly sympathetic to a crowd frustrated by the authorities' failure to stem the flood of mandrax, dagga (cannabis) and harder narcotics into their neighbourhoods. In the previous two years Rashaad had been investigated nine times - but each time criminal charges against him had been dropped. Witnesses were usually too damn terrified to testify. Now summary justice had ended the tiresome business of legal prosecution.

Since then, a war has raged between the gangsters and the vigilantes. Pagad continues to lay siege to drug dealers' homes, just as it did on the night Rashaad was murdered, chanting "Allah Hu Akbar" ("Allah is great") and "Kill the merchants". But small Pagad cells now also materialise in the night, masked in black Balaclavas, to execute pushers. Now, senior Western Cape police officers warn that Pagad is as great a threat to law and order as the gangs themselves.

Hostilities are currently at a peak, claiming scores of innocent victims. Community outrage boiled over in September when a baby was killed and one of her brother's legs blown off during a grenade attack on their home. The atrocity, it transpired, was a Pagad mishit, one of a string of recent botched operations: the dealer lived further up the street. The gangs retaliate tit-for-tat, murdering Muslim doctors and merchants suspected of secretly funding Pagad.

So far the conflict has been confined to the Flats - the area to which the coloureds (Cape Town's Afrikaans-speaking racial majority) were forcibly removed in the late Sixties in line with apartheid policy. Today, foreign tourists flash past the graffiti-scarred ghettos on their way to and from Cape Town's international airport. They never stop but travel on to the gracious winelands and the fashionable Waterfront, shielded from the violence that rages close by. The blossoming tourist industry wonders how long the illusion can last with the Flats a near war zone and increased demands for a state of emergency.

The gangsters were always around - long before the National Party bulldozed the community's old homes. But on the unfamiliar and hostile Flats they became more vicious and overtly criminal. Membership became de rigueur and the community learnt to live with the sound of gunfire.

The current struggle, however, is more earnest than a skirmish over turf. It is a fight to the death between a militant Islamic movement and the gangs it would annihilate. At stake is a multi-billion-pound drug business which, in neighbourhoods ravaged by unemployment, is the largest local industry, providing an estimated 100,000 full- and part-time jobs.

The conflict has fostered some bizarre developments. Gangsters have turned themselves into self-styled champions of the poor and an anti-crime organisation has metamorphosed into a murderous paramilitary force. President Nelson Mandela visited the Flats last month for the first time, for a crisis summit, but politicians and police seem largely paralysed; frozen, it is rumoured, by the legacy of a dirty political past which has left dark secrets to be protected and favours that have yet to be repaid.

NOWadays the camera is as much a weapon for Lapepa as the AK47. Life is a breathless whirl of interviews and photo opportunities for a likeable guy who insists, despite appearances, that he is "reformed" and now dedicated to ridding the Flats of his own kind. His earnestness is so convincing you have to keep reminding yourself that guys like Lapepa did not get where they are by helping old ladies across the road. Today he and Rashied Staggie are meeting a television crew in nearby Manenberg, where the Staggie twins were raised and, before their teens, founded the notorious Hard Livings gang.

Sitting in his Ford Capri, Lapepa seems more politician than hood. He is already a master of the soundbite. "Look," he says bitterly, pointing to Manenberg's crumbling two-storey homes and dirt-track streets which teem with barefoot children and emaciated dogs with dragging teats, "Concentration camps for our people. Apartheid did this to us. The National Party never cared for coloureds and neither does the ANC. We are at the door of democracy eating the crumbs.

"Affirmative action is just for blacks," he continues, playing on the alienation of a community trapped in a racial no-man's-land during apartheid and whose social schizophrenia has made the Western Cape the National Party's only remaining power base.

Can any good come from these conditions, asks Lapepa? Bring us jobs, he promises, and organised crime will disappear. It is the chorus to the gangsters' lament. "Apartheid made us," said Rashied Staggie recently. "We did it to survive." Rashied argues that the Truth Commission - which has the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators of past political crimes - should extend the same offer to gangsters.

Outside Manenberg's "Shack" shebeen a ragged, pretty little girl, too young to notice the despair, smiles eagerly for the camera. A drunken grandmother sways down the road to berate the crew. Drink and drug addiction are highest in coloured communities. Rashied's arrival sets off a little ripple of excitement. Small, handsome and bearded, he wears an American baseball cap and sports the usual gold chains and knuckleduster rings. On his right arm is tattooed "26" - the seal of one of the gangs which operates within Cape prisons. He is welcomed by a bevy of tough-looking men basking in the hot midday sun, who listen to his complaints to the television reporter, that the government and the police are ignoring the gangsters' requests for talks.

The Shack is headquarters to the Community Outreach Forum (Core), formed by rival gangs - including the Hard Livings, the Firm and the Americans - after Rashaad's death last year. Core's raison d'etre, it claims, is to bring peace to the Flats. Most of these bruisers are on the Core executive - even the obese man with the blue-ink tattoo on his neck which declares, "The gallows are my destination".

The formation of Core confounded the pundits. Rashied, once a guest in the "psychopath" wing of the local prison, was expected to take revenge on the five men who were arrested, and later released, for his brother's murder. As the myth had it, there was a benign twin and an evil twin: Rashaad, it was said, was obsessed with power, Rashied with violence.

It's a perception on which Rashied still plays. "They killed the wrong brother," he says today. He claims revenge was his first thought but that it was swiftly followed by the idea for Core, which now roadshows across the Flats preaching that only the gangs can end the violence. Despite some damning evidence to the contrary, Rashied says he has given up the drugs business, and has taken to spreading a reformed-gangster gospel in schools. "I am not a hero," he tells pupils. "I am an empty person ... I am a nothing and a scum." It is quite a volte-face.

Not that long ago he and Rashaad would drive past schools throwing 10 Rand (pounds 1.30) notes to kids in what appeared to be a crude recruitment drive. "I am sincere," he now says. "My brother would have approved."

To believe in gangsters with hearts of gold takes an overdose of sentimentalism, but there is no shortage of that on the Flats. Here the hoods are hated for the violence and loved as latter-day Robin Hoods - sometimes by the same people. They are the only employers and investors in town. They pay overdue bills and sponsor the local football team. In this way they buy loyalty.

Pagad mobilises huge crowds but the gangsters have their own constituency. Thousands turned out for the unveiling of a memorial mural to Rashaad. And when Core marched on Parliament last year - with Rashaad's daughters, Ingrid, 15, and Carmen, 11, at the fore brandishing a placard, reading: "They killed the world's best father" - 1,500 people went with them. The gangsters were genuinely dismayed that no one from government came to collect their petition demanding talks over the future of the Flats.

There are rumours that, in this marginalised community, the memberscharismatic and articulate Rashied may now run for public office.

It is all very galling for Aslam Toefy, Pagad's national commander. Toefy, a former Springbok and a mountain of a man, pushes back his mirrored shades before dismissing Core as an organised-crime syndicate and Rashied and Lapepa as pawns for the international drug trade's powerful but invisible big boys.

"If Core is sincere they should hand over their profits so we can set up drug-rehabilitation clinics," says Toefy. He was born in the ghetto and has no truck with gangs who whine that they are "victims". If the police will not clean up the Flats he promises Pagad will. "We have built the middle class and the business community by ourselves and we can handle this [gangsterism] too. We are fighting the devil himself. People will die, but God's truth will prevail."

Toefy insists that Pagad is still an anti-crime organisation, with no hidden Islamic agenda. But according to a confidential police report it has been hijacked by militants. The report highlights the influence of spiritual leader Achmat Cassiem, leader of Qibla, South Africa's most militant Muslim organisation, and Pagad's alleged links with Hizbollah and Hamas. Pagad claims it does not advocate violence; but its religious leaders rant that "the time for killing has come" and a Pagad coordinator is currently charged with five attempted murders.

The gangsters have been quick to take advantage of fears of religious fundamentalism, claiming Pagad is hell-bent on creating an Islamic state in the Cape. Although only a small minority of Cape coloureds are Muslim the rumour has still gained credence. But distrust of Pagad is matched by distrust of Core. Another confidential police report concludes that while Rashied is preaching in schools, gang recruitment of children continues. There is also strong suspicion that Core members are using the organisation as a smokescreen for a planned takeover of all organised crime in the Cape. Lapepa and Rashied, of course, are furious at the "disinformation".

SENIOR police officer Arno Lamoer heads the Flats crisis task-force. If gang and Pagad duplicity were all he had to deal with he would be a happy man. Much worse is the involvement of corrupt police officers and politicians.

During the apartheid era the gangs were used in various ways by both the government and the liberation forces. In the old days that meant gangsters could operate with impunity. "If we arrested someone, the first thing they would say is call brigadier or colonel so-and-so," remembers Lamoer, who is widely recognised as an honest cop (and was denied promotion throughout the Eighties). The potential for political blackmail has clearly not disappeared. Rashied has threatened to "expose" some of the people now in power when "the time is right".

When South Africa's apartheid regime began to crumble - creating a political vacuum and leaving the country vulnerable to international crime - police officers were quick to seize the moment. Those already elbow-deep in blood and dirt through "anti-terrorist" covert operations had a host of unsavoury but useful connections on which to draw. Today, many of these officers are still in bed with organised crime, and often occupy the same senior police positions. South Africa's negotiated political transition ruled out revolutionary cleansing of the service. The situation lends some credence to ANC claims that a Third Force is trying to destabilise the country.

Professor Wilfried Scharf, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town, says police corruption is "systematic and endemic", right through to the highest ranks. Arno Lamoer offers countless recent examples, including calls from senior officers ordering suspects to be released and charges dropped. And there is a ludicrously long list of failed prosecutions against some of the Cape's most notorious, flamboyant dealers despite a raft of new anti-gangster legislation.

Despite the charm of Lapepa and Rashied, both Lamoer and Scharf are scathing of Core. They say the gangsters are simply on the run from the new legislation. An amnesty for gangsters would, they claim, allow drug dealers to set up legitimate businesses with their ill-gotten gains. Lamoer laughs at the notion of Rashied, rumoured to be raking in R30,000 (pounds 4,000) a day, switching to a back-breaking nine to five.

But both recognise the huge obstacle presented by the popularity of the gangs - even among those who have suffered. Taxi driver Rita has just admitted her 17-year-old son to a mental hospital. He suffered a drug- induced "breakdown" during which he threatened to kill Colin Stanfield, the alleged drug baron for whom Core is claimed to be a front.

As we speed across the Flats, Rita points out a large house allegedly used as a stockroom by drug dealers. We pass the surgery where the only local doctor was recently killed because the gangsters suspected he was a Pagad member. "He was a kind man," she says. "Who else would let you pay later these days? No one else will set up here."

But does Rita blame the gangsters? She seems more aggrieved at Pagad for increasing tensions. Colin Stanfield's sister is her neighbour. Stanfield has moved somewhere posher but he does not forget his roots. "Colin has a good heart," she says. "Every year he has a big Easter Party and all the local kids get eggs."

That's the image Lapepa likes to foster: gangsters of the people, for the people. He seems hurt at rumours that his media savvy comes from PR consultants employed by Core's wealthy backers. "We are good at this because we mean it," he says, before lapsing into resentful silence. All day he has presented himself as a victim of circumstance. In another time and place his desire to shine might have made him a lawyer or a doctor. Within the confines of apartheid and poverty, he made his mark through the gangs. He even explains, not so convincingly, his fathering of 12 children by 11 women in terms of his "profession": "In this job you put a woman in danger if you hang around too long."

There's an edge of defiance to his own defence. "My mother and step-father were drinkers and I had to leave school early. I did not have many opportunities but I took the one I had. I'm glad I did. I made something of myself."

Whether or not the gangsters are playing a double-game, some argue they are so powerful that they must be involved in a solution if any change is to come to the Flats. Ebrahim Moosa, director of the University of Cape Town's Centre for Contemporary Islam, makes a distinction between the Lapepas and Rashieds of the drug world, and the international crime cartels. He condemns Pagad's attempt to make the gangsters complete pariahs, arguing instead that they are an integral part of a damaged community.

Mr Moosa is one of the few in the Islamic community to condemn outright the torching of Rashaad Staggie as an affront to all Islamic values. "I am afraid that ... scores of gangsters are but the dispensable foot soldiers of these ruthless cartels. While the gangs cannot escape their share of the guilt, the sentiment of treating them as a scourge and subjecting them to a 'final solution' is utterly misplaced."

Main picture and below: on the night of 5 August 1996 gangster Rashaad Staggie was executed in cold blood as police looked on. Left: gang leader Ernie 'Lapepa' Peters (extreme right) in 1997 - if Pagad vigilantes have their way, the next funeral he attends will be his own

Top: Pagad members protest against gang-related activities on the streets of Cape Town. Above: one year after the murder of Rashaad Staggie, fellow gangsters offer a 21-gun salute in front of the mural painted in his honour Rashied Staggie (above, addressing a sympathetic crowd) was once a guest in the 'psychopath' wing of the local prison. Now he claims to have mended his ways. Below: armed Pagad members on the streets of Cape Town