Gangs take over the drug-flooded Flats of South Africa

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A year after pictures of Muslim vigilantes publicly executing gang leader Rashaad Staggie were transmitted around the globe, open warfare has broken on the Cape Flats.

As innocents die, the South African police are impotent in the face of crisis.

Now was the time to light a candle against the darkness, the vigil organiser told the hundreds of terrified residents who filled Cape Town's City Hall.

They came to seek refuge from the violence-ridden Cape Flats, home to the city's poor coloured (mixed race) population. Even as the choir burst into song and the wax began to drip, the war between gangsters, who control the Flats, and the Muslim vigilante group Pagad continued, with tit-for- tat attacks on mosques and alleged drug-dealers' homes.

It is more than a year now since the conflict first burst on to our television screens with the horrific public torching and execution by Pagad supporters of Rashaad Staggie, 40, who with his twin Rashied headed the Hard Livings gang.

Since then Pagad has continued its war with the gangsters who flood the Flats with mandrax, dagga (cannabis) and harder drugs. Once, Pagad supporters marched in their thousands to the homes of dealers chanting "Allah is great" and demanding that they leave the neighbourhood. Now they have become urban guerrillas, turning up, masked, in the dead of night, to assassinate dealers. They are spurred on by the calls of spiritual leaders who declare that "the time for killing" has come.

Herman Kriel, premier of the Western Cape, warned recently that Pagad had become as much a threat to order as the gangs.

In the last few weeks it is the innocents who have died in even greater numbers than usual. A baby was burned to death in a grenade attack which also blew off her older brother's leg and badly burned her mother and sister.

Despite Pagad's insistence that it was not responsible for the death and injuries, police say the vigilantes mistakenly targeted the family; the local mandrax dealer lived further up the street. In another incident Pagad beat and shot a man they mistook for a dealer.

If the vigilantes are mis-hitting, so too are the gangsters. Last week Dr Mogammat Dharsey was shot dead in his practice surgery. A gang had apparently assumed that he was a Pagad member just because he had attended the funeral of a friend who was. Muslim traders are also being killed because the gangsters believe that they are funding Pagad.

The violence, which has so far been contained to the sandy flats to which tens of thousands of coloureds were banished during the apartheid years, is spiralling out of control. It now poses a real threat to South Africa's blossoming tourist industry.

The government is struggling to find a solution. Last week 300 extra policemen were promised for the area, although only 70 actually arrived.

Publicly, ministers refuse to negotiate with the gangsters although behind the scenes talks are going on. This week President Nelson Mandela supported a decision not to back a local police initiative to hold talks with Pagad.

The African National Congress is suspicious of Pagad, which it claimed has a wider Islamic agenda, and may be backed by hard-line Islamic governments. The government prefers to focus attention on claims that a Third Force is inflaming the violence, after a bizarre allegation by a young prisoner this week that prison officers were allowing inmates out each night to terrorise the Flats. During the last years of apartheid there were persistent allegations that a mysterious Third Force was behind much of the violence in the country,

The trouble is that in this drama none of the main players - Pagad, the gangsters or the police - are what they seem to be.

The birth of Pagad has alllowed the gangs to present themselves as victims. Once-bitter rivals have banded together to form Core (Community Outreach Forum) and have marched on parliament to demand that the government deal with them as the creation of a racist past.

Apartheid, according to Rashied Staggie, made the gangsters. "We did it to survive," claimed Rashied, who argues that dealers will pack up shop if the government creates employment on the Flats.

From their local shebeen headquarters, Core adapts Marxist class analysis to present its members as downtrodden members of the coloured working class and Pagad as middle-class Islamic intellectuals who have no notion of what it takes to survive. Playing on the alienation of a coloured population which believes it was "never white enough for the Nats and now not black enough for the ANC", Core says that the new government does not care for the coloured community.

The gangsters' reinvention of themselves is disingenuous. Handsome Staggie, in designer jeans and mirrored shades, drives around in a flash four-wheel drive and owns property all over the Cape. Pagad argues, rightly, that the drug barons have grown rich by inflicting misery on the poor. But it faces a hard battle for hearts and minds.

Rashied Staggie, labelled as a psychopath in prison, is seen as a modern- day Robin Hood by an ambivalent community. And while Pagad can bring thousands of ordinary people on to the streets, so too can the gangsters. "He drives past local schools throwing 10 rand notes to the kids," said one local community worker. "He pays people's rents and provides local jobs." Like any prominent businessman he sponsors the local football team.

Staggie can afford the best that money can buy, including, it is rumoured, public relations consultants. He has taken to speaking at school assemblies where he tells children that he has given up the drug trade and warns them to shun the gangs.

Heart-warming stuff, but hogwash according to Pagad's national commander, Aslam Toefy. "Core is nothing but an organised crime syndicate," he said, adding that lighting candles is no protection against crime.

Wilfred Scharf, a criminology professor at the University of Cape Town, concurs that Core, hemmed in by new anti-gangster laws, is trying to protect a business which has enjoyed considerable growth since the end of apartheid opened South Africa up to the international drug trade.

Unfortunately, the expansion came just when the criminal justice system - and the police in particular - was in transformation and least able to cope. The police combating the war on the Flats are hampered by the corruption that riddles their ranks. Many officers have long-standing ties with the gangs which were used by both sides during the apartheid years. "Favours are still owed and information still has to be suppressed," Professor Scharf said.

In this mire the government - and the honest cops - must find some light. Third Force investigations may not be that outlandish. "It would not surprise me and I am not a conspiracy theorist," Professor Scharf said.