Frontline: Cape Town: Deadly groups cause mayhem in Junkie Funky gang wars

IN WEST SIDE Story, The Jets take on The Sharks. In the latest instalment of the far less lyrical Western Cape Story, The Americans, regarded as one of the most powerful gangs in South Africa, have a new challenger, the British Citizens.

These new kids on the Cape Flats - a dusty, bleak area of two million people outside Cape Town - know not the joys of warm beer, cricket on village greens and New Labour. But they have got the message about Cool Britannia.

In their short life, the British Citizens have already spawned another gang, Forever British. Both join a long line of wackily named killer groups, including JFK (The Junkie Funky Kids), The Naughty Boys and the Hard Livings. The Cleaver Kids are another group of newcomers and there is some dispute as to whether their correct name is actually the Clever Kids.

"Spelling is not really their big thing,'' said Wilfried Scharf, a Cape Town criminology professor who spent four years following the Total Pipe Killers. "The gangs derive their names in many ways. From their location, from movies, from television or from their specialism. I am not sure where the British thing came in but it is very new.

"The Total Pipe Killers, now disbanded, were particular about their smoking styles. They worked out all sorts of ways to smoke dagga [marijuana] and mandrax through the broken necks of bottles.''

The British Citizens came to national prominence this week in an everyday report of the violent war to control the drug and arms trades of one of the world's most lawless places. Police arrested one of the gang's members after the shooting and stabbing of two occupants of a Cape Town house used by The Americans.

The day before, four people died in a clash involving The Terrible Gang. But the incident could as easily involve The Sexy Boys, The Cobra Kids or any of the other dozens of gangs whose stars can rise or fall in the time it takes to score a crack "hit'' on the Cape Flats.

Everyone knows the gangs are powerful - and kill dozens of people every year - but no one can rank them in importance. Fifteen years ago, Don Pinnock, then a Cape Town academic, said the Flats had 80,000 gangsters. No one has updated the figure and Mr Pinnock thinks it an under- estimate, given that nowadays only 20 per cent of Flats dwellers have jobs.

Turning to the police is not much good. In the apartheid years, they used the gangs to mete out punishment beatings, so they are hardly considered impartial. Besides, the gangsare more powerful than the police, especially when organised into super-syndicates, such as The Firm. Mr Scharf said: "New gangs are formed all the time because you have gang alliances and sub-groups. Anyone who uses the suffix `Dog', as in American Dog, is a particularly brave and vicious gangster."

At a shebeen in Belhar, a Flats area partly controlled by The Firm, children are offered juice and biscuits on feast days by the same men who are prone to driving through the streets, shooting randomly, at the mere whiff of a defection or territorial threat.

In the Cape Flats, no one changes sides, and The Firm's painted shebeen mural provides a flavour of the prevailing morality: "Rumours are spread by jealous people'' is one slogan. The other: "No excuses, no explanations, no apologies, not to anyone, not ever'.'

Mr Pinnock said: "Being in a gang is about killing. That's how you get respect, and once you've killed you need the gang to defend you.''

Initiation rites in this brutal world include rape, and women are known as "pomp dinge'' (things for pumping). That is perhaps why a few women have started their own gang, The Smart Cookies, who live by offering shoplifting to order.

Efforts have been made by the community to end the gangs' hold on the Flats, but each has merely spawned new groupings. First came People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, better known under its acronym, Pagad.

When Pagad, which has Islamist affiliations, became so powerful two years ago that Cape Town's unsuccessful 2004 Olympic bid committee asked for its endorsement, a bunch of hardened gangsters decided to get together and keep them in check. They created a rival grouping under the inoffensive-sounding banner of Community Outreach (Core), and signed up a Christian pastor.

Now Pagad, elements of which were blamed for the Planet Hollywood bombing in August last year, fights its own supremacy battles with Core.

Alex Duval Smith