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Anti-Gang Fury Roils S. Africa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since they founded the Hard Livings in 1971, Rashied and Rashaad Staggie were known as the brawn and brains of South Africa’s most vicious criminal gang.

Rashied, a confessed killer, was called “Mad Dog” for his brutality and cunning. Rashaad, his twin brother, was the businessman, helping to build an empire based on drugs, guns and rackets.

They were not alone. Police say about 140 gangs, from the Americans to the Young Heart Breakers, terrorize and plunder the cinder-block slums and working-class towns of the Cape Flats, the wind-swept marshes outside Cape Town where mixed-race, or “colored,” families were forced to live under apartheid.

Today, the gangs are under siege. And South Africa is in shock.

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Late on Aug. 4, several hundred local residents marched to the Staggies’ “safe house” in Salt River, an industrial suburb. Most hid their faces under stockings, ski masks or red-checked Arab scarves. Nearly all carried shotguns, automatic rifles or pistols.

As police watched, they suddenly attacked Rashaad Staggie as he arrived home in his truck. He was shot in the head, then hit with a Molotov cocktail. Despite the flames, he staggered down the street before collapsing in a hail of gunfire. Some in the crowd cheered. Others kicked or shot the corpse.

Most of the mob was middle-aged, middle-class and Muslim. They belong to a new group, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, or Pagad, that meets in a local mosque. Fueled with religious fervor, they are threatening a vigilante campaign to stop the crime that has ravaged one of South Africa’s most conservative communities. The gangs, in turn, have threatened war against the Muslims.

The sudden collision of vicious gangs, deadly drugs and militant Islam has rocked President Nelson Mandela’s fledgling democracy and exposed a dangerous new fissure in a nation struggling to overcome the bitter legacies of apartheid.

Rioting erupted Sunday night when army troops and police fired rubber bullets, birdshot and tear gas to stop several thousand Pagad members, many of them armed, who were headed toward gang areas. Nine people were wounded in the melee.

Earlier that day, in a scene hard to imagine in most countries, about 1,000 gang members also marched, ostensibly to demand greater police protection. A few marchers brazenly climbed aboard police vehicles accompanying the procession. Others defiantly carried pump-action shotguns or waved switchblades.

Government officials pleaded for calm. But for more than a week now, chilling front-page photos and TV footage of blazing shootouts and marching mobs of masked vigilantes and armed gangsters have raised fears that, at least in some areas, Mandela’s government has lost control to forces of anarchy.

“People feel the state has lost the capacity to maintain law and order,” said Daniel Nina, who heads the Community Peace Foundation at the University of the Western Cape. “They feel under siege.”

Talk radio hosts, newspaper columnists and community leaders across the country applauded Pagad’s militancy. Copycat groups quickly sprang up near Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and other cities last week. Many condemned the government’s failure to stem rising crime in one of the world’s most violent societies.

“Crime is out of control,” said Chris Ferndale, head of the provincial anti-crime forum in Cape Town, a coalition of 50 groups. “And there are serious allegations of police corruption and collusion, of dockets disappearing in court, of gangsters intimidating witnesses and never going to prison. . . . The system has not been able to protect our people.”

With 18,983 homicides reported nationwide last year, 700 more than in 1994, South Africa’s homicide rate is nearly 10 times that of the United States. A series of high-profile anti-crime campaigns by police has done little to reassure a public battered by daily reports of carjackings, armed robberies and other violent crimes.

The crime wave has led to a surge of mostly white professionals moving abroad, hindered efforts to lure foreign investment and added huge strains to the government as it tries to provide basic social services to millions of blacks impoverished under apartheid.

The current crisis stems from an era when police were used mostly to crush political dissent, not to fight crime. Self-appointed township gangs known as “defense units” responded by hacking or burning to death suspected police informers and other foes. Kangaroo courts still dispense street justice in some areas, but far less frequently than before.

Pagad is different. Formed in November, it aims to make vigilantism a mass movement.

“We are going to reclaim our streets,” a Pagad leader promised at a news conference last week where nearly all the participants wore masks. On Aug. 7, about 1,000 Pagad members, many of them armed, had marched down a nearby street chanting, “Kill the [drug] merchants, kill!”

The estimated half a million Muslims in South Africa form a powerful minority. Most live in former townships on the sandy flats, on neat streets of stucco bungalows that radiate from neighborhood mosques. Pagad is based at the Gatesville Mosque, one of the country’s largest and most conservative.

Gatesville’s imam, Sheik Sadullah Khan, says the members of his congregation are fed up with the daily threat to their families, their community and their religion.

“There is tremendous disillusionment,” the cleric said as thousands of bearded men and veiled women poured out from Friday prayers. “There may be a black face at the top [of government], but it’s the same rot on the bottom. . . . People say this is not what they fought for. They feel betrayed.”

Pagad’s threats, in turn, have unified gangs. In another news conference, four members of the Firm, a Mafia-like gang syndicate, announced that the most powerful gangs--including the Hard Livings, Americans, Mongrels, Jesters and Clever Kids--had entered into a truce to battle the common enemy, Pagad.

“We are a mighty force,” warned one gangster.

Capt. Charles Carollisen, head of a police anti-gang unit, agreed. He estimates the gangs have more than 100,000 members and account for half the region’s crime, including homicide, rape, extortion and prostitution. Like organized criminals in the United States, he added, they have bought taxi and trucking companies, escort services, hotels and other businesses to launder cash.

“They’re spreading their tentacles very fast now,” he said.

One reason is crack cocaine. Until recently, gangs mostly sold marijuana and methaqualone, a sedative. Cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs--as well as guns--began flooding across the newly opened borders after the collapse of apartheid in 1994. Police say international crime groups, especially from Nigeria, are the source.

The result has been more profits, more drive-by shootings and more terror in the community.

“They are targeting the children now,” complained Rashad Osman, 39, a Muslim businessman and Pagad activist at the Gatesville Mosque. “They are putting drugs on stickers and giving them to little children.”

The police anti-gang squad patrols the sprawling flats in minivans each night. On a recent all-night tour, Sgt. Bertram Smal cradled an Uzi submachine gun as a colleague roared down potholed streets and careened around dark corners to Hanover Flats, a grim cluster of three-story apartment blocks that is home to the Americans, the Cape’s largest gang.

Members wear Disneyland caps and other American insignia, mark turf with graffiti of U.S. flags and eagles and cock their hands like guns as a greeting. Police say the Americans have about 10,000 members, mostly in smaller gangs.

“We’re the Ugly Americans,” said Faisal, a tall, gaunt youth with bloodshot eyes and a Donald Duck cap, as he drank beer on a corner.

“And I’m a Sexy American,” added a friend, who had “Mr America” tattooed on the front of his neck. “I’m a Muslim, but I’m a gangster.”

Nearby, the Americans have painted a huge, three-part mural on a wall. An Indian head glares over the gang slogan: “No guts, no glory.” A huge, garish U.S. flag waves beside it. On the right is a fierce eagle under the misdated “Born on the 4th of July, 1886.”

As in the U.S., gangs offer protection and act as role models for local youths in communities where jobs and security are hard to find. Some gang leaders have curried local favor by giving money to children and paying rent for families threatened with eviction.

“They drive fast cars, wear fancy clothes and have pretty girls,” explained Willem Basson, who heads a local community group. “It’s the attraction of easy money.”

There’s another attraction, he added. “American movies like ‘New Jack City’ and ‘Boyz N the Hood'--those movies are very popular. Gangsters watch those movies over and over again.”

Inside the Hard Livings’ safe house in Salt River, gang members watched a Roger Ramjet cartoon on the TV. Others slept three to a bed on mattresses piled under the windows. The front of the house and the wall inside were pocked with gunshots from the recent Pagad attack.

Rashied Staggie, 40, the surviving twin with a fierce stare and a deadly reputation, insisted Pagad is led by rival drug dealers, not just concerned citizens. “They are jealous,” he said. “We are taking the market over.”

He is remarkably open about his business. “I’m selling drugs, yes,” he said. “I can sell it to you.”

A burly man handed over a plastic bag of what is known here as “rock” and what Americans more commonly call crack. Then he displayed a potato-size bag of white powder.

“Do you want some cocaine?” Staggie asked.

He denied persistent reports that the gangs will bomb mosques. But then he pulled out a gleaming Glock 40 pistol from a holster, snapped in an ammunition clip and warned that the violence has not ended.

“We must kill a few of them, and then we can talk,” he said, waving his gun.


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