As the Daily Maverick has previously reported, Cape Town has an illegal street racing problem. However, all is not lost. A special unit of the Cape Town traffic department known as the Ghost Squad is tasked with clamping down on the city’s reckless drivers – and they focus specially on street racers. SHAUN SWINGLER was invited along for the ride.
The Ghost Squad, in existence since 2009, is specialist unit of the Cape Town traffic department with a mandate to reduce road deaths and clamp down on the most serious of traffic violations.
The cars have none of the usual traffic department markings, and look like any other car on the road – except they’re fitted with sirens and blue LED lights hidden behind the car’s grille and dashboard. All Ghost Squad officers (Ghosts, as they call themselves) are hand-picked, and represent the best of what the traffic department has to offer. They cover an area that stretches from Gordon’s Bay to Atlantis.
Our journey begins at Gallows Hill traffic department, the headquarters of the Ghost Squad. My guides for the evening: Traffic Officer Ripepi (29) and Traffic Officer May (37). Our ride for the evening: an underwhelming-looking Volkswagen Passat. Our destination: The Ottery Fire Station.
“We’ve had a number of complaints about racing at the fire station,” says Ripepi, “so we’re going to head out with the unit and see what we find. It should be pretty busy.”
Traffic officer Ripepi radioing in
At 10pm, we ease out of the traffic department and onto the highway, Usher’s ‘What’s a man to do?’ humming through the car speakers.
Ripepi, in the driver’s seat this evening, originally studied to be a computer programmer before finding his calling in the traffic services. May, in the backseat, worked as a police reservist in Gordon’s Bay before joining the squad. Both Ripepi and May worked in the Gordon’s Bay traffic department for seven years before being selected for the Ghost Squad in 2011.
A Golf GTI and a Mazda RX7 scream past us on the M5 while we’re on our way to the suspected street race gathering. Ripepi puts his foot down to catch up. Within seconds we’re at 190km/h, and I’m kicked back into my seat. The car’s unassuming façade tricked me – it’s terrifyingly fast.
The racing duo drop their speed quickly to make the Kromboom Road offramp and Ripepi does the same, following closely behind them. Ripepi and May take note of the registration numbers and radio them in to the team. The two cars behave along Kromboom Road, eventually splitting up.
Taking down a suspected street racer’s details
Within 45 seconds it is all over and Ripepi is disappointed that he can’t take it further: “I can only take them if I saw them racing and dicing properly, but I just didn’t see enough for me to lay a charge that will stick.”
The Government-sanctioned speed is exhilarating and a little frightening. I tell Ripepi as much. “Ja, this car’s a beauty. But we haven’t even started yet,” he responds. “The night’s still young.”
“I’ve seen a lot,” Ripepi tells me. “One time, I was in this high speed chase on Modderdam Road. I chased the guy from the Sasol garage where they all meet – we went through fifteen red lights. He was weaving around other cars at high speed and he eventually rolled his car – right in front of me. He got out all right, but these guys are crazy sometimes.
“When you pull them over, nine times out of ten they’ll be the moer in with you,” Ripepi says. “But they’re the ones who are in the wrong – they must just apologise and take their punishment. Because eight out of ten times, when we stop you, you’ll be in handcuffs.”
We arrive at the illegal gathering and the place is chaos. The main spectacle is the dicing up and down Strandfontein Road, watched by spectators who have parked in a parallel slipway road. There are easily 150 spectators out tonight to watch the racing. A few police patrol vans are here too, but the spectators are unfazed.
Apprehending a suspected street racer
The Ghost Squad hopes to make an arrest or two tonight, and to do that they need to catch drivers driving recklessly. There are three charges common to racers at this type of gathering: reckless and/or negligent driving, participating in an illegal gathering, and driving with excessive speed. Being charged with all three can lead to steep fines and sometimes even prison time.
To catch racers in the act we must first wait. And we do so, parked behind a clump of bushes just off Strandfontein Road, with the lights off and the engine running.
The unmistakable sound of a modified engine in the distance approaches – the promise of a chase. At the set of lights, 50m down from where we’ve parked, two cars are getting ready to race. They rev their engines – posturing. At the green light they pull into Strandfontein Road about to open up their throttles, and Ripepi pulls out into the road about 20 metres behind the pair. Just he does this, the pair slow down. “You see that white BMW we just passed now?” he says. “That’s their spotter car. He radios to them to tell them if it’s safe to dice and whether any Ghost Squad cars start following them. If the spotter sees us, then the race is off.”
After 20 minutes of little success, the Ghost Squad decides to raid the illegal gathering.
With a bark of orders over the two way radios, the Ghost Squad cars, around ten or so, spread across the area, springing into action. Ripepi’s car screams as he plants his foot down on the accelerator, racing to block off one of the exits of the arterial road – two way radio in one hand, barking updates to other officers, steering wheel in the other.
The racers and spectators attempt to flee as the Ghost Squad raid is executed with military precision. All the exits are blocked off by Ghost Squad cars and the spectators and racers have nowhere to go but through the checkpoints under the blue glow of the Ghost Squad’s LEDs. Some desperate individuals try their luck by mounting kerbs to get back onto Strandfontein Road. Some are successful, but at the cost of their cars – we spot a number of cars with flat tyres when we leave the area later that night.
“Did you see how they all just scattered?” Ripepi asks me. “They know the Ghost Squad is here; they’ll want to get away. When these guys see normal traffic [department vehicles] on the road, they aren’t scared. But us? We don’t play,” says Ripepi.
“When we arrive and block off the exits it’s like Fast and the Furious with them trying to get away. You know the Fast and the Furious movies? It’s like that.”
The queue of cars waiting for processing stretches around the corner – around 40 in total are caught. The officers will fine each person R1,500 for taking part in an illegal drag racing gathering.
The cars waiting in the queue are mostly VWs, Opels and Toyotas – most are heavily modified with body kits, spoilers and lowered suspension.
As I walk along the queue taking photos, an occupant in one car shouts: “Where can I see the photos? I wanna be famous!” Whether genuine, or masking anxiety, the bravado is ever-present with racers at these events.
The driver of that same car would tell officers he was mistakenly caught in the road block on the way to visiting his friend down the road, but could not explain why the visit was taking place at 11.30 on a Sunday evening.
With the crackdown over, we stand at the side of the road taking stock, while many people driving past sling insults at Ripepi and May.
Ripepi describes the Sisyphean task he encounters every week.
“We’re happy with the raid, but would’ve liked some arrests, because these guys, they’ll just tell their friends over Whatsapp or BBM that this gathering is finished and they must meet somewhere else. And then they’ll all travel together to the next gathering, dicing along the way, putting more lives at risk.”
“It’s a tough job and it’ll never end; but, we’re making a difference,” May adds.
It’s close to 1am now, and Ripepi and May take me back to Gallows Hill. My night is over; but for these officers, they start all over again at 6am. DM
All photos by Shaun Swingler.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.