Communities in South Africa, traumatised by relentless gang violence, rape, murder and general criminality, know that the so-called underworld exists in full view of the upperworld, as academic, researcher and author Mark Shaw has revealed in his new book Hitmen for Hire – Exposing South Africa’s Underworld. Shaw’s book attempts to unpack the dark nexus between organised crime, politics and law enforcement, a coalition of sociopaths that poses the biggest threat to South Africa’s democracy. If he could take time out from tweeting, our Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, would benefit from a deep plunge into Shaw’s cesspit. By MARIANNE THAMM.
First, let us not forget the good cops (and there are many) because the news, apart from these who still hold the thin blue line, is very bleak, dear reader.
On 2 August the Labour Court in Cape Town set aside the demotion of two high-ranking police officers, Majors-General Jeremy Veary and Peter Jacobs. Veary and Jacobs had both been part of a massive investigation into gun smuggling titled Operation Impi.
The end result of the undercover probe, which started in 2013, was the sentencing in 2016 to an 18-year jail term of a former police colonel, Chris Prinsloo, who sold around 2,000 police guns to gangsters in the Western Cape. On Prinsloo’s charge sheet, Veary and Jacobs had made certain to name some of the children who had been killed or maimed for life caught in the daily crossfire of gang violence on the Cape Flats.
You would think then that the SAPS leadership and the minister would be proud of the achievements of Veary and Peters – that they would be rewarded and promoted.
But no. Instead, both men – who formed part of an inter-provincial investigation into taxi violence and links between taxi bosses in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal – were sidelined and demoted. In the end they needed to turn to the Labour Court to find justice.
Veary had been replaced as head of crime intelligence by Major-General Mzwandile Tiyo, a man who allegedly had not matriculated and who had also not received security clearance.
[A quick aside: Veary and Peters are former MK operatives, like IPID head Robert McBride.]
Across the globe, the space where agents of law enforcement intersect with politics, money and criminality is a vulnerable one open to subversion and abuse. South Africa’s policing history is a shameful one and a quarter of a decade into democracy, the systemic rot of the past continues to eat away at our capacity to deal with violent crime.
Mark Shaw, according to his author blurb, is director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s International Drug Policy Project. He was also, until recently, National Research Foundation Professor of Justice and Security at the Centre of Criminology, University of Cape Town, where he is now an adjunct professor.
His recently-published book, Hitmen for Hire – Exposing South Africa’s Underworld (Jonathan Ball,) is a valuable addition – alongside Don Pinnock’s Gang Town (Tafelberg) published in 2016 – to the growing body of research that attempts to understand the persistent and extraordinary high levels of crime and violence in South Africa.
After returning to South Africa in 2012, Shaw writes in his preface, he was determined to try to understand why so many South Africans died in such violence.
The most obvious major flaw is the quality, qualification and commitment of a series of National Commissioners in South Africa, from the disgraced Jackie Selebi to the recently suspended acting Commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane on suspected charges of fraud.
But the crisis, as we all know, is so much deeper than this; it is an historic and systemic malaise that will require political will and committed independent oversight to root it out before it destroys the country’s laudable democratic gains.
If the top echelons of the country’s law enforcement agencies are populated by political appointments or self-serving men and women who hope to benefit financially from their close proximity to organised crime, then what hope is there ever that citizens can rely on the police to protect them?
Shaw’s book attempts to unpick all of these questions.
The author does, of course, recognise that the current SAPS was born in sin and that “nascent forms of organised crime that emerged [in democratic South Africa] were often built on established political-criminal networks, both within the state and among those fighting to overthrow it.”
Efforts to crush these political-criminal networks “were beaten back, with the consequence that today, the South African state is weaker in its capacity to fight this complex criminal challenge than perhaps at any point in its history”.
Shaw writes that the idea for the book arrived “after over a decade of asking questions of law-enforcement officials in dingy offices, and civil-society people and journalists in places where the presence of Mafia-style forms of control oozed from the walls of empty buildings”.
During these interviews he learnt that South Africa “bore some striking parallels with countries associated with Mafia organisations. These types of targeted killings smacked of a Mafia-style violence, murders carried out to achieve some purpose in the illicit economy (and sometimes the licit one).”
Later, in a graph, Shaw reveals that a breakdown of reported hits between 2000 and 2016 showed that 13% were personal, and 42% related to taxi violence (which is what Veary and Peters were investigating). Assassinations related to organised crime and politics in South Africa differed by only one percentage point with organised crime at 23% and political at 22%.
The current Moerane Commission into political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal is some sort of attempt at mopping up the bloodshed in what is essentially a civil war.
What Shaw set out to do is attempt to form a comprehensive picture and view of killings and assassinations in South Africa, how these are accomplished and where and why they occur.
Most of us are unable to hold on to the individual details or an exploded view of the hits and the killings, the names of the underworld’s key players including crime bosses, like Radovan Krejcir and Cyril Beeka, and the cops who have enabled and secured their power.
Along with his colleagues at the Centre of Criminology at UCT, Shaw built a database of every hit or attempted hit over a 17-year period. He also drew the electronic database SABINET as well as media records, print and electronic. The results of all of this, including in-depth interviews in the field of hitmen and women, informed this highly readable but disturbing portrait.
“The findings were stark: we recorded 1,146 incidents of hits in the UCT database over the 17-year research period from 2000 to 2016. That’s a lot of cases – and clearly enough to determine at least a set of initial conclusions around the linkages between targeted killings and criminal markets. We found there was a dramatic increase in cases in 2016.”
Depressingly, Shaw determines that killing in South Africa often became a tool “for achieving influence – either politically or economically. That is more meaningful than just a generalised annual statistic, a number of dead bodies published in a news report, argued over, and forgotten until the next year.”
After interviewing one hitwoman, who Shaw calls Laylah, he concludes that she represents something bigger at work.
“Speaking to Laylah, it was apparent to me that a set of economic, political and structural conditions had bred a market for killers, and nurtured the killers themselves. People were being paid – just like those who work in the formal economy – to do a job. And there were lots of such people in South Africa – perhaps more than in other countries.”
The transactions and exchanges made within what Shaw terms this “economy of violence” had been key to shaping a series of criminal markets.
“The use of commercialised violence, or the threat of it, had become a currency in its own right. It was even beginning to define South Africa’s fragile democratic order,” writes Shaw.
While Shaw might be an academic, his book is engrossing and highly readable. If you can get past the shock of the first 39 pages or so you will begin to see the pieces of the vast mosaic of crime, violence, politics and money that operates all around us, all of the time.
Shaw concludes that the scenario that is unfolding in South Africa “is remarkably similar to the role played by the police in contexts in Latin America where deals are struck between organised crime and law enforcement. There the police may kill for organised-crime networks, and organised-crime networks may kill for the police.”
He concludes that the fight against organised crime in South Africa is “largely in the hands of a few brave and dedicated police officers who seldom receive the institutional or political support they require. It is such officers who have pursued the case, for example of Prinsloo, the head of the firearms registration who sold weapons to the underworld.”
Shaw warns that if the country continues along this current trajectory the cost for ordinary people will be great.
So what can you, as a reader, do?
The first is to demand political accountability. Shaw’s is a book that should be sent to every member of Parliament’s portfolio committee on police where SAPS’ and Hawks’ leadership as well as the minister must be questioned and held to account.
What is also required is more independent oversight and alternative and accountable methods of appointing senior law enforcement officials.
Crime and violence must become a political rallying point – it has already destroyed the fabric of so many societies where criminals move freely. This is, for all of us, literally a matter of life and death.
Also, Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula should make it a priority, when he has a moment in his hectic schedule, to read Shaw’s book. The problem is set out clearly for all to see. DM
Photo: Radovan Krejcir looks on during his court appearance on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder at the Palm Ridge court, December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko