South Africa

OP-ED

Interlocking Cape crime family networks may be fuelling audacious underworld power struggles

Interlocking Cape crime family networks may be fuelling audacious underworld power struggles
Hawston has become increasingly involved in Cape Town’s broader drug market thanks to its central role in the illegal abalone trade. (Photo: Shaun Swingler)

A failed hit on Ernie ‘Lastig’ Solomon, an alleged gang boss in the criminal underworld in South Africa, appears to have been triggered by an internal split in the criminal gang the Terrible Josters. This gang is deeply involved in the drug trade in Cape Town and in the transnational trade in abalone, a seafood highly valued in China. The attempted hit may be driven by deeper trends, presaging wider disruption in the Cape Town underworld.

On 11 May 2020, an assassination attempt was made on Ernie “Lastig” Solomon, one of the most notorious figures in Cape Town and leader of the Terrible Josters gang. Solomon, his son Carlo and Jonathan “Blikke” Thomas (allegedly Solomon’s right-hand man) were shot at multiple times in Hawston, a small town on the Western Cape coast, reportedly with a machine gun. While Solomon – who is believed to be the target of the assassination attempt – and his son were only wounded, Thomas was killed.

Hawston is a small settlement close to the wealthy town of Hermanus, but although it is 100km from Cape Town, it is still within the ambit of the city’s criminal underworld. Many Hawston families have lived in the town since it was founded at the beginning of the 19th century, for the most part depending upon small-scale fishing for their livelihoods until the industry began to collapse in the 1990s. Since then, Hawston has become increasingly involved in Cape Town’s broader drug market thanks to its central role in the illegal abalone trade, on which its economy is now to some degree reliant.

Abalone – a large mollusc highly prized in China as a gourmet food – is endemic to the South African coast and can be harvested from reefs and kelp forests by divers with basic scuba-diving equipment, albeit at great danger. Since the mid-1990s, it has been heavily exploited and illegally traded by Cape Town’s gangs with Chinese organised-crime groups. Chinese crime groups have typically exchanged drug precursors (or sometimes weapons) for the seafood, in particular the precursor ephedrine, which is used to manufacture mandrax (a popular drug in the Western Cape in the 1980s and still in use) and, more recently, crystal methamphetamine (“tik”), which is heavily abused in the Western Cape.

Local residents, including gang members, allege that Solomon gained control of Hawston between 2003 and 2005 through an extremely violent imposition of his authority which still haunts the coast. “When you want to [control] something… then sometimes you must put violence on it, blood on it, death on it. Ernie’s people did that here and hurt many people. Many were killed and families broken apart,” alleged a gang member from Hawston.

Solomon is also alleged to have earned a high rank in the 28s gang in prison. The 28s is one of the number gangs, which also encompass the 26s and 27s. The history of the number gangs in the country’s prisons stretches back to the colonial period. Membership of the 28s provides a criminal affiliation within the Cape Town underworld which cuts across different territorial gangs. Somewhat confusingly, there is now also a street-based 28s gang, as well as an alliance of gangs affiliated with the prison-based 28s. This alliance of 28s-affiliated gangs is believed to control the harvesting of abalone across a large swathe of the Cape coast, from Kleinmond to Cape Agulhas.

Solomon is also the alleged leader of the Terrible Josters, a street-based drug-dealing gang that is believed to control Hawston. In recent court testimony, a member of the Terrible Josters (now in witness protection) said that the gang numbered 10,000 members and also controlled territory in Delft, Mitchells Plain, Wesbank and Elsies River in the city of Cape Town, as well as in other towns across the Western Cape.

Through their hold over Hawston and the surrounding coast (through their affiliation to the 28s), the Terrible Josters therefore enjoy an enviable position as a gang. They control both the territory from which they can harvest an environmental product to exchange for drug precursor chemicals (which also allows them to sell drugs and precursors wholesale to other gangs), as well as the neighbourhoods in which to sell the drugs on a retail basis. Residents of Hawston claim that major figures from rival gangs would visit the town to collect large quantities of drugs, though they do not believe that the drugs were manufactured in the town.

Solomon’s allegedly powerful position may have been the reason he was targeted for assassination, although Western Cape police spokesperson Colonel André Traut stated on 14 May that “the motive for the incident is yet to be determined and suspects are yet to be arrested”. However, several theories are circulating in gang networks about the logic behind the attempted hit. One blames “outsiders”, or rival gangs, arguing that the hit is a reprisal for Solomon’s alleged involvement in other attacks (namely the attempted hit on rival gang boss Ralph Stanfield or the successful hit on rival Hard Livings gang boss Rashied Staggie).

However, the most frequently heard explanation is that the hit was the result of internal divisions within the Terrible Josters and within Solomon’s own family. This theory echoes the most compelling explanation put forward for the murder of Staggie, which has also been alleged to have been a family job.

Several sources allege that the hit may have been initiated in retaliation for an attempt on the life of Solomon’s nephew, Horatio “Voudie” Solomon, on 15 March 2020, which was widely believed to have been ordered by his uncle. In the hierarchy of the Terrible Josters, Horatio is claimed to be one of three senior figures directly beneath Ernie Solomon. Sources allege that Ernie Solomon’s motive for the hit on his nephew may have stemmed from a rift between the two relating to Horatio’s attempt to leave the gang world and his ongoing trial – he is facing serious charges which include 11 murders, drug dealing, money laundering, illegal possession of firearms and contravention of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA) — in a case in which he was seen as “taking the hit” for doing his uncle’s “dirty work”.

While Horatio Solomon survived the hit (which took place outside his house in Durbanville, Cape Town) with a head and chest wound, his 13-year-old daughter did not. In addition to potentially providing a motive for Horatio’s alleged reprisal, this attack is also thought to have fuelled distrust among the other two members of the senior leadership towards Ernie Solomon.

Do hits by ‘insiders’ represent a trend?

Hits against gangsters are a common occurrence in the Western Cape, and hits against very senior gangsters have become even more frequent in recent months. But if Staggie’s murder and the attempt on Ernie Solomon’s life have been ordered or carried out by close family members, it might suggest a new dynamic in underworld politics: the rising threat of insiders, including close family members, operating in cahoots with rivals.

This dynamic arguably speaks to the evolution of the Western Cape’s gang culture and drug markets. Senior gang bosses who made their names in the 1980s and 1990s now appear to be threatened by second- or third-generation family members who have been schooled in the management of the larger, more diverse drug markets that have dominated the city since then. The superimposition of the prison-based number gangs (the 26s, 27s and 28s) over street gangs has allowed large coalitions of street gangs to form, meaning that this younger generation may have networks throughout the gang landscape, giving them the opportunity to form treacherous alliances.

If this is the case, then there is not necessarily a contradiction between the claims that the hit was an attempt to settle scores by rival gangs and that it was arranged by a close family member. One theory of the motive behind the unsuccessful hit on Ernie Solomon is that Horatio Solomon drew on help from gangs eager to muscle in on Terrible Josters/28s territory. Indeed, TimesLIVE reported that “Solomon’s shooting was part of bigger movements in the Western Cape underworld to organise a new ‘super-alliance’ between various gang bosses” who wanted to break Solomon’s alleged hold on the illegal abalone trade. Global Initiative sources say that of the many attempts on Ernie Solomon’s life, this is the first time that someone “succeeded to come this close”. That access might have relied on kinship ties.

These shifting dynamics may herald yet more instability, with lethal repercussions for the communities that live in gang-controlled neighbourhoods. Ernie Solomon has been released from hospital and is back on the streets of Hawston. However, locals say that Hawston is so far calm and, given that Solomon has survived and (they believe) the hit was an internal affair, they do not expect a war.

Gangsters and residents see both risks and opportunities in removing the current “administration”. The greatest risk is that shifts could invite competition by rivals to take the place of the Terrible Josters. Residents of Hawston unaffiliated to gangs say there has been relative peace in the area since it came under the complete control of the 28s, but this could quickly change if Ernie Solomon is removed. “The problem now is if they kill Ernie, then all the nonsense [ie the gang wars that have devastated the Cape Flats] will come here and that will be worse for us,” said a former member of a Cape Town gang, now living in Hawston.

The prize for ousting Solomon – controlling Hawston – may also have become less lucrative. Figures involved in the abalone trade say that following measures taken in China in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, demand has fallen, and with it the price of abalone to half its pre-outbreak value. This is seriously undermining the poaching economy of the Overberg region and may signal an opportunity for development and other initiatives to undermine gang control and recruitment along the coast. DM

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly Eastern and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally.

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options