History’s hangover: Apartheid opened markets for drug lords who were allowed to flourish in exchange for intel
The flooding of Cape Flats townships with drugs during the apartheid era led to cyclical damage to generations of residents who continue to live in spaces infested with addiction, gangs and daily violence.
This highly lucrative alternative economy began to bloom and spread in full during the 1980s when criminals and drug lords who cooperated with the state were allowed to flourish.
But there was a grander scheme – to numb resistance to state repression and to destabilise “troublesome” communities. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) it was revealed that Jackie Lonte, then leader and founder of the Americans, had worked with the deadly Civil Cooperation Bureau.
Today, several gang-ravaged areas on the Cape Flats are caught in a deadly turf war. In Mitchells Plain alone, six people were gunned down in two days in February 2021 in a feud between the 28s gang and rival splinter groups. It is a relentless battle for supremacy in the lucrative drug trade.
Many have researched the history and the heady mix of alcohol, drugs, violence and politics in an attempt to find solutions to the embedded criminality that terrorises Cape Town communities. They include policing specialist Eldred de Klerk, former Peninsula Technikon rector, Professor Brian Figaji, and veteran criminologist Dr Irvin Kinnes.
There was a time that a gallery of familiar rogues from the underworld featured in daily headlines and who seemingly flourished under the nose of the apartheid regime.
High flyers were Nazier Kapdi, Lonte, and twin Hard Livings bosses Rashied and Rashaad Staggie.
The TRC heard evidence that Lonte had been recruited to deal with United Democratic Front (UDF) supporters and had introduced cocaine and methamphetamines to the Cape Town drug market.
Lonte was murdered on 10 November 1998 at his Belgravia home.
De Klerk said questions had been asked about kingpins, such as Kapdi, who were seemingly untouchable.
At the time, Crime Intelligence enabled certain people to continue dealing drugs in return for information, said De Klerk – an “old tactic”.
“The information at our disposal at a later stage was that drug kingpins were allowed to do what they wanted. The greater project with alcohol, dagga and then later Mandrax was to keep a population dumb and ignorant while drugs flourished,” he said.
But things spiralled out of control when the drug kingpins began to amass more power and money than the state officials. This is the moment syndicates and organised crime became part of the equation and daily life.
Drug lords were free to decide what substances they wanted to deal in, and drugs started pouring into the Cape Flats.
Kinnes’s 2000 research work, From urban street gangs to criminal empires: The changing face of gangs in the Western Cape, sets out how the Americans were the first to deal in drugs and the most successful at it.
“They were also the only gang during the 1980s who did have some connections with the international drug dealers. Their dealer… Jackie Lonte, depended on his connections in the Civil Cooperation Bureau,” wrote Kinnes.
The bureau had been set up by the old security apparatus to eliminate its opponents and acted as a death squad.
Lonte had access to internal drug dealers, Kinnes discovered, as he had been recruited by the bureau to “deal” with UDF supporters. The Americans was the only gang that initially restructured itself to be able to deal in Mandrax in particular, he wrote.
Kinnes further outlined that members of the Americans were the first to introduce Mandrax (methaqualone) into the prison system, which affected the price of dagga, which was smoked with Mandrax.
The gang was also the first to set up its own crack cocaine factories to produce the drug for local consumption, which consolidated Lonte’s entry into the world of organised crime in the early 1990s, Kinnes wrote.
Other drug suppliers, in turn, banded together to form The Firm to exploit the burgeoning market.
However, the Hard Livings gang, led by the Staggie twins, was setting up its own empire, putting it on a collision course with The Firm.
By 1994, wrote Kinnes, Staggie had succeeded in setting up operations as far afield as Sea Point and had entered the prositution and drug market on a large scale.
In 1996, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) entered the arena and tried to stop the avalanche of drugs into the Cape Flats that was decimating its young people.
Police labelled Pagad a vigilante group and as many as 30 gang leaders were killed in “stealth” attacks.
Kinnes says these brutal murders by no means stopped the drug trade but instead gave the prison gangs an opportunity to regain some “lost glory” in the drug underworld as they attempted to reassert control.
He also underlined that the apartheid government had a cosy relationship with gangsters and that gangs were used to intimidate and even kill opponents of the government.
One of the Civil Cooperation Bureau operatives, Isgak Hardien alias Gakkie, an informer and gangster in the Western Cape, earned R18,000 for placing a limpet mine on the premises of an early learning centre.
On the future of drugs, gangs and society, Kinnes writes: “Gangs are already recruiting white schoolchildren in shopping malls. Drug dealers have already started to cultivate their new consumers – schoolchildren who are easily trapped into the world of drugs.”
Globalisation had brought a “new reality” to South Africa and in many countries, drug dealing had become an alternative world economy.
Said Brian Figaji: “The system of apartheid had a pschological effect on individauls that we have not measured yet, and the underpolicing of the residential areas for those who were not white had the effect of allowing gangs to operate freely.”
This, together with the low level of expenditure on education for black and “coloured” South Africans, made up the original cocktail that allowed gangsterism to grow and thrive, according to Figaji.
“They [the Nationalist government] used the gangs to do their dirty work, fuelled gang battles to destabilise the freedom fighters, used gang members as informers and even provided the underworld with arms to fight ‘political’ wars.”
He added that as drugs become more sophisticated and expensive, this opened up lucrative ground for “corrupt” cops to step in. It is not uncommon today for SAPS members to be fingered as being part of the drug trade, illicit gun trafficking and protection of gang bosses.
Political infighting within the police and government and an apparent open revolt against the rule of law and the outcomes of court cases, made dealing with endemic gangsterism and drug dealing “difficult”.
“Very soon criminals will use this playbook and do the same by criticising the law and ignoring the courts because the example is being set at the top. To fix this problem you do need to work from both ends – on the ground to stop the lawless day-to-day events, and from the top to set the correct moral tone for the country.” DM/MC
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