MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Nafiz Modack, Mark Lifman and the spread of protection gangs from Cape Town’s CBD to Khayelitsha

By Peter Gastrow 2 May 2021
Caption
Nafiz Modack outside the Cape Town Magistates’ Court. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

The arrest of alleged Cape Town crime boss Nafiz Modack and three others in connection with the murder of Anti-Gang Unit section commander Charl Kinnear, the attempted murder of criminal lawyer William Booth and counts of extortion, kidnapping and intimidation, has shone a spotlight on the notorious ‘Modack group’ and a surge in extortion rackets in the city and its expansion into Khayelitsha and other townships.

As is common in most large cities, Cape Town’s bars, clubs and restaurants tend to attract both licit and illicit private security operators, some inextricably linked to gangs and criminal networks.

Criminal groups attach themselves to such areas under the guise of providing security because the industry provides lucrative spin-offs involving drugs, prostitution and extortion. This has happened in Cape Town for decades. Owners of establishments have been threatened or pressurised by operators, who purport to provide security, into paying monthly protection fees. That is extortion. The threats need not be direct. More subtle ones suffice to make it extortion, such as making it known that normal operations of their establishments could be disrupted if they don’t take up their “offer” of providing security. But why the sudden surge in extortion in 2020?

In central Cape Town, it partly had to do with the 2018 entry into the relatively stable nightlife security market of an ambitious and aggressive new actor, Nafiz Modack. He and his associates were suspected of links to powerful criminal gangs, he was ruthless and had experience in the nightclub bouncer business.

The Modack group’s entry was a direct challenge to the Lifman group, named after Mark Lifman, a controversial businessman and leading Cape Town underworld figure who is currently out on bail on a charge of murder.  

Modack vied for the control of nightlife security in central Cape Town through a “hostile” takeover of many of the security “contracts” previously linked to the Lifman group. They used new, much rougher, and unconventional practices in doing so. By 2020, Modack appeared to have the upper hand but the scores between him and Lifman have not been settled. The rivalry is certain to continue, despite Modack’s arrest on Thursday, 29 April 2021 in connection with the assassination of police organised crime investigator, Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear.

The murder of Kinnear in September 2020 was a significant turning point for South Africa. How the case is dealt with will have profound consequences for the country’s ability to combat organised crime, respond to corruption and rehabilitate and reinvigorate a police service in crisis.

Modack and three others were arrested after a high-speed car chase and are expected to appear in court in the first week of May 2021 in connection with the Kinnear slaying, the attempted murder of Cape Town criminal lawyer William Booth, extortion, kidnapping and intimidation.

News of Modack’s drive to re-enter and expand his role in providing security in central Cape Town and the Atlantic Seaboard suburbs spread once the lockdown was eased during the second half of 2020. So did the news that formerly untouched businesses were now being targeted. The rumours were that Modack’s men were armed, and that there was video footage showing so-called “Modack cars” arriving at restaurants or coffee bars with “muscle men”. This caused considerable fear and anxiety. The extent to which extortion rackets were actually expanding during that period is not clear but the perception was clearly that the aggressive “takeover” bid by the Modack group had led to an increase in extortion in the central Cape Town area.

While the rivalry between the Modack and Lifman groups played a role in fuelling extortion in the second half of 2020, the impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews were equally important.

The pandemic caused revenues from establishments serving alcohol and food to almost dry up completely for the five months from March to August 2020, and then again for a while from the end of December 2020. Criminal networks that had relied on extortion fees also saw their revenues crash during this period.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the lockdown was partially lifted from the middle of August 2020, and venues reopened, extortion groups in central Cape Town were quick to use the newly opened space to aggressively make up for what they had lost during the lockdown. They reinstated extortion payments that had lapsed and attempted to expand their market by pressuring additional businesses into paying up. The police were unable to arrest the surge.  

Khayelitsha

In Khayelitsha, things were much worse. During the second half of 2020 information first emerged through the media that ordinary residents of Khayelitsha were being intimidated and extorted by gangs on a wide scale and that an environment of fear existed in large parts of that township. Ordinary people in the streets who were selling fried meat, clothes or chickens, were also being targeted. While poverty and unemployment – endemic in this area – can be contributory factors to crime, they cannot be described as causes of extortion. What was behind the expanding extortion rackets in Khayelitsha? 

Extortion in townships had in the past few years been aimed mainly at foreign traders, not so much at South Africans and ordinary residents. Scores of foreign traders had been killed in defence of their shops and for refusing to pay protection fees to extortion gangs. Reliable statistics are almost impossible to come by, but at least 37 Somalis were killed in Cape Town townships during 2017 according to statistics from just one undertaker. Almost every one of them died as a result of gunshot wounds or stabbings. 

For the gangsters, these were low-risk extortion operations because Capetonians and authorities had overwhelmingly looked the other way, thereby contributing towards impunity. There were no consequences for the perpetrators. Levels of brazen intimidation, robbery and killings reached a peak in 2017, when Somali traders in Khayelitsha and elsewhere gave in en masse and entered into arrangements with extortion gangs to pay regular “protection fees” – normally about R1,500 a month per trader – in exchange for a degree of security. Attacks and killings thereafter tapered off but did not stop completely.

It is almost ironic that this so-called 2017 deal between Somali spaza shop operators and extortion gangs has become a key contributing factor to the current widespread surge of extortion and misery in Khayelitsha. Extortion groups, including the two most powerful and ruthless ones, named “Boko Haram” and the “Guptas”, had scored a major coup as a result of the forced “deal”. They were receiving a regular and sizeable income and at low risk.

But from about 2018, there was a new development when extortion gangs shifted their focus from overwhelmingly targeting low-risk foreign traders, to also include vulnerable South African residents. There was widespread fury and anger in Khayelitsha but the gangs had already become all-powerful, and an environment of fear and intimidation had been created, resulting in residents fearing to vent their anger and anxiety publicly. To the uninformed outside observer, everything in Khayelitsha appeared to be relatively normal. But in fact, a crisis had developed; extortion was rife.

The 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns also played a role in Khayelitsha. Income for extortion groups plummeted. But with the partial relaxation of the regulations in August 2020 came a renewed surge in extortion activities. Criminal groups became more aggressive and ruthless in their approaches than they had been before the lockdowns. They renewed their extraction of protection money from their usual businesses such as taverns, but they now also targeted ordinary residents for protection fees.

The restoration of effective policing, the restructuring of crime intelligence and rooting out corrupt elements will be crucial in turning the tables on extortion. Without strengthening community resilience and without mobilising communities to link up with police initiatives, the battle will not be won.

Little is known about the actors who drive extortion in Khayelitsha. Numerous criminal gangs exist. But the two that seem to have emerged as the most ruthless and prominent, are “Boko Haram” and the “Guptas” (named after the extremist group in Nigeria and the infamous Gupta family linked to State Capture in South Africa). They are both powerful criminal groups, their brutality instils fear, and they operate in Khayelitsha as well as in other townships. Their profiles differ.

Boko Haram is the more established of the two, with links to important social, political and criminal networks. It is an autonomous group in the Western Cape although it is known that various Boko Haram criminal groups operate in other parts of the country. The criminal markets that they focus on at any given time are those that enable them to maximise revenue from criminal activities that involve minimal risk. For example, at one stage Boko Haram engaged in cash-in-transit heists because these provided a highly lucrative source of income. That changed when financial institutions and the police stepped up their measures. In addition to extortion, Boko Haram is reportedly also involved in kidnapping for ransom.   

Anecdotally, the Guptas were started three or four years ago by a group of youths in the township of Nyanga. Although members of the Guptas seem to have “matured” in recent years, they are regarded as exuberant and reckless. Theirs is a reputation of hard partying, TikTok and social media posts, fast money, guns and ruthlessness and violence.  

They probably appeal to many of the alienated and unemployed township youngsters in Khayelitsha. During 2019 and 2020, the Guptas apparently realised that they could emulate large-scale extortion rackets that the Boko Haram gang had become involved in. They apparently broke into this huge market consisting of ordinary citizens which Boko Haram was dominating and found that there was “easy money”. The Guptas have been linked to numerous killings including that of alleged rival members from the Boko Haram gang.

In November 2020, for example, seven people who, according to reports, were Boko Haram members, were gunned down in a Gugulethu house. The murders were believed to be linked to the rivalry between the Guptas and Boko Haram and seen as part of a battle for territory by the two gangs.

An important factor that contributed to the expansion of extortion rackets in central Cape Town as well as in Khayelitsha, is the lack of effective policing. There is a failure to detect and properly investigate extortion cases for submission to prosecuting authorities. A key reason for the ineffective policing is the lack of trust in the police and the refusal by victims to report cases of extortion to them. It is obvious that without cases being reported, they will not be investigated or addressed by the criminal justice system. Impunity is the result.

In Khayelitsha, the police have a reasonable idea of the extent of extortion through social media. However, their dilemma is that the incidents of extortion mentioned on social media do not carry through onto their dockets. Cases of extortion are simply not reported to them. The relationship between the community and the police has been seriously eroded and requires urgent attention, not only by the police but by all stakeholders.

The sad position is that police management at national as well as provincial levels seems to be riddled by factions and internal contests. The National Police Commissioner is under threat of being removed from his post. Even worse for extortion-ridden Khayelitsha and central Cape Town, the SAPS crime intelligence components at national and provincial levels are in a state of flux, crippled by years of maladministration and corruption. There is no stability.

The restoration of effective policing, the restructuring of crime intelligence and rooting out corrupt elements will be crucial in turning the tables on extortion. Without strengthening community resilience and without mobilising communities to link up with police initiatives, the battle will not be won.

The business community in central Cape Town, for example, will have to become actively involved in countering extortion by working with the police and other stakeholders and by developing approaches to do so that do not pose undue risks for them, for example, by jointly developing a safe reporting system. Khayelitsha is more problematic but community leadership needs to come to the fore, provide leadership, and become more active.

Reports at the beginning of April 2021 of arrests in Cape Town for extortion, including police officers, is welcome news. Maybe this is the start of a long and difficult road towards a more effective police service that enjoys the trust of communities, and of a more constructive involvement of the public and other role players. The responsibility to navigate this course rests with all of us. DM

Peter Gastrow is a senior adviser at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and author of a new report, “Lifting the Veil on Extortion in Cape Town”. Based in Cape Town, he has published widely on issues relating to organised crime, peace and conflict, transition, governance and policing.

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