Thugs ‘with AK-47s threaten us, take our children’s food’ – worker in Cape Town train line extortion saga
Gangsters armed with AK-47s chased workers away from train lines in Cape Town earlier this week. The workers say the thugs are depriving them of much-needed work and income after three years of unemployment exacerbated by Covid-19.
‘They shouted at the gate, ‘hoe kom ons in?’ (How do we get in?) The gunmen forced their way into the site. As I came down the steps, I walked into men with machine guns. They wanted to know the name of the company that I worked for…
“What these gangsters are doing is taking food out of the mouths of our children. Really this is not right. They don’t know the hardship we endured while we were unemployed. It is all about gangsters making money and not thinking of us living in extreme poverty.”
These are the words of a Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) contractor who recalled what happened on Monday, 26 August in the Cape Town suburb of Bonteheuwel, parts of which are gang strongholds.
The worker’s name, as well as those of several other individuals, have been withheld due to safety concerns.
Earlier, Daily Maverick reported that on Monday a video, showing two men armed with high-calibre firearms shooting into the air from railway tracks in Cape Town, was sent to Prasa officials as a warning.
Gangsters in Bonteheuwel (Netreg station in the video) have been demanding “protection fees” from Prasa’s subcontractors who are working to restore service to the Central Line. pic.twitter.com/V7lFU34uCq
— Quinton Mtyala (@mtyala) August 31, 2022
Gangsters also chased away workers repairing sections of the track in the Bonteheuwel area. Repairwork projects have been indefinitely suspended because of this criminality.
The Bonteheuwel train station is on the Central Line, which was initially closed in November 2019 after continuous vandalism and theft of infrastructure.
It is understood that gangsters, aligned to the 28s, are angry with Prasa over the awarding of security contracts or the allocation of jobs in the security sector, and are using intimidation and extortion to get what they want.
Daily Maverick also understands that the Bonteheuwel railway incidents on Monday occurred months after gangsters tried to extort a contractor doing maintenance work at a fast-food outlet in Bishop Lavis, sections of which are also 28s gang strongholds.
Deep-rooted, decades-old extortion
Residents believe the Bishop Lavis and Bonteheuwel incidents may be linked in that the 28s appear to be behind both.
Extortion is a decades-old problem, in the Western Cape especially, with restaurant and nightclub owners as well as taxi drivers among those targeted.
Two years ago, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced the creation of a committee to crack down on resurging extortion in Cape Town. The problem is so extensive in the city that it has sometimes seeped into legitimate business.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Gun-wielding gangsters target Prasa, derail Western Cape train line repair plans”
In 2019 it was reported that an alleged 28s boss’s wife had a tender to build 30 houses in the Cape Town suburb of Valhalla Park. It was part of a project that was paused several times owing to violence in the area, and at the time the City of Cape Town flagged the issue with the Western Cape government.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the City admitted that its subcontractors may have inadvertently employed gangsters to provide security at construction sites in Manenberg, a stronghold of the Americans and Hard Livings gangs.
Gangsters gunning for jobs
In Bonteheuwel on Thursday, several residents gathered on pavements, chatting about gangsters from other areas entering the suburb with machine guns and extorting workers along railway tracks.
Even though the gunmen in the video that surfaced on Monday (which was believed to have been filmed at the Netreg station) covered most of their faces, some of the 24 affected workers recognised them as those who chased them off the rail site.
One of the workers told Daily Maverick that a job on the tracks meant much-needed income. This worker had been unemployed since Covid-19 and related lockdowns were implemented.
At the end of June, the worker heard that a position was available to do work at the train station in Bonteheuwel.
“Hearing the news that I got a job after being at home for three years was just wonderful. It is a feeling that I can’t explain. The 24 of us started working in July. It was a great feeling getting up and going to work,” the worker said.
“I was looking forward to my first paycheque. For the first time in three years I could put food on the table, going to the shop without wondering where the money would come from. Getting my first paycheque brought smiles into our house and my children were happy to see me returning with groceries.”
The worker’s enthusiasm about the job ended abruptly on Monday when gun-wielding gangsters arrived at the site.
‘One of us could’ve been killed’
As usual, the workers arrived at the Bonteheuwel station in the morning. They started unpacking their tools and working. Some laid out paving slabs while others mixed cement and levelled the ground. The armed gangsters arrived shortly before 1pm.
“The gunmen told [us] to stop and leave the site. Fearing for our lives and safety [we did]… One of the gunmen hit one of [us] with the rifle of the head. Luckily, he had on a protective helmet,” the worker said.
“At the time, when they pointed the guns at us, I didn’t panic. It was only after the incident that it struck me that one of us could have been killed.”
Workers were worried about when they could get back to work and whether their salaries were secure. The effects of extortion and intimidation at the hands of gangsters extend further than the railway tracks.
Daily Maverick heard that commuters using buses and taxis to get to and from work outside of Bonteheuwel needed the train tracks that were being repaired to be up and running.
A round trip in a taxi from Bonteheuwel to Cape Town costs about R40 daily, or R800 per month. It is understood that a round trip by train would cost R16 daily and R320 monthly.
When Daily Maverick contacted Metrorail on Friday to confirm this, the person who took the call would not provide ticket prices, saying this was because that part of the train track was not operational.
A 32-year-old single mother from Bonteheuwel, who works in the Tygervalley area in Bellville about 16km away, said: “At first I was taking the bus and it cost me roughly R195 a week. That was before the major petrol [price] increases, and monthly I spend R900 on transport costs.
“I reverted to a lift club because it was more convenient, costing me R1,200 per month. I think if the trains were an option I could have travelled to Bellville with the train and would have paid less than R450 for a monthly ticket and [then taken] a taxi from Bellville to Tygervalley costing me R12 per trip. It would have been much less.”
She did not understand why gangsters were delaying repairs to train lines that residents so desperately needed access to.
Pay up or else…
A Bishop Lavis community leader, who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity citing safety reasons, said contractors can lawfully tender, get a contract and start work, but then gangsters, who want the contract, demand money from the workers and if they are not given any, will stop the work.
“The consequences, if we as a community and contractors must first go through the 28s, mean[s] they are enriching themselves while we as communities desperately looking for a contract to put food on the table are deprived of this opportunity,” the community leader said.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Texas-Cape Flats — ceaseless massacre claiming lives of SA’s children in gang flashpoints”
This leader said a particular 28s gangster was stopping work in the area and telling contractors they must first arrange payment to the gang’s boss before resuming work.
‘They threatened us’
In the fast-food outlet incident in Bishop Lavis, which apparently occurred before the Bonteheuwel railway intimidation, a contractor from Johannesburg was targeted on Women’s Day in August this year.
On that day the community leader saw the fast-food outlet was closed and noticed that the contractor and his workers were sitting outside.
The community leader asked what was going on and said the contractor replied: “Sir, there were people who threatened us. They told us we must stop working and negotiate on how much we must pay the 28s gang. I was told to contact my boss and told them that the 28s threatened them.”
Bishop Lavis Community Policing Forum (CPF) chairperson Graham Lindhorst got wind of the incident. A meeting was subsequently held with representatives from the fast-food outlet, the police, the contractor – and the gangsters.
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Following that meeting the CPF issued a statement confirming that the contractors, along with workers, were stopped from working and ordered to get off the site.
“The contractor withdrew as he was not willing to pay in order to continue to work. An agreement was reached and the contract was given to the elements that stopped the work from continuing,” Lindhorst said.
‘We will not give in’
This week, DA ward councillor Angus McKenzie, who deals with areas including Bishop Lavis and Bonteheuwel, spoke out against extortionists in relation to the rail incidents.
“As a community we have to take a stand against extortionists. Nothing will come to fruition that we are hoping to do, to achieve or make a difference in people’s lives if we are going to give in to extortionists,” he said.
“They cannot assume control over something they don’t own,” McKenzie said.
On Thursday, 1 September, Prasa confirmed that recovery efforts on the Central Line, between Bonteheuwel, Netreg and Heideveld, had been “disrupted by a group of armed men who have used violence and intimidation against contractors and Prasa employees”.
It said it did not “tolerate any acts of criminality hiding behind socioeconomic challenges faced by communities”.
Daily Maverick previously reported on a trial involving alleged gangsters playing out in the Western Cape.
During the trial, Jeremy Vearey, former head of detectives in the Western Cape, testified that the 28s had a history linked to prisons, with members initially detained in prisons and later operating outside of jails.
The main purpose of the gang was robbery.
Vearey explained that the gang was styled along the lines of the British army, with words and symbols demonstrating this. He implied the 28s did not tolerate women because they were viewed as untrustworthy and as spies.
While testifying in the trial, Vearey had a security detail. DM