Shifting landscapes, power plays dealing death and destruction through Cape Town’s ceaseless gang shootings
To understand why such intense violence has gripped the Western Cape today, it helps to take a longer-term view. The intense violence of the past few weeks is the product of major shifts that have been underway in the Western Cape underworld for years.
Eight people shot in Manenberg within six hours. At least 26 dead in mass shootings over the past four weeks. 144 shooting incidents detected in 24 hours, in just four suburbs. These stories have all made headlines in the last week, and all bear testimony to the current chaos of escalating gang violence in South Africa’s Western Cape, which has left residents of areas like Manenberg “held hostage” in their own homes.
The headlines are only the tip of the iceberg. The intense six hours of shooting in Manenberg, for example, is the latest flare-up in a gang turf war that has lasted for weeks, as the Hard Livings, the Dixie Boys and the Clever Kids fight for control of territory. The true death toll of this turf war is likely higher than reported.
It is easy for shootings, and the individual lives and tragedies that they represent, to get lost in the maelstrom of breaking news. Yet to understand what these stories show, why such intense violence has gripped the Western Cape today, and why police and the justice system are struggling to cope, it helps to take a longer-term view. The intense violence of the past few weeks is the product of major shifts that have been underway in the Western Cape underworld for years.
The first of these shifts is that gangs have become more prone to fragmenting and forming splinter groups, contributing to a much more hostile, violent and volatile gang landscape. The continual churn of territorial losses and gains, with new groups forming as older ones decline, has been characteristic of Western Cape gangs for generations. But fighting between splinter groups has become increasingly common.
In Hanover Park, for example, the past three months have seen infighting between the notorious Americans gang and the Dollar Kids. The Dollar Kids are just one of the assorted sub-groups that have broken away from the Americans; others are the IGBs (In-Glorious Bastards), Junior Mafia, Spoilt Brats, Pittbulls and West Siders.
Several major gang leaders, who had held sway over their organisations for decades, have been assassinated since 2019. They include Rashied Staggie of the Hard Livings, killed in December 2019; Ernie “Lastig” Solomon of the Terrible Josters (November 2020); William “Red” Stevens of the 27s, (February 2021); and Kaldimola “Dimes” Madatt of the Ugly Americans (November 2022). Other gang leaders have evaded (sometimes multiple) assassination attempts.
Their killings are both a symptom and a cause of gang fragmentation. After many of these high-profile murders, there were no retaliatory attacks on other gang leaders, strongly suggesting the killings were carried out by internal factions. When leaders are assassinated, this creates a power vacuum, opening the door to a young generation of leaders who must prove themselves, often by demonstrating their capacity for violence.
Increasing fragmentation is changing how inter-gang rivalries play out. In previous generations, gangs would commonly fight along the lines of long-held, embittered feuds, such as the notorious historical conflict between the Americans and the Hard Livings. Now, internal conflict has become more common.
Yet splinter groups that are fighting may, if the situation arises, form a truce to fight an external rival. These two levels of rivalries — internal and external — play off against each other. This makes patterns of gang violence harder to predict than in previous years when gangs had more internal cohesion.
Another cause of fragmentation has been the huge rise in the volume of illicit firearms supplied to Western Cape gangs. This was triggered largely by the “Prinsloo guns” scandal, whereby police armoury firearms were sold to gangs in their thousands throughout the early 2010s. Since then, ammunition and firearms have continued to flow to criminal networks, including from police firearms stores and as a result of corrupt practices in firearms licensing.
Before this transformational influx of weapons, gang bosses in the Western Cape would generally control and allocate all the firearms within their gangs. Today, however, many gang members are armed with their own weapons. Lower-level foot soldiers turn these weapons on rival gangs, their own leaders or civilians.
Another factor here is that gangs are recruiting at an increasingly young age. Gangs have always recruited young children, yet the target age for recruitment has become younger than ever before. This shift began during the Covid-19 lockdown period when schools closed, giving gangs more opportunity to recruit school-age children. These younger members can form breakaway groups and “junior” gangs.
In the past, such young members would have been entrusted only with minor roles, such as working as the gang lookouts and runners. Today, young recruits are more frequently deployed as assassins. These younger, less experienced shooters are seen by police as more unpredictable and liable to hit bystanders in the crossfire.
A second major shift is that gangs have increased and diversified their income streams. Competition over drug territory has always been the key driver of gang violence. However, gangs are now increasingly taking advantage of other money-making opportunities, such as extortion of construction sites; running informal scrapyards to accrue the benefits of rampant copper theft; and extorting a wider range of businesses including more foreign-owned shops and the taxi industry.
Gangs have closed in on municipal contracts for school or road construction and forced contractors into paying “protection” fees. As the Western Cape Government’s own data shows, millions of rands’ worth of infrastructure and housing projects have been put at risk.
Alongside this diversification into new markets, there has been a change in gang culture. Gang members and observers in the criminal justice system have described how gangs have become much more “entrepreneurial” in recent years. Mid and lower-ranking gang members have become involved in their own criminal money-spinning sidelines. Their behaviour is now, more than ever, driven by financial gain, displacing once-honoured traditional gang codes and norms.
This is exemplified in illicit drug markets. New business partnerships have emerged whereby gangs, in return for protection payments, allow foreign criminal networks to distribute drugs in their territories. Previously, Western Cape gangs would violently oppose foreign criminal networks distributing drugs in their turf. Today, these more fluid arrangements are facilitating international drug flows to the Western Cape, leading to far higher volumes of drugs available on the streets.
This shift in attitude can, likewise, be linked back to the Covid-19 lockdown. During this period, gangs adapted to the new normal, exploiting the illicit cigarette and alcohol markets which emerged out of supply restrictions ushered in during the pandemic. Former rival gangs collaborated in joint business deals for these illicit sales of cigarettes and alcohol. Lower-level gang members engaged in independent, sideline criminal operations.
This marked a definitive change from previous norms, as in earlier years gang leaders exerted more centralised control over gang finances and activities. These ways of working unlocked new sources of revenue and helped catalyse the more money-driven focus of gangs.
Yet in the face of an increasingly volatile, unpredictable and financially supercharged gang landscape, the criminal justice system is hamstrung by systemic weaknesses.
Cases involving gang leaders at the highest level are mired in delays and overwhelm the workload of judges, investigators and prosecutors. The Western Cape judiciary stated in August 2023 that complex, high-profile gang-related cases are contributing to a case backlog in the high court. The consequent delays make the prosecution’s work more challenging: evidence deteriorates or is lost, and witnesses withdraw due to intimidation or are killed.
For example, the high-profile murder trial involving alleged gang leaders Jerome Booysen and Mark Lifman as co-accused was postponed from July 2023 to 2024, as the Western Cape high court did not have an available judge, a decision deplored by civil society observers.
These major cases are indicative of a broader problem: the inability to secure prosecutions of gang-related offences. The conviction rate for gang violence in the province is just 2–3%, according to figures from May 2022. The same hitmen are used by gangs for multiple killings with impunity, as even if they are arrested these gang members are often swiftly released, either with charges dropped or bail granted. Intimidation of witnesses, police corruption, an unmanageable caseload of investigating officers, and incompatible priorities between the police and the court system are all contributing factors.
Police capture and corruption
Corruption is a major stumbling block: a ground-breaking Western Cape high court judgment warned in October 2022 that members of the 28s gang had infiltrated the highest levels of police management in the province. This is reflected in our research findings: gang sources report in interviews that corruption of police and government officials has become ever-more normalised across many gang-affected areas. This has the effect of sowing mistrust among the different Western Cape policing structures — Metro Police and SAPS — which discourages cooperation and stymies effective investigations into gang activity.
Looking ahead, the Western Cape is facing an ever-more complex challenge from gangs. As prosecutors are struggling to convict gang leaders in a court system mired in stasis, new leaders and new, violent splinter gangs are emerging frequently. While the legacy of the pandemic continues, casting a long shadow of unemployment and financial hardship, gangs have diversified and strengthened their economic base, enabling them to entrench their social power among financially strained communities.
As public works get underway to improve infrastructure and service delivery in areas that need it most, these projects are then derailed by gang extortion and intimidation.
The bloodshed seen in recent weeks is the result of these systemic shifts. The government’s approach must be to respond to these new dynamics in gang behaviour and tackle the major obstacles to effective investigation and prosecution. DM
This article draws on research published in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s quarterly Western Cape Gang Monitor, produced by the new South Africa Organized Crime Observatory (SA-Obs). SA-Obs works to gather granular data on illicit economies and criminal networks, strengthen societal responses to organised crime, facilitate engagement between government and civil society and disrupt organised crime.