When Denzel Washington filmed an action scene for his new film in the pre-dawn hours at the Joe Slovo informal settlement last week, residents mistook the sound of manufactured gunfire for the noise of a gang war in full horror. Hiding under their beds, afraid that a stray bullet may make its way through their windows, panicked residents called local police and expected the morning to bring news of death.
But for once real life trumped the movies. On the Cape Flats, where unemployment is rife and the struggle is not so much for a livelihood as it is for a survival, gang violence is not always a merely staged scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. In the past two months more than 10 people have died in gang-related shootings in the area of Lavender Hills alone. And while community-based organisations in the area continue to push for a ceasefire between warring gangs, the community itself has turned to that infamous band of vigilantes, Pagad (People Against Gangsterism And Dugs), to stop the rot on the Cape Flats.
Pagad has been out of the news for so long you’d be forgiven for believing they’d long ceased to exist. Pagad, which had been so intent on rooting out gangsterism and drugs, had all the looks of falling foul of law and order itself. We’d largely forgotten its members had burned a man alive. We’d forgotten they had been branded a terrorist organisation. We’d forgotten that they had once took a war against gangsterism rather literally. For those of us whose idea of Cape Town is confined to the mountain, Long Street and Helen Zille declaring the city centre triumphant over crime, Pagad feels out of place in the Mother City of 2011. But as unbelievable as it is, Pagad has managed a comeback.
Not only has it re-emerged from the doldrums of obscurity to the cheers of Lavender Hill residents, but it has also returned emboldened with an endorsement from the authorities. According to one city official, “Pagad has a voice and represents a very frustrated and irritated people, to ignore them is completely counter-productive so we must make a positive solution.” But just in case his comment be misconstrued as licence for Pagad to act with impunity on the Flats, he went on to caution that Pagad would be required to “stick to the law”. And it’s with sticking to the law that Pagad has historically experienced grave difficulty.
Pagad invariably invokes a memory of violence in South Africa. It invokes the memory of the night of the 4 August 1996 when a convoy drove from the Gatesville Mosque to the house of the head of the Hard Livings gang, Rashaad Staggie and killed the gang leader in a blizzard of bullets, batons and a petrol bomb. From then on Pagad would become responsible for killing a number of gang leaders, and exhibit a capacity for urban terrorism. After the Planet Hollywood bombing in 1998, Pagad was said to be responsible for 10 other separate bombing incidents against South African authorities, moderate Muslims, synagogues, gay nightclubs, tourist attractions and Western-associated restaurants.
An organisation that began with the intention to rid the poorest of violence and drug abuse seemed to have lost touch altogether with what it had set out to do. And in the process it lost favour with the community it was meant to champion. At one time, there were about 100 Pagad members behind bars. Years on, 10 Pagad members continue to serve prison sentences for crimes ranging from murder, public violence and the possession of illegal firearms. How then is an organisation with such a murky past meant to help police quell gang violence? Would the re-entry of Pagad go against the very aim of its inclusion and incite further violence? Police officials have been keen to clarify they will not allow Pagad to resort to its old tactics, nor will they even allow demonstrators to conceal their faces, as Pagad members were wont to do in the past.
Pagad spokesman Osman Sahib, undeterred by the little caveats added along with Pagad’s official endorsement, seems sincerely to believe that Pagad is the solution to gang violence and drug abuse, not just in the Western Cape, but throughout the rest of the country as well. When asked if this “new” Pagad differed, at all, from the Pagad that hit the news with such alacrity in the mid-1990s, Sahib was determined to stress that Pagad was now committed to co-operate with the police within the “ambit of the law”.
This would prove a far cry from the Pagad of old. Significant to the change in direction of the old Pagad from vigilantes to terrorists was the infiltration of ex-Qibla cadres. Qibla is a militant Shi’a Muslim organisation founded in the 1980s in South Africa that espouses jihad and seeks the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. But this newly branded Pagad has had a leadership overhaul, with the removal of any “politically-aligned” influences within the organisation. Pagad, really does have all the looks of an organisation that’s learned its lesson.
According to Sahib, Pagad is now committed principally to mobilising communities against the gangsters that terrorise them, signalling a return to the organisation’s roots.
Listening to Sahib, it becomes clear that Pagad, as an organisation, has little business with political Islam, or Islamic militancy, or radical Islam, or an “Islamic orientation” as Wikipedia so deftly puts it. Its religious background is a mere moral justification of the work it has set out to do – much like Lead SA used religion in promoting the Bill of Responsibilities. Pagad is an organisation that has recognised the problems of a community of poor people and sought to actively address them, not condescendingly from above, but from among the people.
When I asked Sahib why Helen Zille has managed to bring crime in the centre of Cape Town down by 90% while just a few miles away on the Flats, gang violence has escalated, he sounds resigned at first and then suddenly, animated as he asks me, “Who does the DA’s city clean up benefit?” And without skipping a beat, he continues, “Helen Zille and the DA have served the tourists and the affluent. They have shown a political will to clean up the city centre, but this same will has not been applied to the rest of the community. The same people who suffered against apartheid continue to suffer.”
There’s nothing particularly new about gang violence and drug abuse for politicians to exploit in the local elections. Away from the politicians and their agendas, with some 65 gang leaders being considered for parole this year, an escalation in gang violence appears a certainty.
There is, of course, the possibility that this sudden resurgence of Pagad will only incite further violence. It has to prove it has indeed reformed well enough to contribute adequately to the war against gangsterism and drug abuse on the Cape Flats. Contrary, as well, to what Pagad may itself believe, its relevancy to the community has been terrifically reduced by its past conduct. Faatimah Hendricks, a journalist at a community radio station, though is optimistic about Pagad’s endearing itself to the community once more, “I think if (members) behave themselves, they will definitely be able to turn their reputation around. To be honest, I have faith in them although many of my colleagues think I am crazy. I work for the Voice of the Cape, so some of my colleagues were held at gunpoint by Pagad members and there were threats of bombs outside the building back then”. For now, this purportedly new Pagad have yet to prove that they’ve learned their lessons.
The long-term solution to gang violence lies in addressing the social norms that make gang violence normal, addressing the norms that send people to take cover beneath their beds when Denzel Washington’s making a movie outside. Gangs will not be willed into disappearing. There is a broader context to the existence of these gangs and Pagad, as trusted community members with some semblance of street credibility and ears pinned to the ground could well have a role to play in putting an end to the violence plaguing the Flats but that end seems a long way off. DM