Cops and Bombers

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It had its 15 minutes of glory on the world's millennium broadcast circuit. Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, fireworks at the Waterfront, laser beams on Table Mountain. Now Cape Town is coming back down to earth with a huge sigh of relief that the new year came and went without a serious incident of urban violence. But the Mother City still has a lot of cleaning up to do because it is a city that, for all its charm, color and rich history wrestles daily with the scourge of local terrorism.

Some Capetonians would say wrestling is the wrong word. Juggling would be better. The campaign of urban terror in the harbor capital is unique to Cape Town itself. It festers largely within a defined city community and within specific residential areas. And yet in four years and hundreds of incidents, including at least a score of pipe-bomb attacks in which several people have been killed, the authorities have made no breakthrough against the perpetrators as the cycle of terror spirals downward.

Accusations, however, are abundant, and they include allegations that policemen, possibly even members of the National Intelligence Agency, the South African equivalent of the CIA, may be involved in the terror campaign. Whatever the source of the activity, the police in Cape Town are seen to be floundering while criminals flourish.

Gangsterism among the so-called colored, or mixed race community, in the Western Cape may be at the root of much of the urban militance. During the apartheid years the government relocated the coloreds, on what is known as the Cape Flats outside Cape Town city. The resulting disruption of family life contributed to the rise of gangsterism, which grew out of what was originally a form of community self-protection.

During the most repressive days of apartheid many gangs were broken up and their members detained by government forces. But as political freedom began to dawn on post-apartheid South Africa, the gangs reorganized with greater militance and got involved in murder, extortion, drug dealing and armed robbery. Gangsterism in the Western Cape has become "increasingly ruthless and business-oriented," says Benjamin White Haefele, a researcher at the University of Stellenbosch Centre for Military Studies. The gangs are still driven by group identity, protection and turf, but "the bottom line is money and well-connected gang bosses preside over vast business empires," he says.

In 1996 an organization called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs--PAGAD--was formed as a community reaction to the lawlessness and violence in the townships of the Cape Flats. Its leaders were Muslim devotees who accused the government of being ineffectual and who declared their intent to take their own action against the gangs and drug dealers. In August 1996, the intentions of some PAGAD followers became brutally clear when attackers lynched Rashaad Staggie, boss of the "Hard Livings" gang--one of the biggest--shooting him and setting him afire inside his car after a PAGAD march on his home. The PAGAD leadership split amid accusations that some members were turning to fundamentalism and violence that would harm their cause. Indeed, since the vigilante organization came onto the scene the gang wars have intensified in the form of assassinations and a string of petrol bombs and explosions in various homes, offices and meeting places within the colored and gangster communities.

In August 1998, one man died and two others were injured when a pipe bomb exploded in front of the offices of a police unit investigating PAGAD. In the same month a pipe bomb went off at Planet Hollywood on the Waterfront that killed two people and injured 25. Last November a Saturday-night bombing of a gay bar wounded nine, and an explosion at a beach road pizzeria injured another 48. The year ended with a Christmas Eve bombing in a coastal suburb that injured seven police officers who had gone to the scene on a tip-off.

The police investigations have at times taken on the appearance of a comic opera--police chiefs and officers contradicting each other, producing and dismissing suspects, accusing each other of incompetence, complicity and corruption. But the public could take some comfort last week when the National Director of Public Prosecutions reported that it has 55 cases pending against at least 117 PAGAD members or supporters on charges that include murder, armed robbery and possession of illegal firearms and explosives. Even more welcome is the news that Cape Town police will not handle most of the cases. Instead, the Scorpions--a new Directorate of Special Investigations unit set up late last year to combat organized crime--will take charge. Perhaps at last Capetonians will find out which of the vigilantes are also the villains.