ON a street corner in Hanover Park, a paroled killer with no trigger discipline plays dice, deals drugs and brags about murder while showing off a pistol to cohorts in the Americans gang. “Ice, buttons, tik, alles!” he calls out as wired, wary customers approach. A coronavirus mask, worn as a chinstrap by a sidekick, doubles as a neat method of concealment for the drugs being peddled.
This scene, like so many others, played out one day at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cape Town. If it weren’t so real, it would be a cliché, the kind of image that many South Africans conjure up when they think of gangs and the Cape Flats. Perhaps, with the Covid mask, an adaptation symbolic of the gangs’ ability to adapt rapidly in response to changing events.
But to think of the Cape gangs as a uniquely Western Cape aberration, trapped in time and place, battling it out over street deals and scraps of poverty-stricken territory where little has changed in decades, would be a mistake. The Cape gangs form an integral part of a national criminal network linking shady businessmen, drug dealers, smugglers, bikers, bouncers and debt collectors on Gauteng’s East and West Rand to gangs in Westbury, Johannesburg, Gelvandale in the Eastern Cape and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Their bosses are a criminal elite whose wealth is dependent on a much wider network of other crime figures across the country. Several have established international connections...
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