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Analysis

When gangsters become heroes as government distrust rises

25 November 2021, Claire Raga, Savo Heleta
When gangsters become heroes as government distrust rises

In a country like South Africa where government trust is low, gangsters and criminals who provide assistance to their communities are seen as the people’s champions.

In early January 2021, Durban, South Africa’s second-largest city, was rocked by the fatal shooting of alleged gangster and drug kingpin Yaganathan Pillay, also known as Teddy Mafia. According to reports, Teddy Mafia was revered by some in his community of Shallcross as the local Robin Hood. Shortly after he was killed, community members, some of whom were likely Teddy Mafia’s soldiers, took the law into their own hands by apprehending the two alleged shooters, beheading them, and setting their bodies alight in broad daylight.

A few days later, Teddy Mafia was laid to rest. The scene that played out at his funeral echoed the community’s reverence for him, with people praising his name and chanting, “Viva Mafia, Viva” and “Viva, people’s champion.”

What transpired in Shallcross is something that can be found across all of South Africa’s volatile, gang-ridden areas. There are many Teddy Mafia-type gang leaders who possess a great deal of power and influence in the communities they reside in.

Gangsterism has existed in South Africa since the early 1950s. During the 1950s, disadvantaged coloured, Indian, and black working-class communities utilized group vigilantism as a mechanism for protection from apartheid authorities and criminal groups in their areas. As the vigilante groups grew, criminal elements began to filter through their ranks and their focus turned to organized crime. Gradually, people leaving prisons infiltrated the groups, and vigilante groups became indistinguishable from the criminal gangs they initially aimed to eradicate.

South Africa has a complicated history of gangs being used by the apartheid government in the fight against anti-apartheid activists. Meanwhile, other gangs cooperated with anti-apartheid activists and members of Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’s armed wing, before 1994. In fact, gang leaders such as Rashied Staggie, the leader of the influential Hard Livings gang who was killed in December 2019, argued in 1997 that the ANC owed a debt to these gangs for the support they provided to the movement during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The drastic rise in criminal activity since 1994 has been exacerbated by the lack of meaningful transformation and growing inequalities. Factors that continue to contribute to the growth and expansion of gangs in disadvantaged communities include the lack of access to opportunities and work; marginalization and segregation of coloured and black communities; lack of service delivery, poverty, and deprivation; and the failures of the justice system and policing.

Areas across South Africa—such as the townships on Cape Flats in Cape Town, Northern Areas in Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha, and Chatsworth in Durban, to name a few—have become well-known for their growing gang cultures and criminal gang activities. High levels of violence and crime in townships such as Soweto in Johannesburg and Gugulethu in Cape Town have also been linked to gangsterism and organized crime.

How and why are the gangs and gang leaders so powerful, admired, and/or feared in their communities? How is it possible that so many in Shallcross felt so enamored and indebted to Teddy Mafia that they found it necessary to defend his name and chant praises at his funeral? Are gangsters really the people’s champions?

Gangsters have been able to utilize the failures of the South African government to their own benefit. Socioeconomic challenges, poverty, and inequality have helped the gangs integrate themselves into the social structures of their communities and establish themselves as critical structures in the provision of financial means, food, job opportunities, and other necessities to struggling community members. By assisting their surrounding communities, gangs have been able to win or buy the support and loyalty of their fellow community members.

This is evident in the reaction to Teddy Mafia’s death in Shallcross and the “Viva people’s champion” chants at his funeral. Those who murdered his alleged assassins may have been his loyal soldiers, fearful community members, or the beneficiaries of his support. Whoever they are, they have been failed by the society and the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy—and likely had no choice but to either join his gang or accept his support.

For some, Teddy Mafia probably was a champion. He may have provided jobs to unemployed community members, paid school fees for those who couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s schooling or their school uniforms, or bought food for those who were starving. If he did this, it was because he needed the community’s silence or support in order to ensure that his “business” activities could go on uninterrupted.

South Africa is not unique in this regard. Pablo Escobar, for example, did the same in Colombia, spending some of the profits of drug sales on building clinics, hospitals, and homes for the poor, as well as on funding food banks. He did this not only to improve his public image and to get local communities on his side, but also to step into the breach where the Colombian state was absent.

For people who live in the disadvantaged areas of South Africa where gangs operate, there are limited options for survival. For many, moving out of these areas is not an option, since moving requires resources that the poor and vulnerable do not have. Some resist the gangs and suffer the consequences, while others sit quietly and hope to survive. There are also those who join the gangs out of sheer desperation, seeing no other options. The same scenario applies to prison gangs, which utilize fear and desperation to force vulnerable incarcerated youth to join gangs in prison.

Gang leaders are aware of the problems and fractures in South African society, and they exploit each and every socioeconomic, political, and other challenge facing vulnerable communities. They do this to recruit members or to buy community support or silence. They also bribe the police, prison wardens, politicians, and government officials.

It should not come as a surprise that these gangsters and criminals, who provide assistance to their communities, are seen as the people’s champions in a country like South Africa. This is a country where the people don’t trust government officials, the police, or their local councils.

This is a country where billions of Rand are stolen or spent irregularly every year by politicians and their friends, and where hardly anyone ever pays the price for corruption and stealing. It is the country where, during the pandemic, government officials stole billions meant for the fight against COVID-19 and for the poor.

If politicians—many of whom keep failing the country and the people while running mafia-style patronage networks and looting taxpayer funds without consequence—can claim to be the people’s champions, who is to say that the gangsters who sometimes provide support to members of their community are not also the people’s champions?

Around the world, gangs have been involved in the local and national politics of many countries. In Jamaica, for example, the past few decades have seen gang leaders use their funds, power, and influence to help politicians win elections. In return, politicians allowed them to operate their “empires” with impunity. Elsewhere, gangsters have had political aspirations—Escobar, for example, got elected to the Colombian congress in 1982, although he was forced to stand down after Colombia’s justice minister publicly called him a drug trafficker. Despite this, Escobar was able to run his drug enterprise for many years with the help of threats, assassinations, and by bribing authorities and politicians.

While South African politics is not (yet!) on the same level as what Colombian and Jamaican politics were at one time, there are links between the involvement of gangs in politics and public life. In 1996, gangs in the Western Cape formed an organization called Community Outreach Forum (CORE). The organization claimed to be interested in peace, calling for political engagement with the authorities. CORE also demanded that the government protect its members from vigilante attacks by another organization, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs.

Research conducted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime shows that in the Eastern Cape province’s Nelson Mandela Bay, gangs have been involved in politics and business since 1994. Gangs have benefited from “tenderpreneurship”—securing of government tenders and contracts for the provision of public services by their formal businesses—through their links with local politicians and councillors.

Elsewhere, Caryn Dolley has written about the involvement of gangsters in South African politics. The political party Patriotic Alliance (PA), for example, is led by former gangster Gayton McKenzie. Rashied Staggie, one of the most prominent South African gang leaders of the past three decades, was also a member of the PA before he was killed.

Every time gang violence escalates in South Africa, there are calls for the army to step in and assist the police in the fight against gangsterism. However, this is not a solution to the country’s gang violence and organized crime. The army is not trained for interventions in civilian communities, and a “war on gangs” has never brought stability and peace, anywhere in the world. More plausible interventions include improvements in policing and the justice system.

Other key interventions include addressing the socioeconomic challenges facing underprivileged communities across South Africa and improving the livelihoods of vulnerable people. The government must improve the delivery of basic services and the education system, create employment opportunities, and address apartheid spatial planning. In addition, the government should work closely with those who are already embedded and working in vulnerable communities across the country. This includes working with community initiatives and projects aimed at combating crime and violence in gang-ridden areas. Many of these organizations require support and resources but have struggled for many years to get government support.

Until socioeconomic conditions and realities improve for the millions of vulnerable South Africans, they will continue to be exploited by criminals and gangsters. There may possibly still be a small chance to turn the tide. This requires good governance, the eradication of corruption, better policing, a more effective justice system, and improved public education, job creation, and socioeconomic transformation. Basically, everything that has been promised since 1994 but has yet to be delivered.
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