South African vigilantes counter gangsters and drugs with violence Police, civic groups decry desperate resort to rough justice

December 01, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Rashaad Staggie, head of a gang called the Hard Living Kids, met an even harder death.

A dealer in violence and drugs, he was given rough justice by a vigilante group that has taken the law into its own hands for the past year because members feel the police are ineffective.

The vigilantes circled Staggie's house in Cape Flats, one of the most crime-ridden areas in the country, to stop his drug dealing.

Staggie was not there that night in August 1996, but when he heard of the demonstration he headed home, full of bravado. It was a fatal mistake. The vigilantes dragged him from his vehicle, shot him, doused him with gasoline and burned him.

Staggie's death has been widely attributed to an organization called People Against Gangsterism And Drugs. The group has never officially acknowledged responsibility, although Staggie's killing occurred during one of its marches.

"It happened on the spur of the moment," said Ebrahim Francis, one of PAGAD's founders and a member of its working committee. "What happened that day is a reflection of the frustration of the community. We are realizing that people are prepared to go to any lengths to eradicate this problem."

Since the group was formed last year, it claims to have marched on the homes of more than 70 local drug dealers to give them an ultimatum: Stop dealing or face the consequences.

The consequences are never spelled out, but several times shots have been fired into houses, and dealers have been manhandled.

PAGAD, a largely Muslim organization, attracts support from many increasingly outraged and fearful residents of Cape Flats, an expanse of blighted townships on the wrong side of Table Mountain that is home mainly to blacks and people of mixed race.

But PAGAD also faces opposition from police and civic groups who denounce its use of violence.

"If you look at PAGAD, its founding ideals and its constitution, it is a very honorable and noble organization in terms of wanting to rid society of gangsterism and drugs," said David Frost, spokesman for the police in Western Cape. "I don't think any law abiding country in the world would have a problem with that.

"But what has happened is they have taken the law into their own hands."

Violence in Cape Flats has actually increased since PAGAD's creation, said Frost, partly due to the organization's attacks on gangsters and drug dealers, and partly due to reprisals against PAGAD members. But, he added, the overt sales of drugs in the area appeared to have decreased.

"They have perhaps just driven them underground," said Frost. "Obviously they have come into conflict with the police. The police can't allow them to take the law into their own hands. But it's a very difficult situation for the police. If you act against them you are no good. And if you don't act against them you are no good."

Last weekend, after police objections, PAGAD canceled a mass march on Cape Town's Sea Point, an upscale drug center. But it sent hundreds of placard-carrying Muslim women in small, legal pickets of less than 15 into the area to deliver its anti-drug message. There were no arrests and no violence.

For the past five weeks, Craig Arendse, chief mediator at the University of Cape Town's Center of Conflict Resolution, has been facilitating talks between PAGAD and the police, trying to persuade PAGAD to work within the law.

He credited the organization with being "very effective" in increasing public pressure for stronger police action. But, he said, while PAGAD's objectives had popular support in the Cape Flats community, its use of violence did not.

"PAGAD loses a lot of support from a lot of ordinary community-based people because of the perception that it uses violent and forceful means to achieve its ends," he said. "The challenge is how do we channel these people's energies creatively and constructively."

It took the involvement of a respected religious leader's son in a particularly gruesome gang-related murder to convince PAGAD's founders that they were in a fight for communal survival.

"Many things happened after that that made us realize if nothing is done about the scourge of gangsters and guns, then we are doomed," said PAGAD's Francis.

"You don't know what it means to have lived in a community where they rape your daughter, and the day the accused man appears in court and you are supposed to be a witness, you never turn up. You wouldn't dare to.

"Where they kill your son in front of you and the day you must appear in court, you never turn up. That's been going on and on.

"We have been living in a circle of fear, and for you to break that fear is to tell those who are terrorizing you that 'The community is not afraid of you any more and you have to be afraid of the community.'

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