Sliding toward anarchy in S. Africa

Cape region gangs, vigilantes targeted in police crackdown

February 01, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The two latest bombings last week in a yearlong wave of urban terrorism blatantly challenged law and order in a place that ancient mariners used to call the "fairest Cape of all."

Both were exploded outside major downtown police stations, adding insult to injury in a city increasingly traumatized by violence.

They were also timed for maximum impact. They coincided with the launch of Operation Good Hope, a major crackdown by police and the army against the terrorism and gangsterism blighting the Cape region.

Based on "zero tolerance" of crime, the crackdown involves maintaining a high-visibility law enforcement presence in the troubled areas of Western Cape province, establishing roadblocks at key points, including the tourist magnet Water Front, and conducting search-and-seizure raids for illegal arms, particularly in the desolate, feud-riven Cape Flats outside the city.

But the crackdown only spurred new defiance from the bombers, who immediately targeted two police stations, wounding 12 passers-by in the busy, central locations.

Even before last week's back-to-back blasts, the Sowetan, the nation's leading black newspaper, said in an editorial: "It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Western Cape is slipping into anarchy."

So troubled are local businesses at the impact of the escalating violence on international investment and tourism that they quickly offered a million rand ($170,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of the bombers.

The catalyst for emergency action was the drive-by assassination last month of a police officer involved in the investigation of two recent bombings at the Water Front. It provoked popular and political outrage.

The assassination was part of a spiral of violence that has forced local leaders like Ebrahim Rasool, provincial head of the African National Congress, to seek police protection, some moderate Muslim clerics reportedly to wear bulletproof vests at Friday prayers, and some police officers to move in with relatives for their own safety.

Sense of urgency

"The time for bickering is over," said Rasool, leader of the provincial opposition. The province is controlled by the New National Party, the former apartheid party. "We must make Operation Good Hope succeed."

In a memorandum to national Police Commissioner George Fivaz, the local ANC parliamentary delegation said: "The situation in our province has become a desperate one. Our people continue to experience ongoing crime and terror. The holy period [of Ramadan, which ended last week] has been marked by almost daily bombings, murder and violent crimes against women and children.

"There is a very real danger that communities lose hope that the police service is able to deal with the crisis."

Last month, police shot and killed a 22-year-old Muslim during a peaceful demonstration against the visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, heightening the tension that has built up here since Muslim vigilantes decided to combat burgeoning gangsterism in their communities 2 1/2 years ago.

Espousing increasingly fundamentalist Islamic views, the vigilantes are believed to have widened their agenda to confront what they see as the corrupt institutions of an immoral government, particularly the police, and the perceived anti-Islamic actions of overseas governments.

Their major foreign policy targets have been the United States and Britain, particularly for their airstrikes against Iraq, which provoked protest marches here and the anti-Blair demonstration, during which the police opened fire on the crowd. The shooting is under investigation.

The four main radical groups are People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, which started as a popular crusade against crime; Qibla, a theological hotbed of fundamentalism; Muslims Against Global Oppression, the international arm of Muslim radicalism here; and Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders, which targets members of government.

PAGAD is tagged by police as the most active and violent, and is suspected of involvement in the pipe bombings of Planet Hollywood restaurants five months ago, which left two dead, and the second Water Front blast last month.

"We are convinced it was PAGAD," said police Superintendent Wicus Holtzhausen, who declined to offer evidence to support his accusation.

Hundreds of attacks

Last year there were 667 gun or pipe-bomb attacks in the greater Cape Town area, 479 blamed on gangs and 188 blamed on urban terrorism.

Gang activities involve drug smuggling and dealing, money laundering and lending, theft and fencing stolen goods, and operating legitimate businesses such as taxi stands.

Urban terrorism involves attacks on political or religious targets, such as the American-franchised Planet Hollywood, the homes of political and religious leaders, synagogues and mosques, and police stations. In one recent police station attack, the officers were tied up and weapons stolen from the arsenal.

"It's to make the country ungovernable," Holtzhausen said.

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