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Mediocre Bad Guys

Mediocre Bad Guys

by Phillip de Wet, illustration by Rico / 15.02.2011

What we think we have are cat-stroking masters of their craft, who plot their evil like a chess match and, when they do actually stoop to violence in pursuit of money or political domination, do so with style. Instead all we get are tsotsis, and other tsotsis with better shoes.

It’s probably the media’s fault. No, I’m not channeling an ANC spokesman; this time we may actually carry a little of the blame. See, deep down most journalists are frustrated writers, but there is damn little room for a dramatic turn of phrase when you’re writing about Joburg’s pothole problems or the Cape Town toilet saga. When it comes to cash-in-transit robberies, however, we’re suddenly free to talk about “military precision”. We can describe the sophistication of car hijacking syndicates, or breathlessly speak of the helicopters used by rhino poachers. Best of all is when the criminals themselves apparently adopt monikers straight out of The Godfather, like Glenn “The Landlord” Agliotti.

So we end up with the idea of smart men in smart suits doing dirty work, which pays for fast cars and sex-kitten women. We tend to believe that they engage in stylish violence straight out of a Tarantino flick, that they sometimes toy with the cops just for the hell of it, that a room goes hushed when they walk into it.

Then they end up in court, and we realise that the average South African criminal mastermind is, like the average South African criminal, just a punk. And not a particularly clever or cool one at that.

Agliotti – who swears blind that The Landlord is a name the cops made up for him – wears good shoes. That’s pretty much as far as his arch-villainy goes. We’re talking about a man who tries to paint himself as an innocent victim after being convicted of smuggling drugs. Somebody who tells different lies to different people – all on the record – while trying to weasel out of jail time. For all his erstwhile swagger, he’s no chess master. Nor is he the kind of guy who’d go down in a hail of bullets while shouting “fuck you, pigs, you’ll never take me alive!”

Agliotti’s good friend Jackie Selebi managed to make it into the top policing job in the world, as the nominal head of Interpol, while actually being bad guy. That may lead you to believe he’s got at least a little somthin’ somthin’ going on. Until he tries to convince a judge that “the dog ate my homework” is a legitimate defence.

Brett Kebble is, in my book at least, as close as South Africa has ever come to a real Bond villain. He built up a mining empire from nothing using nothing but a fast mouth and some rather dubious financial structures, then started cashing in by using company money as his own. But he transcended mere white-collar crime when he started putting together a network of influence that would have meant, given another decade or two, that he owned just about everyone holding a top office in SA: politicians, cops, perhaps even judges. While becoming a celebrity society man by throwing elegant art prize parties. Can you say SPECTRE? Then he ends up dead at the side of the road, either because he was some kind of crybaby who couldn’t handle the pressure and just wanted to end it all, or because the peeps in his crew decided he was the kind of crybaby who would sell them out rather than go to jail himself.

Sandi Majali, another literal has-been, allegedly thought he could steal an entire company just by changing names on the paperwork, and that nobody would notice. This after we’d been under the impression he was smart enough to entangle the ANC in a web of corruption, so that nobody could touch him because of the dirt he had on others.

These guys are, in a word, stoopid. They end up in crime because they are either too lazy or too dumb to make it legitimately. They often start off doing what is, in essence, menial work, like smuggling cigarettes, and just kinda stumble into bigger things by sheer luck. Then they run the constant risk of arrest or death by murder to make what is, in the vast majority of cases, less money than a shrewd banker or owner of an engineering company can pull in with fewer sleepless nights. That money they invariably spend on bling cars (or ugly imported shoes) and in so doing draw attention to themselves, instead of lurking in the shadows where they are untouchable.

It’s not just the ones at the top, of course. The average serial murderer in SA isn’t Hannibal Lecter, he’s a a serial rapist who offs his victims, and those are about the saddest human beings you can imagine. The dude who pulls a gun on you in your driveway may be a tough character in a bar fight, but his take on your car is so small he’d be earning more after a couple of years of working his way up to manager of the local Spar.

It’s the men at the top we expect to set a certain standard, though. Decades of Hollywood movies have led us to expect their consort to be stone fox assassin-models, not sad trafficked Russian prostitutes. Television shows us elegant (if malevolent) strategies punctuated by clinically delivered violence, not crime bosses who would have a hard time beating a smart 10-year-old at checkers.

The more we learn about them, the more the South African criminal masters resemble South African celebrities: dull as dirt and vapid to boot. If we’re going to put up with high crime rates, we really deserve better.

*Follow Phillip de Wet on Twitter.
**Illustration © Rico.

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  1. creepy steve says:

    and kebble played piano quite well allegedly, art fag gangster to the max

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  2. reyals says:

    hehehehe, a good read! respek!

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  3. Ubuntu Bob says:

    Great piece!

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I dont understand this.
    Clearly the ones doing this well are the ones you aren’t aware of.
    The guys we know about, and the ones who get caught, are stupid. Fucking revelation.
    But to assume thats the extent of it is ignorant in itself.

    South African serial killers? Hmmm…
    Moses Sithole is sitting in jail with a sentance of over 2000 years and 38 kills in one year under his little nipple belt.
    Cedric Maake convinced Brixton police that there were 2 seperate killers working before getting caught, and charged with 35 murders and 28 attempts.
    Sibusiso Duma got caught just 3 years ago, and he was everything out of a Tarantino film.
    Norman Afzal Simons, an educated school teacher who killed 22 kids.
    The Pangaman, who in the 60’s attacked only white women and took out 16 of them with his machette.

    On a non serial killer note: Craig Williamson could easily get away with a bald cat on his lap for the work he did with the apartheid era government. International bombings, kidnappings, assasinations.

    South Africas Robin Hood of the Kalahari: Scotty Smith. Who may or may not have, aside from all his good, killed and sold the bones of over 100 bushmen to european museums.

    Barend Strydom / Wit Wolf – he’s already gotten some movie interest. Went on a killing spree after praying for days to god to give him a sign not to do it. Since God is a quiet fella, he figured Barend would work it out. Shot over 20 people and was released less than 5 years later. He’s still around, and hopefully god is keeping him updated on any other plans he may be having.

    The stander gang.

    Rashid and Rashaad Staggie. Remember how Pagad took care of them? Movie stuff I tell you.

    Go to the crimline website and at any point you’ll see at least 10 bank robbers currently active. Most of them have been arrested and escaped and are still active despite all the info on them.

    I guess i got caught up in a tangent.
    We have everything you’re looking for right here at home.

    “low-level hucksters and badly paid morons.”
    From what position, aside from freelancing for mahala, do you make this claim, our of interest?

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  5. random says:

    nice one!

    not to take anything away from the article as a whole, but you ended that off perfectly.

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  6. LukeSkyCrawler says:

    Beautiful stuff , keep it up FeelIt(Phillip)

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  7. Kook says:

    They don’t need to be clever in SA. They just need to be ruthless and desperate enough to not really give a rat’s anus about going to prison.

    It’s so easy to get the right people in your pocket or become that right person, why even bother being clever?! If they are clever, they’ll get a tikkop to take the fall. In fact half the people you’re talking about are, in fact, just fall-guys

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  8. Lass says:

    Good one. You make me laugh out loud. And, my mornings would not get off the runway without your quirky mygoditsearly news!

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  9. Dan says:


    “From what position, aside from freelancing for mahala, do you make this claim, our of interest?”

    For someone who is apparently very good at using Google (or maybe you just have a great memory) you didn’t make much effort to find out who Phillip is did you?


    I suggest you start reading The Daily Maverick too… the best SA news source in my opinion.

    @Phillip, nice piece – lovely read

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  10. Jirrith says:

    Lovely read. I am inclined to agree with Anonymous, though, that a lot of the bad guys are impervious to any retribution, for reasons that trouble me profoundly. Also one does not need to be very clever when the justice system is dysfunctional. The killers of Gito Baloi , Ronnie Levitan, and many other great citizens have never been brought to book.That people like Craig Williamson are allowed to walk free is a national disgrace.

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