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Best of 2013 | Shooting Crime

by Don Pinnock / 25.12.2013

Originally published 20 August 2013.

Cape Town consistently scores as one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world. But out of sight, beyond the famous mountain and lazy beaches, it’s one of the most violent cities in the world in a country that has a similar murder rate to the total number killed in the Iraqi War. The legacy of apartheid ensures that the beauty and the beast seldom meet.

There was something incongruous about the clean washing strung above grimy concrete slabs connecting dilapidated blocks of flats. Most of it was children’s clothes – party dresses, snowy T-shirts, ankle socks, little panties, and colourful trousers. As neatly dressed kids gathered around me, I realised that what hung on the sagging lines was more than newly washed clothes.

In Cape Town’s drug-sodden badlands, where the kill rate is higher than in Afghanistan or Iraq, rape is so common it’s almost normal sex and assault is Saturday entertainment, keeping children clean is an investment in an almost unimaginable – and near impossible – better life. It’s the desperate dreams of mothers trapped in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Every day is washing day

I was in Hanover Park, a single-race apartheid hangover on the Cape Flats, to talk to the leader of the Ghetto Kids who’d hopefully give me some protection in my mission to photograph crime in South Africa’s Mother City. He said he formed the gang to protect his friends against other gangs. He didn’t shoot anyone, didn’t rob, only occasionally assaulted and didn’t use hard drugs. All gangsters talk shit. But he had nice eyes, even though they’d probably seen more death than a Taliban warlord.

After a while a woman butted in and said I should talk to the merchant upstairs. So I followed her into a dirty flat where young men were doing things with blades, small chopping boards and white powder. The merchant said he specialised in heroin. ‘I’m a sort of therapist to these youngsters,’ he said. ‘I only take the stuff to better understand their lives. I help them not to freak out, to stay focussed.’ Drug dealers also talk shit, but he too had nice eyes – faraway and dreamy, though they’d probably witnessed the fires of hell when supplies ran out. He wore the T-shirt of a Jewish private school, the governors of which would have been mortified to see on whom it hung. A photograph? ‘No problem,’ he said, ‘the cops are fucking useless and they like money.’

Listening him, I felt a long way from where I’d begun the project of photographing the effects of crime. Back then, in the leafy suburbs of wealthy homeowners with high walls, electric fences and rottweilers, my notion of crime was ‘lawbreaking’. But that definition was falling apart. Where did a crime begin and who was to blame? Who were the victims and whose definition was it anyway? Were the perpetrators those who refused to share their wealth? Or who meted out justice with laws, fists or guns? Or dangerous young men with no jobs, lousy education and nowhere to go but the ghetto?

A textbook on criminal law yielded a surprisingly simple answer: a crime was what society defined it to be. In South Africa’s still a deeply economically divided society, one man’s crime, I was discovering, was another’s bread and butter. The trouble was that children were getting caught in the crossfire.

Wayne Weimann is part of an organisation the local police must envy. BKM neighbourhood watch has a radio control room in Bergvliet, an upper class and largely white suburb. It’s manned by concerned citizens who give their time free to protect their properties from the dangerous classes east of Prince George Drive. There’s a map on the wall with pins to locate crime spots and a projector beaming Google Earth onto a screen to provide instant directions and an up-to-date website. When they put out a call the police come promptly.


Weimann introduced me to a family whose perimeter fence crackled with electricity. They had Trelidor security gates to snap shut, movement-activated lights around the house and a radio link to the BKM control room. They felt perfectly safe. Soon their small children would know the routine: switch on the fence and movement lights, never open the door to a stranger and know how to use the radio.

I went patrolling with a BKM team, who were kitted out with reflective vests, strong torches and radios. Some wore body armour. We looked into cars for stuff left to attract a break-in, checked security gates, peered into a drain and found a pregnant bitch tied to a tree alongside a field (It was loaded into a 4×4 for delivery to the SPCA.)

Over in Athlone, a middle class and largely Coloured suburb, I met a different kind of neighbourhood watch. PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs) is a largely Moslem vigilante organisation that has a bad reputation with the authorities. Some of its members have spent time in jail for assault and murder.

We met at a mosque, then went hunting drug merchants. I looked at the tough men with Saudi-style scarves over their heads and was glad I wasn’t their quarry. One man was carrying a hammer. They banged on a door and barged into a house, demanding the whereabouts of a known dealer. They found him cowering on the roof and dragged him into a corner of the lounge, screaming at him and slapping him around. He begged for mercy and said he only used dagga [cannabis].

A PAGAD raid

‘You lie you fucking bastard,’ the pack leader shouted. ‘You sell tik [methamphetamine] to our children. You’re scum.’

I was asked to leave and as I stepped onto the veranda a blood-chilling scream tore the night. It sounded like death, but minutes later the crowd emerged pushing the dealer ahead of them. In the street, with the neighbours watching, he stood with his hands together, seemingly in prayer, and renounced drug dealing, his former life and anything else they wanted him to give up. The terror in his eyes was heart-wrenching. I kept photographing, thinking of how long it was taking the Americans to extract confessions at Guantánamo Bay. There were two more house raids that night.

‘The police are doing nothing,’ one of the leaders, Abdus Salaam Ebrahim told me. ‘They don’t care about Coloured people. So we have to do this to protect our children. What would you do if a drug dealer sold tik to your child?’

The next day was Saturday. I realised too late that this wasn’t a good time to be in Hanover Park, a dumping ground for families evicted from District Six in the 1970s. People were at home in the dreary flats or out on the sandy wasteland surrounding them. Some were drunk or high on something or just hanging, waiting for something to happen. I talked to a leader of the Americans gang, who no longer personally did anything definable as crime, naturally.

He talked about ghetto survival and the necessity of being in the gang for security. It was a circular argument I was to hear frequently:You needed to be in a gang to protect you from other gangs, who themselves needed to be in a gang to protect themselves from you. It’s partly true, but the fact is they’re all protecting drug turf and sale pitches. They’re businessmen beyond the law and, along the way, some become immensely rich.

A woman, decidedly drunk, started demanding my attention then shouting at me when I ignored her. Another woman, also high on something and looking terribly life-wrecked, began yelling at the first woman and soon they were laying into each other. That attracted a crowd who began shouting and trying to separate the brawlers while children gathered to watch the circus. The razor-blade volatility of the place was terrifying. Everybody was on edge. It seemed a good time to leave.

Goodwood Prison

Occasionally the fruits of crime turn rotten. The law dips its arm into the forgotten suburbs and hauls out a lawbreaker, sends him to the clink for, sometimes, years awaiting trial and then to prison. The Correctional Services Department were happy to show me around Goodwood Prison, guided by its thoughtful and intelligent governor, Takalani Mashamba. If you have to go to prison in South Africa, this is where you want to be. Library, school, art classes, not too much overcrowding and exercise areas with lawns. It was very impressive. There were no restrictions on photography either. The young men I talked to all claimed minor offences or wrongful arrest, as prisoners do, except one member of the 26 Gang who said he shot his first person when he was 16.

I was renovating my negative mindset about South African prisons when a friend, who had just begun a programme in nearby Pollsmoor Prison, sent me an email: ‘I am shocked by the place. If animals were kept in the conditions the guys in Pollsmoor are kept and a journalist put the pictures in the Cape Times newspaper, animal rights activists would be in uproar. No programmes for sentenced juveniles, people often locked up 24 hours a day.’

A prisoner in Goodwood Prison

A week earlier a child and a young man had been shot dead during a gang fight in Lavender Hill, another suburb of run down flats and flapping washing. A protest meeting was organised by the New World Foundation and children stood around holding signs reading ‘Stop The Violence, Save Our Children’ and ‘End Police Corruption’. There was an impressive line-up at the front which included the local political representative, a preacher and members of the police with a good number of stars on their epaulettes.

The politician got the crowd going then handed over to the police. The crowd shouted them down and demanded the army be called in to quell the violence. They sat down and Abdus Salaam Ebrahim took the microphone. After his harangue I could understand why the police found PAGAD uncomfortable. As the meeting ended the crowd walked out chanting: ‘We want PAGAD.’

Soraya Nordien wasn’t sure about PAGAD. ‘They’re Moslem and we aren’t,’ she said when I met her at her small house in Lavender Hill. ‘We need more than that. We want decent houses, better schools, better streetlights, no more guns, the drug trade to be stopped, the police to be proper police. But it’s not going to happen. Just look around here. When it was apartheid the Coloured people weren’t white enough. Now we aren’t black enough. We’re a thrown-away people.’

Activists in Lavender Hill

She turned to me and demanded: ‘What can we do? You tell me. What can we do?’ I looked at the children standing around. Beautiful kids with bright, intelligent eyes dressed in clean clothes in all this mess. It was heartbreaking. ‘I don’t know,’ I said and found tears were rolling down my cheeks. She wiped them away with her thumb. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s okay. We’ll keep on struggling. It has to end sometime.’

As I drove out of Lavender Hill, it suddenly hit me what constitutes the most evil crime of them all. It’s the wrong we do our children. The ones who live in fear behind electric fences. The ones who are sold drugs, who get raped, many even before puberty. The ones who watch their parents falling apart trying to keep things together. The worst crime is the murder of a child’s dream. The trouble is, the case wouldn’t stand up in court – there’d be more victims than would fill ten football stadiums and who do you accuse?

It's discomforting to see pretty young girls among tough gang members in an area where rape figures are among the highest in the world

Footnote: Not long after this feature was researched, a gangster walked up to Soraya outside her house and shot her in the head. She did not survive. For her the end had come.

* All images © Don Pinnock

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