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“Drugs is a fight that we will never win”

Part three of our series on vigilantism in South Africa

Text by Christopher Clark. Photos by Shaun Swingler.

29 August 2017

Photo of three men against a wall
Three teenagers are forced to stand facing a wall during an Operation Wanya Tsotsi routine stop and search.

Members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi bang on the door of the shack and shout at those inside to open up. After a couple of minutes, there’s the sound of someone unlocking a chain, then the door opens a fraction with a creak of its rusty hinges.

The members barge the door open the rest of the way and pour inside to find two young men in hoodies with dazed expressions sitting on the bed. One of them is pulled outside and told to point out where he hides his drugs. Operation Wanya Tsotsi claim that these two men are known dealers, and that they usually bury some of their stash amongst the piles of garbage and the bushes outside their shack.

But once the first suspected dealer is outside he turns tail and makes a run for it down the street. A couple of Operation Wanya Tsotsi members chase after him into the darkness, but soon return, having lost track of him, cursing under their breath.

Back in the shack, things are not going well for the other suspected dealer. After a thorough and ruthless search, large quantities of cannabis, a few mandrax tablets and a purse full of wads of cash have been found, all of which Operation Wanya Tsotsi confiscates.

The members crowd around the man on the bed, demanding to know who he is selling drugs for. At first, the young man is afraid to talk, so Operation Wanya Tsotsi “loosen him up” with some firm slaps around the face interspersed with a few jabs to the thighs and ribs with a Taser. A female member grabs him by the balls. With each infliction of violence, the young man lets out a high-pitched scream, much to the amusement of younger Operation Wanya Tsotsi members.

Eventually, he gives up the name and address of the man he and his roommate buy their drugs from, a local kingpin also known to Operation Wanya Tsotsi. They find his shack not far from the young men’s, and bang on the door.

Inside, another search ensues while the kingpin, a wiry middle-aged man with a pockmarked face and sunken eyes, looks on with little more than vague annoyance. A substantial stash of cannabis kept in a large paint tin is confiscated. As Operation Wanya Tsotsi leave the shack, the kingpin says in Setswana: “I’m just going to go and find more to sell tomorrow. I don’t have anything else to do for work.”

In many ways, this incident seems to sum up the limitations of Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s attempts to combat crime in Galeshewe. According to Pantsi Obusitse, the group’s chairman, the township is becoming increasingly saturated by drugs, brought in by syndicates from Gauteng and even as far away as Cape Town.

Drugs, in turn, are the main driver of crime in Galeshewe, with users pushed to steal and rob to get a quick buck to feed their drug habits. “They’ll steal your cell phone at knife point, they’ll even stab you for it. Then they’ll sell it, even for R70, when maybe it’s worth R2,000, they don’t even care,” Obusitse says.

With no state protection, no training, limited weaponry, fluctuating membership numbers and police cases still open against some members, Obusitse says Operation Wanya Tsotsi can only go so far up the drugs food chain. Their operations are therefore largely restricted to routine stop and frisks and confiscating drugs from low level street peddlers and users.

There have, however, been a few notable exceptions. In June this year, Operation Wanya Tsotsi raided a house owned by two men and found an array of drugs stored in a shack behind the property, with a total street value of nearly R80,000. This was swiftly turned over to the police. Despite such large scale successes, Obusitse believes “drugs is a fight that we will never win.”

Members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi search the residence of suspected drug dealers in Galeshewe.

Many of Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s members blame the spiralling drug problems in Galeshewe on the township’s small but burgeoning Nigerian population. However, a Nigerian man GroundUp spoke to at a local tavern, who wished to remain anonymous, said Nigerians are discriminated against and harassed by Operation Wanya Tsotsi. He added that although some Nigerians in Galeshewe are forced to sell drugs because there are no other jobs available to them, many, like himself, are unfairly targeted.

While Operation Wanya Tsotsi may have overwhelming support in Galeshewe, there are inevitably some, such as the drug kingpins, who see them as a hindrance, and the higher the stakes, the more this could pose a risk to members of the group.

Already on one occasion in 2016, members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi were attacked by a group of migrant workers (South African). Five members ended up in hospital with knife wounds. Then in May this year, Operation Wanya Tsotsi had to call the SAPS Flying Squad to the rescue after they were cornered by a hostile group of residents who were threatening to kill them. Both incidents occurred in an area called Phutanang on the fringes of Galeshewe, a hotspot for drug dealers.

The threats have also extended beyond the members of the group themselves. Both Obusitse and deputy chairpersonTsepho Mathloko say their families have been repeatedly threatened. Mathloko recalls an incident when his wife was attacked at their home by men asking about Mathloko’s whereabouts. Afterwards, Mathloko says, “my wife was upset because she said that we protect other people instead of our own families, that we care more about other families we don’t even know than them. It hurts you to hear that.”

Mathloko says even though Operation Wanya Tsotsi quickly tracked down the suspected assailants and turned them over to the police, they were back on the streets again the next day, something he claims is all too common in Galeshewe. “So you have to ask yourself: Is our criminal justice system failing us or what?” 

Mathloko, Obusitse and other members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi also believe that there is widespread corruption within local SAPS, and that certain police officers are colluding with criminals. This claim is supported by Linja van Wyk, who runs a private security company in Kimberley. A SAPS officer that GroundUp spoke to who wished to remain anonymous also acknowledged that corruption is a “serious problem” in local police.

When GroundUp put these claims to Brigadier Mohale Ramatseba, the local SAPS spokesperson, his only response was that anyone with information about police officials involved in criminal or corrupt activities “is kindly requested to come forward for the purpose of dealing with such officials accordingly.”

Mandrax and dagga are the drugs most often confiscated during Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s routine stop and searches. Tik is also increasingly common.

In cities across South Africa, alleged corruption within SAPS has often been linked to the thriving illegal drugs trade and the impunity with which drug dealers are allowed to operate, probably nowhere more so than on the Cape Flats.

As with both Operation Wanya Tsotsi in Galeshewe and Mapogo A Mathamaga before them in Limpopo, neglected, angry and disillusioned communities on the Cape Flats have often felt compelled to take the law into their own hands. The most enduring example of this is found in People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), a vigilante group which forms another interesting point of comparison with Operation Wanya Tsotsi.

PAGAD, like Mapogo, first came into the spotlight in 1996 when a large crowd gathered at Gatesville mosque in Athlone and decided to take a stand against the spiraling problem of drug related crime. The crowd proceeded to murder Rashaad Staggie, a notorious Cape Flats drug dealer, outside his family’s home in Salt River. Staggie was shot multiple times and set alight.

PAGAD has been dogged by controversy (the group was implicated in a number of incidents of terrorism in Cape Town between 1998 and 2000) and burdened by the long-term imprisonment of a number of its leading members for murder.

Today, PAGAD continues to operate out of a small, rundown Athlone office that smells of old cigarette smoke, where executive members, many of whom have been part of PAGAD since the 1990s, claim the group’s focus is now more on proactively combating drugs. Activities include life skills workshops, prayer meetings and counselling. The PAGAD office also serves as a half-way house for a handful of recovering drug addicts, who sleep on mattresses on the floor.

According to Ebrahim Francis, a former school teacher, a PAGAD executive and one of its founding members, creating better opportunities for young people is the long term key to combating rampant gangsterism, violence and drug abuse on the Cape Flats: “I think work creation is a very important thing … because it’s poverty that is causing the negative mindsets and we really can start [to change that] by creating jobs for people. Anything short of that goes back to what people might call the violent option.”

Regarding the various crimes allegedly committed in the past by PAGAD’s imprisoned members, Francis says not enough consideration has been given to the context in which these crimes were committed: “If you fight something legitimately, it’s still possible that on the battlefield you’ll make mistakes. But when you’re really fighting something that is bad out there, I’m not going to point the finger at you.”

Don Pinnock, who has written extensively about gangsterism on the Cape Flats, says that after he witnessed a violent PAGAD raid on a known gangster’s residence he was asked by one of the members, “if you lived in these areas and these people were giving drugs to your children, what would you do?” Pinnock says this is “a question that’s very hard to answer. The cops aren’t doing anything. No one else is doing anything, so people are saying ‘we’ve got to do something.’”

Pinnock also says that there is a widespread sense in communities on the Cape Flats that many police officers are in collusion with the gangs and therefore “cannot be trusted” to combat gangsterism. This claim was most recently substantiated by the arrest of three SAPS officials who facilitated the provision of fraudulent and illegal firearm licences to gang leaders.

However, Pinnock insists that PAGAD’s approach is markedly out of touch, and that “they don’t seem to be willing to engage with anything other than what appears to be the violent option.”

“No one is going to take them seriously until they get with the program with regard to topics like decriminalisation and international debates around harm reduction,” he says. There is “not a chance in hell” that PAGAD have made any sort of meaningful impact on the proliferation of drugs, gangs and gangsterism on the Cape Flats, he says.

Ebrahim Francis of PAGAD gives a presentation at UCT, raising concerns about decriminalising drugs.

Nevertheless, PAGAD continues its long-term quest for legitimacy, sporadically attending community gatherings and marches across the Cape Flats and beyond. Recently the organisation gave a presentation about the dangers of decriminalising drugs at UCT, where it again called for more consideration of the local context.

Obusitse similarly feels that people need to understand the local context in Galeshewe before passing judgment on the methods of Operation Wanya Tsotsi. “The environment we grow up in pushes you towards gangs, towards drugs,” he says. “Whatever your family situation, if when you walk out of the house the environment is not conducive to a good life, it’s going to affect you that way. That’s why we need to change the environment.”

“The reality in this country is that when you call the police, they will not come when you need them, because they themselves have many challenges. Why is it that the police are just passing us while we are doing searches? Because they understand that we are helping them. So I am saying that I am prepared even to go to jail as long as it’s for doing the right thing.”

Don Pinnock says that Cape Flats communities have little faith in the ability of the police to combat rampant gangsterism.

Published originally on GroundUp .

© 2017 GroundUp. Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and GroundUp, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.