Drugs Wars & the Legacy of Apartheid in Cape Town by Niko Vorobyov
For more deeper dives into the global drug trade, check out Dopeworld Niko's irreverent ode to gonzo journalism, in which he documents his travels around the globe as he explores the use of recreational drugs in various cultures.
Table Mountain towers over the skyline of Cape Town like a monolith. When the Dutch settlers first arrived here in 1652 they contemplated digging a canal around the cape into an island, separating their colony from ‘Darkest Africa’. The city itself isn’t actually that big: you can comfortably walk from one side to the other in less than an hour. Cross a few mountains and you can see dozens of smaller towns: all still a part of Cape Town. With its breathtaking mountain coastline, the South African capital is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
For the best part of the 20th century, South Africa was ruled by a white supremacist system known as apartheid, under which those unlucky enough not to be of fully European stock weren’t allowed to vote, intermarry or even enter white areas without a pass. South Africa’s crime epidemic is a legacy shaped by apartheid.
Behind Table Mountain lies a vast, barren stretch of sand dunes where the city’s black, *Coloured (mixed-race) and Asian population was dumped in the years of apartheid. These are the Cape Flats. So dangerous is their reputation that my first Uber driver didn’t wanna go, claiming he got carjacked in that very same area last week. Eventually, I found a Zimbabwean immigrant to take me to Khayelitsha, the newest and biggest township in the city. As we passed the corrugated shacks and houses I clocked a row of brown army trucks parked in the distance, who’d been deployed a few months earlier to fight the gang epidemic. Just in case, I slid my phone down the front of my pants.
*Coloured, not ‘people of colour’. This word might raise eyebrows in Britain and the US but it’s not something that will upset South Africans. It’s the actual name of the ethnic group.
Khayelitsha is a new neighbourhood built in the ‘80s. The 1950 Group Areas Act forced the entire non-white populations out of cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg proper and into townships, squalid ghettos where crime and street gangs festered. Apartheid sorted people by their racial classification so Khayelitsha is a black township, whereas Manenberg is mostly Coloured. Police rarely went in except to pick up bribes and hunt down ANC militants.
Resistance intensified in the 1980s, and the apartheid regime collapsed under international pressure and internal turmoil. When apartheid ended in 1994, the cops were no longer preoccupied with maintaining the status quo and criminals were free to start terrorising the whiter, wealthier neighbourhoods.
With my guides I went to a shack round the back of a house. Three men were sitting around: Shooter—middle-aged, missing most of his teeth, the oldest and clearly the leader; Leo, who mostly kept quiet and listened to music; and a thin, creepy guy who we’ll call Spider, very much the sort of character you wouldn’t want to run into a dark alley at night… or anywhere else, for that matter.
Spider squatted down in the corner of the room and began playing with his knife. I couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses but I could feel him checking me out. I couldn’t work him out. I’ve interviewed British hard men, El Chapo’s family, and Filipino death squads, and this was the scariest interview I’ve done. Who the hell is that guy?
All of them were smoking Mandrax, a cheap local sedative, out of what looked like an improvised pipe made from a broken bottleneck. Passing it between themselves, their heads surrounded by thick clouds of smoke, their talking got more slurred as the effects of the drug kicked in.
“Gangs have been here a long time; they were born here,” Shooter, the oldest one, said. “But now a lot of the fighting is about drugs.”
Prohibition created a gangster economy. White folks hadn’t really bothered about weed, or dagga, being toked by natives out in the bush. But the arrival of Indian ‘coolies’ (migrant workers) in the 19th century blew the ganja smoke right to their doorsteps and in 1870, like in America, weed was banned as a threat to the white ruling class. Because the apartheid rulers thought non-whites couldn’t handle their drink, only a handful of liquor stores were allowed in their areas. By the 1940s, organised crime outfits such as the Globe Gang were running ganja into Cape Town and operating a network of shebeens: illegal taverns or drinking dens like the speakeasies of 1920s America.
Just like America, drug laws helped fill overpacked jails. With over 160,000 inmates, South Africa has the highest prison population on the continent. Prison rarely changes you for the better; instead it makes you angry and bitter and introduces you to a more hard-core class of criminal than you’d normally associate with. You get more deeply embedded in the criminal lifestyle, and the connections you make allow you to be a more successful crook. Prisons are like a job board for gangs. In a place where everyone’s trying to fuck you over, your homies are the only ones that got your back. Safety in Numbers and all that.
“I first went to prison in Pollsmoor for housebreaking, and that’s when I joined the 26 Numbers gang,” Shooter explained. “In prison, if you’re not in a gang you’re treated like child. You are a frans; you are a nobody. You don’t even have a mattress to sleep with on the floor.”
The Numbers (26s, 27s, and 28s) prison gangs can supposedly trace their origin story back to the resistance of Zulu bandit Nongoloza to his white colonial captors. Legend goes that back in the 19th century, Nongoloza found a wise man named Po, who told him hard work is for suckers. They gathered together a group of followers and hung out in disused mineshafts, robbing anyone who went by. As the gang was rounded up and scattered through the jails they formed three factions—the 26s, 27s, and 28s.
Nongoloza and his merry band of outlaws were no Robin Hoods: one of their favourite pastimes was taking passing black miners for what little they had. Nevertheless, the Numbers twisted his story into a resistance to apartheid in the form of white prison guards. To reach the higher rankings of the gang, you had to stab a warder.
As an apartheid state, South Africa was under international embargo, and border security was tight to stop ANC guerrillas slipping in from nearby countries. As soon as that ended, drugs came pouring in: the Nigerian mob imported coke while the Chinese triads swapped exotic shellfish for crystal meth. Street gangs made up the workforce for this growing economic sector. In prison, the drug lords bunked up with the Numbers, bringing an army of hardened convicts into their ranks. By the 1990s the Firm, Cape Town’s biggest drug syndicate, had aligned with the 28s while their rivals, the Americans, with the 26s.
“When you are a man inside, a general, all the shops pay. All that is here is under us. It’s like a tax. No-one can sell here who is not a Number or you will be robbed all the time,” Shooter explained between wafts of Mandrax smoke. “The Nigerians give it to the gang members who sell on the corners.”
So wait, the Nigerian mafia works under the Number too?
“Yes, of course. Anyone. If you have money when you go inside you can speed it up [membership]. Even white guys like you.”
While I felt enthralled about the prospect of being an honorary Zulu, I had to press on. Spider pulled out a huge knife and crushed up another Mandrax pill.
So what are the fuzz doing about this?
“The police? Ha! They’re making the crime worse,” said Shooter. “Money makes the world go round. We know the policemen; we drink with them. When they’re off-duty, they want to be like the gangsters. If there is a raid the owner of the shop will be alerted by the top policeman.”
Knowing the cops can’t protect them, exasperated citizens formed vigilante groups like PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs), which famously lynched a gang leader alive. In 1996, they dragged Rashaad Staggie from his jeep, shot him in the head, set him on fire then riddled his lifeless body with bullets—all in full view of the police.
Shuffling sideways like a crab, Spider suddenly appeared in the centre of the room.
“It’s my turn to speak, I’m talking now,” he murmured in a haze. “Every time need money for tik [meth], I rob. I don’t ask, I rob. You see this phone? I don’t steal in this community, I go to Hanover Park. Once, the community found me, stripped me like the day I was born, and beat me. Stabbed me in the arm.”
Still sat down, Spider turned over his left arm to show a massive scar. But self-professed hoodlums aren’t the only target of these self-appointed avengers. This might be surprising for a Rainbow Nation that’s been through apartheid, but many non-white South Africans harbour sentiments that wouldn’t be out of place at a MAGA rally. In September, flyers circulated around Johannesburg, reading: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, ON SELLING OF DRUGS…. BY FOREIGN NATIONALS…. South Africa for South Africans.” Twelve died in the riots that followed. Previous waves of violence broke out in 2015 and 2008.
Immigrants, especially Nigerians, are accused of poisoning the nation’s youth. However, even ignoring the fact that South Africa’s narco world mainly consists of local talent, if every Nigerian left tomorrow people would still want to get high. And if foreigners won’t bring the goods, South Africans are perfectly capable of getting it themselves.
It was time for me to leave, so I fist-bumped Shooter and got out of there. But even with the army, Cape Town’s gang wars aren’t cooling down anytime soon. Just a day after I left, the news broke out that Rashied Staggie—twin brother of Rashaad Staggie, lynched by PAGAD in the ‘90s—was gunned down in his car. Rashied died on the same street as his brother, 23 years later.
With thanks to Siya, Brian and Nomaphelo at the 18 Gangster Museum.
About Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov:
Just as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations did for the world of food, Dopeworld is an intoxicating journey into the world of drugs. From the cocaine farms in South America to the streets of Manila, Dopeworld traces the emergence of psychoactive substances and our intimate relationship with them. As a former drug dealer turned subversive scholar, with unparalleled access to drug lords, cartel leaders, street dealers and government officials, journalist Niko Vorobyov attempts to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the drug world.
At once a bold piece of journalism and a hugely entertaining travelogue, Dopeworld is a brilliant and enlightening journey across the world, revealing how drug use is at the heart of our history, our lives, and our future.