Mark Shaw, Breaking the Bombers: How the Hunt for Pagad Created a Crack Police Unit (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2023)

THE NEGOTIATED political settlement of the early 1990s opened up South Africa in more ways than one. By mid-decade, Cape Town was awash with drugs, in particular tik, creating deep concern and fear in middle-class coloured suburbs. The result was a community movement that became known as Pagad (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs). It soon turned to vigilantism encouraged by the high visibility and hubris of drug dealers. Scores were murdered and the police often turned an expedient blind eye.

But the situation was complicated by the background presence of Qibla, the Islamist group inspired by the Iranian Revolution, trained by Libya, and led by Achmad Cassiem. It had refused to endorse the political settlement. Whether Pagad was a Qibla front from the outset, or later infiltrated by it, remains an open question. But its influence turned a violent anti-gangster outfit into a jihadist movement in confrontation with the State.

Between 1996 and 2000, four hundred bombs were planted or thrown in Cape Town, most of them in 1998 and 1999. Perhaps the most notorious was that at Planet Hollywood on the V&A Waterfront, although pizza outlets and gay clubs were also targeted. Police stations at Bellville, Lansdowne and, most extraordinary, at Caledon Square were attacked. A policeman was murdered in public and another was lucky to survive; and Piet Theron, a magistrate, was killed. At least seven state witnesses died, two of them at a supposed safe house in remote Gouda. This all happened within six years of liberation, yet to the wider world South Africa’s transition was a miracle. Even within the country, press coverage was somewhat muted. There was a significant level of civic defiance, however: ‘Stick that in your pipe bomb,’ wrote Jane Raphaely in a Femina editorial in September 2000 just before the final, foiled bombing at the Keg and Swan in Bellville.

Initially the gangs put aside their rivalries to create an umbrella body, the Firm, to protect the system of criminal governance and economy that embraced much of the Cape Flats. But on 4 August 1996 in Rylands, they and the South African public woke up, with the very public and gruesome murder of notorious Hard Livings gangster Rashaad Staggie by a Pagad mob. Gangsters continued to die in numbers usually in drive-by shootings.

None of this had been anticipated and Pagad was not initially taken seriously. The police reaction was sclerotic. Part of the problem was ongoing integration of operatives from several sides of a liberation struggle; another, adjustment to the strictures and limitations of a new, human rights-based Constitution. Police could no longer beat confessions out of suspects and expect the results to stand up in court. And once the bombing started, the police were caught in a bizarre historical bind. In the apartheid-era, the bomb squad fell under the security branch. Not only did they defuse bombs, but they planted them as well, notoriously in the massive Johannesburg explosions at Khotso House and COSATU House. In their new role they were also now Pagad targets. Shaw describes the devastating effect of a pipe bomb especially in confined spaces and when liberally packed with shrapnel. They were inherently unstable (essentially improvised explosive devices or IEDs) and a severe danger to bombers, but they became more efficient when fitted with timers. Later, car bombs were added to the repertoire.

In mid-1996 moderate Pagad leaders were ejected and vanguardist and more violent elements prevailed. By the end of the year, Qibla Islamist influence was overt. Pagad lied consistently that it was not involved in targeted killings, blaming gang warfare and also the police. Since they also criticised the police for taking insufficient action against (or even protecting) gangs, they wanted it both ways. Pagad/Qibla had perhaps 120 mujahideen organised in twenty cells known as G-force. The movement even had a martyr, Achmat Najaar, killed at the Waterfront ostensibly by the police but possibly an inside job. By the late 1990s Pagad was ambitiously taking on gangsters and the State simultaneously, while also targeting moderate Muslims and indulging in false flag operations.

This dangerous organisation was led from 1997 by the unstable Abdus-Salaam Ebrahim. Part of Pagad’s internal conflict involved the traditional spoils of violence, which were supposed to be donated to the cause but some of this may have ended up elsewhere. Its most prolific killer, Ebrahim Jeneker, seems to have started off freelance and became a serial murderer of drug merchants and potential state witnesses. He eventually faced 138 charges of bewildering variety; received three life sentences plus 116 years; served 21 of them; and is now back in prison for breaking parole conditions. Ebrahim the leader was convicted on the strength of the Staggie lynching and the evidence of video footage supplied by the SABC that placed him at the scene. The role of the media in this context was itself highly controversial.

This mayhem in Cape Town eventually created national political ructions: Steve Tshwete correctly described it as a civil war. Shaw credits Percy Sonn and Bulelani Ngcuka, the first director of the National Prosecuting Authority, with initiating a prosecution-led strategy that led to arrests. Even more significant was the establishment of the highly successful but short-lived Scorpions. There was also an undercover operation run by Mzwandile Petros which had success in infiltration through at least one former, turned drug user, although the methods were messy and dubious. And in Johannesburg the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) recruited Ayob Mungalee, the local Pagad head. Arrested in the notorious Karoo ambush he went to jail because of the failure of state agencies to co-operate. (He led a long, charmed life and was murdered by gangsters only recently.)

The small war ended abruptly and as unexpectedly as it had erupted. One factor was a determination to put kingpins behind bars where they did not fare well psychologically. This opened them up to pressure to negotiate and the process was led by the NIA and Barry Gilder. Little is known about this controversial move which was much resented in other arms of government. There is the possibility that individuals were paid off to stop the violence, which, if true, would be a major scandal. Today there are two Pagads that are difficult to differentiate from the gangs, and their Cape Flats economy and governance, which are as significant now as ever. Qibla has apparently vanished, but may be behind overtly pro-Hamas elements.

Shaw has written a remarkably lucid book about this largely forgotten episode in recent South African history. He conveys a vivid picture of the protagonists and events and puts them clearly into context, political and social. His research was based on contemporary reporting, surviving documents including court records and numerous interviews, although many people would not go on record even a quarter of a century later. Some had left the country. There are numerous cold cases and many gaps, but Shaw expresses confidence that he has enough to reconstruct an accurate history. Indeed, this book suggests so.

But his conclusions are bleak. Gangsterism and the drug trade are as much of a problem now than in the 1990s. The hope then was that the Scorpions employing their independent triple approach to law enforcement (intelligence gathering, investigation and prosecution) would keep organised crime on the back foot. Instead, its leading light Ngcuka was victim of fake allegations of apartheid-era spying and the Scorpions were soon disbanded because they were getting too close to ANC criminals intent on looting.

The ANC under Jacob Zuma aided and abetted criminal syndicates and is now a willing associate of taxi and business forums that operate as mafias countrywide while masquerading as a governing party. Pagad’s damage was largely regional and relatively short-lived. The ANC has systematically wrecked critical state institutions to suit the looting inclinations of its cadres and set the country on course for failed state status. South Africa has had many varied seeds for great success; but they are consistently uprooted by the amoral with no respect for civic values.