Risky business

2013-08-29 11:00

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His uncles were notorious gangsters – and his father is in prison for triple murder. Thankfully Jason Staggie has other talents.

He’s a moviemaker and writer who sports modern black-rimmed glasses, a massive Afro and a goatee. He’s also a member of one of South Africa’s most notorious families…

Yes, Jason ‘Dice’ Staggie, 29, is one of those Staggies. Some of his relatives are members of the Hard Livings gang on the Cape Flats, and his father, Solomon, was denied parole last month, a decade after being found guilty of kidnapping and three murders.

Jason’s uncle, Rashaad, was shot and burned alive in public in 1996 by Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), and Rashaad’s twin brother, Rashied, will be out on day parole on 24 September, after being found guilty of orchestrating the gang’s kidnapping and rape of a teenage girl.

‘I was only 12 when all that madness happened,’ Jason says. ‘People look at me and think, “It must’ve been rough,” but I didn’t feel that. I just pushed things away and looked towards the future. Now that I’m looking back and making a documentary about the gang, I can understand what it must’ve looked like to outsiders.’

Although Jason’s family tree makes for unsettling conversation, he’s happy to talk about his first novel, Risk, a rough tale about spoilt students who revel in drugs, alcohol, sex and a game called Risk that spirals out of control.

As the main character, a rich boy called Nelson, says, ‘Let’s keep shit simple. We’re going to go on missions that we draw from a hat. Risky missions. Risk, that’s all it is.’

‘The story is loosely based on things I’ve experienced, and other people’s stories I’ve distorted,’ Jason says. ‘The game itself was something I thought of as a child but never had the balls to act on, plus no one wanted to play it with me.’

The first-time author says he doesn’t think the Flats planted the seed for Risk and says he’d never be able to write the definitive Cape Flats novel. ‘It wouldn’t be authentic.’

Jason adds that after the violent 1996 incidents, he moved to a different suburb, matriculating from Groote Schuur High School before graduating from UCT with a degree in psychology. He’s currently busy with his honours through Unisa.

‘My mom, Cheryl, kept me away from my uncles,’ Jason says. ‘She was a teacher in Manenberg and Lavender Hill, and focused on getting my siblings and me to university one day. She met my dad on the Flats when her family and the Staggies were moved there because of the Group Areas Act.’

Jason says the Staggies weren’t gangsters in the beginning. ‘But as the gangs grew and started making money, the brothers thought it would be an easy way to make money. My dad later became Christian [the Staggies were Muslim] and lived outside the family and gang for a while. When Rashaad was killed, my dad – and this is what I think happened – had a mental breakdown and got involved with the Hard Livings again. That’s when that bad thing happened…’

Jason works on his documentary film about gangsterism whenever he raises extra funds. His uncle Achmat, another high-ranking member of the Hard Livings and prison gang the 28s, is helping him with information.

He’s interviewed gang members, families and criminologists, ‘but now that my uncle Rashied is coming out in September, everything will change,’ he says. ‘It will take the whole thing further.’

Jason is unsure about whether the new generation is pressured to join gangs.

‘I don’t think my cousins are involved with the Hard Livings, but they hang around and look bored. My mom supported me, and there were books in our house. It made a big difference. No hardcore gangster wants his kids to become gangsters, especially if they feel they themselves were forced into it. So there’s an effort to promote teaching and other options. Sometimes I think if I grew up in the same circumstances as my dad and uncles, maybe I would’ve done the same. They were bored and didn’t really go to school. And there were 10 kids in a small council flat, with a dad who only sometimes showed his face…’

An absent father is something he also knows, but his mom supported him to get his degree and travel overseas. He worked for charity organisations in Ireland, studied film in the Czech Republic, gave English classes in South Korea and now teaches English to foreigners in Cape Town.

‘My book has a social conscience,’ he says. ‘The characters feel trapped by society and try to break free by overstepping the boundaries. There is lots of confusion among the youth. I experienced it at university. It’s a symptom of boredom. In the townships, people can tik the day away. They feel there’s no future.’

While he understands why people join gangs, he doesn’t understand what they achieve with the money. ‘What’s the point of being big in a gang and not being able to move out of Manenberg? You’re a millionaire, but you live in the ghetto? Either they feel safer there or they simply don’t want to broaden their horizons.’

Although Jason doesn’t have much contact with his extended family, he knows they are surprised by his life choices. They’ll ask, ‘Why are you travelling?’ or ‘How do you write a book?’ These are things which are outside their frame of reference. I hope this doccie will help germinate ideas about solving the gangster problem.’

Maybe that’s how this new-generation Staggie will reconcile the present with the past – with distance, a camera and a focus on the future.

• Risk, R192, is published by Umuzi.

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