Voices | Gangsters as people's champions

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Former gang leader Rashied Staggie was murdered in 2019. He and his brother, Rashaad, were leaders of the Hard Livings gang. Rashaad was shot and then burnt alive in 1996 by members of the vigilante group Pagad. In 2003, Rashied was convicted for kidnapping and ordering the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl. Photo: Liza van de Venter
Former gang leader Rashied Staggie was murdered in 2019. He and his brother, Rashaad, were leaders of the Hard Livings gang. Rashaad was shot and then burnt alive in 1996 by members of the vigilante group Pagad. In 2003, Rashied was convicted for kidnapping and ordering the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl. Photo: Liza van de Venter


In early January this year, Durban, South Africa’s second-largest city, was rocked by the fatal shooting of alleged gangster and drug kingpin Yaganathan Pillay, popularly known as Teddy Mafia. According to reports, Teddy Mafia was revered by some in his community of Shallcross as a local Robin Hood.

Shortly after he was killed, community members, some of whom were probably Teddy Mafia’s foot soldiers, took the law into their own hands. They apprehended the two alleged shooters, beheading them and setting their bodies alight in broad daylight.

A few days later, Teddy Mafia was laid to rest. The scene at his funeral echoed the community’s reverence for him, with people praising his name and chanting, “Viva Mafia, Viva” and “Viva, people’s champion”.

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What transpired in Shallcross is something that can be found across all of South Africa’s volatile, gang-ridden areas. There are many Teddy Mafia-type gang leaders who possess a great deal of power and influence in the communities they reside in.

Teddy Mafia, the ‘go-to guy of Shallcross’.

Gangsterism has existed in South Africa since the late 1800s in Johannesburg’s mines. However, it only deepened its roots in the 1950s, when disadvantaged coloured, Indian and black working class communities utilised group vigilantism as a mechanism for protection from apartheid authorities and criminal groups in their areas.

As the vigilante groups grew, criminal elements began to filter through their ranks and their focus turned to organised crime.

Gradually, people leaving prisons infiltrated the groups, and vigilante groups became indistinguishable from the criminal gangs they had initially aimed to eradicate.


South Africa has a complicated history of the use of gangs by the apartheid government in the fight against anti-apartheid activists.

Meanwhile, other gangs cooperated with anti-apartheid activists and members of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, before 1994.

In fact, gang leaders such as Rashied Staggie, the leader of the influential Hard Livings gang who was killed in December 2019, argued in 1997 that the ANC owed a debt to these gangs for the support they had provided to the movement during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The drastic rise in criminal activity since 1994 has been exacerbated by the lack of meaningful transformation, as well as growing inequalities.

Factors that continue to contribute to the growth and expansion of gangs in disadvantaged communities include:

- The lack of access to opportunities and work;

- Marginalisation and segregation of coloured and black communities;

- Poor service delivery, poverty and deprivation; and

- The failures of the justice system and policing.

Areas across South Africa – such as the townships on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, Northern Areas in Gqeberha and Chatsworth in Durban – to name but a few – have become well known for their growing gang cultures and criminal gang activities.

High levels of violence and crime in the townships, such as Soweto in Johannesburg and Gugulethu in Cape Town, have also been linked to gangsterism and organised crime.

How and why are the gangs and gang leaders so powerful, admired and/or feared in their communities?

How is it possible that so many in Shallcross felt so enamored with and indebted to Teddy Mafia that they found it necessary to defend his name and chant praises at his funeral? Are gangsters really the people’s champions?

Gangsters have been able to utilise the failures of government to their own benefit.

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Socioeconomic challenges, poverty and inequality have helped the gangs integrate themselves into the social structures of their communities. They have established themselves as critical structures in the provision of finances, food, job opportunities and other necessities to struggling community members.

By assisting their communities, gangs have been able to win or buy the support and loyalty of their fellow community members.

This is evident in the reaction to Teddy Mafia’s death and the “Viva people’s champion” chants at his funeral.

Those who murdered his alleged assassins may have been his loyal soldiers, fearful community members or the beneficiaries of his support.


Whoever they are, they have been failed by the society and the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy – and probably had no choice but to either join his gang or accept his support.

For some, Teddy Mafia was probably a champion. He may have provided jobs to the unemployed community members, paid the school fees and bought uniforms for those whose parents could not afford to, or bought food for those who were starving.

If he did this, it was because he needed the community’s silence or their support to ensure that his “business” activities could go on uninterrupted.

South Africa is not unique in this regard. Pablo Emilio Escobar, for example, did the same in Colombia.

He spent some of the profits from his drug sales on building clinics, hospitals and homes for the poor, as well as on funding food banks.

Escobar did this not only to improve his public image and to get local communities on his side, but also to step into the breach where the Colombian government was absent.

For people who live in the disadvantaged areas of South Africa where gangs operate, there are limited options for survival.

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For many, moving out of these areas is not an option, since moving requires resources that the poor and vulnerable do not have.

Some resist the gangs and suffer the consequences, while others sit quietly and hope to survive. There are also those who join the gangs out of sheer desperation, seeing no other options.

The same scenario applies to prison gangs, which utilise fear and desperation to force vulnerable incarcerated youngsters to join gangs in jails.

Gang leaders are aware of the problems and fractures in South African society, and they exploit each and every socioeconomic, political and other challenge facing vulnerable communities.

They do this to recruit members or to buy the community’s support or silence. They also bribe police officers, prison wardens, politicians and government officials.

It should not come as a surprise that these gangsters and criminals who provide assistance to their communities are seen as the people’s champions in a country such as South Africa.

This is a country where the people don’t trust government officials, police officers, or their local councils.

This is a country where billions of rands are stolen or spent irregularly every year by politicians and their friends, and where hardly anyone ever pays the price for corruption and stealing.

It is the country where, during the Covid-19 pandemic, government officials stole billions meant for the poor and for the fight against the deadly virus.

If politicians, many of whom keep failing the country and the people while running mafia-style patronage networks and looting taxpayers’ funds without consequence, can claim to be the people’s champions, who is to say that the gangsters who sometimes provide support to members of their communities are not also the people’s champions?


Around the world, gangs have been involved in the local and national politics of many countries.

In Jamaica, for example, the past few decades have seen gang leaders use their funds, power and influence to help politicians win elections.

In return, politicians allowed them to operate their “empires” with impunity.

Elsewhere, gangsters have had their own political aspirations. Escobar, for example, got elected to the Colombian Congress in 1982, although he was forced to stand down after the country’s justice minister publicly called him a drug trafficker. Despite this, Escobar was able to run his drug enterprise for many years with the help of threats and assassinations, and by bribing the authorities and politicians.

While South African politics is not (yet!) on the same level as that of Colombia and Jamaica at one time, there are links between the involvement of gangs in politics and public life.

In 1996, gangs in the Western Cape formed an organisation called the Community Outreach Forum (CORE). It claimed to be interested in peace, calling for political engagement with the authorities. CORE also demanded that government protect its members from vigilante attacks by another organisation, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, commonly known as Pagad.

Members of Pagad march to take back their communit
Members of Pagad march to take back their communities.

Research conducted by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime shows that in the Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Bay, gangs have been involved in politics and business since 1994.

Gangs have benefited from “tenderpreneurship”, securing government tenders and contracts for the provision of public services by their formal businesses, through their links with the local politicians and ward councillors.

Elsewhere, Caryn Dolley has written about the involvement of gangsters in South African politics.

The new political party Patriotic Alliance (PA), for example, is led by former gangster Gayton McKenzie. Staggie, one of the most prominent South African gang leaders of the past three decades, was also a member of the PA before he was killed.

Every time gang violence escalates in South Africa, there are calls for the army to step in and assist the SA Police Service in the fight against gangsterism. However, this is not a solution to the country’s gang violence and organised crime.

The army is not trained for interventions in civilian communities, and a “war on gangs” has never brought stability and peace anywhere in the world. More plausible interventions should include improvements in policing and the justice system.

Other key interventions include addressing the socioeconomic challenges facing underprivileged communities across South Africa and improving the livelihoods of vulnerable people.

Government must improve the delivery of basic services and the education system, create employment opportunities and address apartheid spatial planning.

In addition, government should work closely with those who are already embedded and working in vulnerable communities across the country.

This includes working with community initiatives and projects aimed at combating crime and violence in gang-ridden areas. Many of these organisations require support and resources, but have struggled for many years to get government support.

Until socioeconomic conditions and realities improve for the millions of vulnerable South Africans, they will continue to be exploited by criminals and gangsters.

There may possibly still be a small chance to turn the tide. This requires good governance, the eradication of corruption, better policing, a more effective justice system, improved public education, job creation and socioeconomic transformation.

Basically, everything that has been promised since 1994 but has yet to be delivered.

Raga works at Nelson Mandela University. Heleta works at Durban University of Technology.This article first appeared in Africa Is a Country.


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