BOOK REVIEW | Shapeshifters, spooks and scoundrels: Exposing Cape Town's grimy underbelly

The Enforcers by Caryn Dolley, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
The Enforcers by Caryn Dolley, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Once in a while, a truly special journalist emerges on the scene. And if one is lucky, some alignment of forces results in one having the fortune to work with them.

Caryn Dolley is such a journalist. I happen to be one of those lucky ones who had the privilege and pleasure of having worked with her over the years, both at the Cape Times, where she started as an intern, and at News24, where she really got to grips with – and owned – the story of the vicious battle for control over Cape Town's bustling nightclub scene.

Now, years of research and legwork have culminated in The Enforcers: Inside Cape Town's Deadly Nightclub Battles, a cracking and disturbing read.

I asked Dolley when she really started properly investigating the Cape Town club protection racket.

"Sometime in 2012, someone phoned into the newsroom I was working in, requesting that I interview him," she says.

"I eventually did and it turned out he was a suspected underworld figure. This interview resulted in other interviews and I started picking up on what was happening on the ground."

The man who requested the interview was Igor Russol, best friend of underworld kingpin Yuri "the Russian" Ulianitski who was killed in a hit in Milnerton, Cape Town, in 2007.

Back then, Dolley was already an ace at extracting scintillating quotes from those she spoke to. Whether she is talking to a hardened gangster, a top cop or a victim of violence, she has a way of putting them at ease. It is a rare and special skill.

As former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois says in the forward to the book: "She was fearless, as the big powerful men who mistook her diminutive size and gentle manner for weakness soon learned."

In the Cape Times interview, Russol – who claimed to have replace Uliantski as the "new Russian" in town – told Dolley: "In Russia if you have a problem with someone, you meet them face to face and shoot them if you have to. Here, it's different. Here people get other people to sort their problems out," he says. "If you fuck with me, I look you in the eyes and say, 'I kill you'."

After this interview, Dolley painstakingly began to try connecting the dots.

"Gradually, over the following years, I kept track of certain figures and court cases until it became clear to me I wasn't just covering individual murders, legal matters and political stances. I realised it was all entwined and much deeper and broader than what was playing out in the public arena."

And so began a fascinating, and often scary, investigation into the grubby underbelly of the Mother City, with a veritable rogues gallery of players – from "businessmen", to corrupt and corruption-busting cops, to gangsters, and, of course, politicians.

In The Enforcers, Dolley writes eloquently about the effect that the involvement of intelligence agencies have had on the underworld, and vice versa: "Corrupt hands shaping the underworld purposely keep it amorphous and ambiguous so that it can't be pinned down and so that the truth diffuses. They deliberately add to the murk – the notions of right and wrong, good and bad often seem to be highly polished surfaces reflecting each other, the virtuous painted as corrupt and the corrupt painted as virtuous. Adding to this confusion is perception. It is undoubtedly one of the mechanisms used to intentionally pump smoke into mirrored underworld alleyways, and some intelligence officers and proxies in this realm are masters at clandestinely constructing and tweaking situations, creating scenarios they want people to believe."

I ask her about this "love affair" between spooks, criminals and dirty politicians. A relationship of convenience that goes back to the days of apartheid, but one which is still very much alive.

It's a "critical problem", she says, "exactly because it can't be pinpointed and measured."

"The underworld is designed to deceive and deflect. There've been major shake-ups in the intelligence and policing arenas, some of which are still to be carried out, but it's difficult to eliminate a problem created to shapeshift around scrutiny.

"When state operatives and politicians side, or are set up to side, with criminals or underworld figures, this equates to a form of so-called state capture. If these corrupt relationships result in murder, for example, a police officer smuggling a firearm to a gangster, it can be argued it's fatal state capture.

"This is undoubtedly a massive problem, yet we can only sense the periphery of it via monitoring related arrests and actions or piecing patterns together."

The Enforcers goes a long way in exposing the world of those who "shapeshift around scrutiny". It is both a fascinating and scary story. One that will make you see Cape Town, and the country, in a new way.

Dolley received threats to herself and her family on numerous occasions. At one point, News24 even had to hire bodyguards to watch her back, and she didn't always sleep at home.

But nothing deterred her from getting to the bottom of this murky and dangerous world. What is more, she retained her whacky sense of humour and would often regale her colleagues and friends with some of the weirder encounters she had.

We should all be grateful to journalists like Dolley who, at some risk to themselves, help explain the world in which we live… both above and below the surface.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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