By Rustum Kozain
It was some time after the August 1996 killing of gang leader Rashaad Staggie by members of the anti-crime organisation, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad), in Cape Town. A Muslim funeral procession, on its way to bury a fallen Pagad member, was making it’s way across Liesbeeck Parkway about 50m from where I lived in a rented ground-floor flat. I was standing on the stoep, watching the procession, knowing it to be a funeral, but wondering whose it might be.
It was a large procession, of maybe 1,500 men, most wearing a variety of fezzes and koffias – the headdress recognised as ‘Muslim’ in South Africa – but others wearing the black-and-white or red-and-white scarves generally associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. One of my neighbours, a white woman in her late 30s, was standing on her stoep a few metres away, hand to her mouth, visibly perturbed by a sight that should have been familiar to her at least through media images from the 1980s, when the Muslim burials of activists were highly politicised and publicised events. (Although reporting on political gatherings was prohibited by the state of emergency laws at the time, covering the events of a ‘funeral’ could slip through loopholes.) I don’t know where the Pagad procession started but, at the crossing where I saw it, the men were still a few kilometres away from the Observatory cemetery. I imagine that, like the funerals of anti-Apartheid activists, Pagad had decided to politicise the funeral by having an extended procession, a procession which could advertise Pagad through several neighbourhoods, manipulating, in other words, the public gaze.
As I switched between looking at my gawping neighbour and at the procession, I felt at once familiar with the procession as Muslim custom and ritual and, at the same time, complicit with my neighbour – estranged, as if it was something exotic, neither connected to my experience from childhood, nor to common newspaper and television images of the funerals of Muslim anti-Apartheid activists. Instead, I ‘recognised’ it as more in keeping with CNN or BBC, news coverage, with their images from that vague region of Muslim rebellion known as ‘the Middle East’. I was experiencing the Pagad procession as mediatised by the northern, anglophone image-makers and producers of meaning that enjoy global reach.
Pagad as a phenomenon seems to be riven by this ambiguity: a local event that seems to have more in consonance with something elsewhere than even an own national tradition. In the killing of Rashaad Staggie (shot then set alight), Pagad shared something more tangible than slogans with the anti-Apartheid struggle, during which those suspected of spying or otherwise collaborating with the regime were sometimes ‘necklaced’ (petrol-soaked tyre placed around a person’s neck and set alight).
Exacerbating this ambiguity is an ambivalence that vigilantism inspires in law-abiding citizens. We want to celebrate a baddie getting their just desserts, yet, being law-abiding and therefore successfully manufactured as subjects of the modern nation state, we are fearful of the implications and consequences of vigilantism. The state is required by its citizens to regulate life to the mutual benefit of all citizens. By its nature, vigilantism accuses the state of failures in this regard. But because it goes further than protest and makes manifest this accusation in action, it steps outside the bounds of the acceptable as sanctioned by the state.
Apart from the vigilante’s immediate target in the criminal, vigilantism confronts the state with an act of violence. When violence has to be used, we want the state to take care of it. And often we believe in this principle despite overwhelming evidence that the state cannot and/or will not perform its duties. Vigilantism is thus cast beyond the pale, and not in the realm of ‘citizen justice’. Yet, many of us might not bat an eyelid when someone beats up a burglar caught red-handed or manhandles a street child for being a ‘public nuisance’. Vigilantism in general, and Pagad specifically, blurs the line between legitimate and non-legitimate acts of violence. But where lies a reasonable demarcation? More than double-meanings, what are the multiple valences that emanate from Pagad, the confusions and contradictions around a local phenomenon taken up in – and itself buying into – some global spectre of… who’s invention?
If I perceived the procession through the modalities of images from elsewhere, what are the other lines that might be said to come together in Pagad as a local node of a global network of lines? Who are the meaning makers? When is something ‘global’ and when is something ‘globalised’ – made to be or framed as global?
The killing of Rashaad Staggie is an instructive example to explore. His murder was the chaotic and atavistic culmination of a march by Pagad to confront him and his brother, Rashied, both leaders of the Hard Livings gang. Pagad had been actively organising as an anti-crime movement in the context of escalating gang violence, other criminal activity and more effective drug distribution – a tide that the South African Police Service (SAPS) could not stem.
While Pagad would eventually garner members from working-class areas, an anecdote by a gangster suggests that the anti-crime organisation was probably formed in middle-class neighbourhoods and as a result of founding members’ relatives or children being caught up in drug addiction. Ted Legget quotes the story in which Jackie Lonte, leader of the Americans gang, and purported also to have introduced crack cocaine to the Cape Flats, would keep users’ possessions when they ran up debts:
They had to pawn their cars and their guns and so on. These were the kids of rich Muslim Indian families. Many occasions they would get phone calls from Jackie Lonte or his men to demand money from the parents of these kids, whom he held captive at one of his venues and if they didn’t pay… then he would threaten the families. So Jackie was in Ecstasy, speed – all kinds of drugs and so Jackie was the reason why Pagad was formed.
This chimes with separate anecdotes I’ve heard, at that time, about the popularity of crack cocaine among middle-class Muslim youth in Cape Town.
The SAPS had been monitoring Pagad for some time but did not consider the organisation as a threat to ‘law and order’ and effectively ignored it. Within months of the murder of Staggie, however, Pagad had broadened its scope to include acts of ‘urban terror’. In addition to the mounting tally of dead gangsters, Pagad was reportedly responsible for setting off bombs at synagogues and businesses such as Planet Hollywood restaurant (symbolic of the US) and gay nightclubs, as well as police stations (where more and more of their members were ending up). And because of broad, scatter-shot references to Islam taken as informing their agenda, Pagad was soon placed on the US list of ‘terrorist organisations’. If Pagad made it onto the US list of ‘terrorist organisations’, what other ‘global’ forces – other than discourses – are in effect?
The killing of Rashaad Staggie itself happened on impulse, but seemed to have been fashioned for its drama. It happened during night time and the marchers arrived at the gang’s base in Salt River where a stand-off ensued. Many of the protesters were wearing fezzes, with their faces veiled by handkerchiefs or ‘PLO scarves’. The one brother, Rashied Staggie, was reportedly holed up in the house with fellow gang members. During the stand-off, Rashaad Staggie arrived and members of Pagad mobbed his vehicle, attempting to drag him from it. In this struggle, someone shot him in his head, he fell from his vehicle and, while paramedics were attending to him, a petrol bomb was lobbed at him, setting him on fire. Engulfed by flames, he struggled to his feet and ran a few metres, around the corner into another street. There, a few Pagad members got to him. The footage, televised on South African news bulletins, shows him on the ground and being assaulted with what looks like a pick axe handle. Some of his attackers give him a last few kicks. Throughout the recording of the event, one can hear scattered takbirs (exclamations of ‘Allahu-akbar’) amidst the general confusion.
The images of Staggie stumbling to his feet and running to disappear around a corner, all while engulfed in flames in the half-lit night time streets of Salt River, are dramatic and play on the ambivalent nature of our human relationship with the grotesque: we are at once compelled, fascinated and gripped, but also repelled by the atavism that mobs can produce.
To the ‘reasonable man’ of modern liberal-democratic law, this violence is atavistic because it ruptures the skein of civility that the modern nation state and its subjects depend on for their survival. It explodes beyond the normal, beyond the everyday. When protests thus erupt or violence ensues, it is often described as the product of an irrationality that results from the loss of individuality. Such a critique of ‘mobs’ appeals to the individual, the locus of rationality (‘the reasonable man’) and the bulwark of liberal democracy. Denigrating the actions of the crowd as irrational denudes them of political meaning and, also, polices the boundary that defines the citizen as rational, reminding non-participants of the limits of citizenship. Responsible citizens, in short, do not behave like that. Such a critique also discourages mass action by robbing the violence of its ‘sense’, draining it of its politics and context.
But the activist Ashwin Desai insists on returning that irrationality to the domain of conscious political activity. Instead of splitting off irrational behaviour of the crowd from the political impulse that drives a protest action, he proposes a dynamic continuum between ‘instrumental mob action’, such as the protest march to address grievances, and expressive action (violence that often erupts) as the cathartic release of aggression. In this way, the ‘irrational’ behaviour of a crowd retains a meaning connected to the political action that causes the protest in the first place. The meaning of the violence remains consonant with whatever critique of society underpins a protest action. Violence, for instance, is often born in desperation.
The same can be said for ‘vigilantism’, a word that casts Pagad beyond the legitimate and one that the organisation has rejected as a descriptor. The easiest way to contain meaning (the epistemological integrity of the state) when such violence erupts is for the producers of that meaning – state agents and institutions and the liberal media – to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate violence. The word ‘vigilante’ casts that violence outside the schema of allowable meaning, into the illegitimate, the irrational. The same mechanism allows for the slippage between words like ‘guerrilla’, ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’.
This happens also as part of state and society’s attempts to understand the violence, to make sense of it. Effectively we can only understand the violence by mis-understanding it and calling it irrational. Yet, meaning has to be seen to be made, at the very least as an expression of control over events that call the state into question. Partly driven by Pagad’s own iconography and haphazard reaching to Islam as an ideological driving force, it was not difficult to misname it under the guise of making sense of it.
Initially, Pagad insisted that it wasn’t a Muslim organisation. It had members who were non-Muslim. But the majority of its members were Muslim, as were most of its leaders or public speakers. Its website sports a constitution that is framed by a quote from the Quran. In public, there was the iconography of fezzes and scarves, as well as slogans referencing the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan (where the Taliban was in ascendancy amid a thick, confusing muddle created by US funding), the Palestinian struggle, jihad and so on. As different factions within Pagad vied for power, there were also accusations and counter-accusations around the involvement of Qibla, an anti-apartheid organisation inspired in part by the 1979 revolution in Iran and during the anti-apartheid struggle allied to the Pan-Africanist Congress. During the 1980s, its founders were jailed for having sent cadres to Libya for training. Soon, Pagad was naming targets beyond drugs and gangsters, targets easily and predictably associated with a radical (and often fundamentalist) Islamic agenda: gays, Zionism, the US.
Through its own pronouncements then, Pagad was drawing associations with what it identified as global Islamic issues, no matter the haphazard nature of the pronouncements, nor the fact that it may not have understood the complexity and variety of the political struggles it was referencing. If it was reaching for a sense of a global Islamic allegiance, it was mostly by mimicry. Masjidul Quds in Gatesville, Cape Town, for instance, where pre-march Pagad meetings usually took place, mimics the architecture of the Al-Aqsa mosque and complex in Jerusalem (The Arabic name of the city is Beit Al-Quds, roughly ‘house of the holy’), including replicating the gilded Dome of the Rock. But such mimicry could also be unsullied by irony. The organisation Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders (Mail), which may have shared members with Pagad, reportedly was trying to recruit fighters for the Taliban. However fragmentary and tangential Pagad’s own references to the terms of this particular discourse may have been, it ended up as part of a rhetoric about Islamic terrorism.
The terms of this rhetoric lie in the same domain as ‘vigilantism’ and the irrational because ‘terrorism’ also exists beyond the pale of the legitimate. And when it comes to acts of terror considered to be inspired by Islam, the liberal state and its meaning-makers have an easy task. With Islam, the irrational becomes supra-irrational because political activity that finds a vocabulary in Islam is viewed with a prejudice that views anything Islamic as pre-modern, static and essential, the antithesis of the ever-evolving ‘reasonable man’ of liberal democracies. It is as if all Muslims carry some inexplicable, unchanging characteristic of Islam in their very DNA, something essential that makes them prone to express their disagreement through violence. And by this inexplicable characteristic, Islamic ‘terrorism’ may be explained.
But the rhetoric of ‘radical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, of ‘global jihad’ and ‘terror’ is, ironically, historical and recoverable from the irrational. Or, a consideration of the historical origins of this rhetoric shows that the irrational lies exactly on the other side, the side that polices the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate, and rational and irrational.
The ironies multiply and deepen when one considers the Taliban as a product of the brutalisation wrought on Afghanistan by the mujahideen in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of the communist government in 1992. In fact, a consideration of the background to the rise of the Taliban shows how deep the irony really goes because Pagad’s references to a global ‘jihad’ frames them, Pagad, as ultimately suckered into an ideological creation of US Cold War policy.
The US’s involvement in Afghanistan through the CIA runs deep, as Mahmood Mamdani shows in his article, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A political perspective on culture and terrorism’. Wanting to contain both the influence of the New Iran and the USSR in the region, the US not only funded the mujahideen, who were rebelling against an oppressive government (and who, incidentally, were also much romanticised by South African Muslims during the 1980s), but created the terms on which this proxy war was to be fought. Funding from the US (as well as Saudi Arabia and the UK) was used to turn the mujahideen into Islamic guerrillas by turning madrassahs into political schools and training grounds. Central to this was the idea of jihad and, in its Cold War stance, the US saw an opportunity to transform this local conflict into a transnational anti-Soviet war by Muslim states. Upshot: the birth of global jihad as a weapon, ultimately, in the US arsenal against the ‘evil empire’ (Ronald Reagan’s caricature of the USSR) and the birth of politicised, neo-fundamentalist Islam.
By using religious terms, the US could depend on a global force of Muslims ready to stand up to atheist communism. To appeal even more to this global umma (the ‘community’ of Islam, which Muslims consider as transnational), a Saudi prince to lead this jihad or crusade would be needed (the majority Sunni Muslims fawn over the Saudis because they are the ‘custodians’ of Islam’s holiest places). The CIA couldn’t find a Saudi prince. Enter Osama bin-Laden, who was, after all, connected to the Saudi Royal house. Al-Qaeda, literally ‘base’, was the name of a servicing camp for Arab mujahideen. And the mujahideen struggle in Afghanistan was globalised partly through the active recruitment, by the CIA, of fighters from other Muslim countries.
The rhetoric of holy war – and our sense of it in modern times – is thus set in motion by the CIA. As Mahmood Mamdani states in his article:
The Islamic world had not seen an armed jihad for centuries. Now the CIA was determined to create one, to put a version of tradition at the service of politics. Thus was the tradition of jihad – of a just war with a religious sanction, nonexistent in the last 400 years – revived with U.S. help in the 1980s.
Of further interest is the fact that only opium, and only for small regional markets, was produced in Afghanistan before the arrival of the CIA. Yet, two years after its involvement with the mujahideen, Afghanistan had become the top heroin producer in the world, supplying 60 per cent of US demand. And, moreover, this holy war becomes globalised as foreign mujahideen veterans returned to their home countries, from Algeria to Indonesia. The central irony here is the place of 9/11 in a holy war manufactured by the US. One can say that the US had a hand in 9/11 without being dismissed as a ‘Truther’. Where, indeed, does terror lie?
The framing of political activity by Muslim groupings as motivated by something essential in the ‘Muslim character’ (Muslims hate the west and its freedoms and modernity) rather than as actual political activity around material issues (oppressive regimes propped up by the US) is ahistorical. Inevitably, there are real political and economic reasons behind such activity and, in Muslim countries, it is inevitable that mobilisation will use the vocabulary of a familiar discourse, Islam. Even the CIA in Afghanistan did this: the political agenda was the US’s fight with the USSR, but the mujahideen were mobilised using Islam. George W. Bush claimed that his God told him to attack Iraq. Bin Laden, a former CIA ‘asset’, turned against the US because of the establishment of a US army base in Saudi Arabia (considered holy land) and its support of Israel, and framed these grievances with Islamic vocabulary.
When one then again considers Pagad, its framing as Islamically inspired – by itself or by US intelligence agencies – does not tell all of its grievances. Its initial impulses – anti-crime, anti-drug – need further contextualising. The mid-1990s saw the end of apartheid and South Africa rapidly opening up to the global economy. A mixture of factors saw an increase in the unemployment rate during the 1990s (and rising even higher afterwards). These included, among others, government policies to liberalise the economy, which led to competition with cheaper imports closing down some local industries (like garment manufacturing in the Western Cape). The black and ‘coloured’ working class especially remained the hardest hit.
The relaxing of border controls and an un-trained, underpaid, and largely non-committal police force meant that South Africa also became an easy market and routing point for foreign criminals bringing in contraband substances. Drugs other than the ‘traditional’ mandrax and marijuana soon became more easily available in Cape Town, more cheaply, especially cocaine and its derivative, crack. In the shadow economy based on illegal drugs, competition increased, which at first saw local gangsters warring over turf. But, as if mimicking the neoliberal post-apartheid state, the local gangsters set out to corporatise. Colin Stansfield, the late leader of a renowned Cape Town outfit known as The Firm, believed that the turf wars were bad for business and sought to end them by having the gangs work together. This would also provide the basis for bulk buying from suppliers: cheaper prices could be negotiated and the selling price could be fixed. Thus The Firm was incorporated in 1996, a parallel and local engagement with the terms and habitual behaviours of the global neo-liberal economy, and mimicking the behaviour of legitimate business corporations.
Pagad as a response to corporatised gangsterism is one structurally similar to various movements responding to the ravages of that same global economy, legitimate or not, producing and being produced, like the mujahideen, by a discourse whose terror lies elsewhere. On some level, Pagad may then be considered a response, in a minor key, to local manifestations or effects of this Washington consensus, perhaps even foreshadowing or prefiguring the events of 9/11
Gabeba Baderoon describes, in her PhD thesis, the Pagad phenomenon as the site at which the ‘indigenisation of the international discourse on Islam’ takes place. But this discourse on Islam, as Mamdani shows, bears the mark of the beast. The line which is meant to demarcate clearly the division between legitimate and illegitimate politics is smudged. The centre, indeed, cannot hold. How long can the liberal state keep on recuperating its own irrationality by projecting it onto an other? How long will the liberal state still make sense?
Gabeba Baderoon, 2004, Oblique Figures: Representations of Islam in South African Media and Culture (unpublished PhD thesis: University of Cape Town)
Patrick Bond, 2004, ‘South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom: From Racial to Class Apartheid’. Monthly Review, 55 (10)
Anneli Botha, 2001, ‘The Prime Suspects? The Metamorphosis of Pagad’, in Fear in the City: Urban Terrorism in South Africa. Monograph 63, Institute for Security Studies
Ashwin Desai, 2004, ‘The Cape of Good Dope? A post-apartheid story of gangs and vigilantes’ (unpublished case study for UKZN project: Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa)
Ted Legget, (no date) ‘Terugskiet: Growing up on the street corners of Manenberg, South Africa’. Children in Organised Armed Violence report, http://www.coav.org.br/
Ewen MacAskill, 2005, ‘George Bush: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”’, The Guardian, 7 Oct. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa
Mahmood Mamdani, 2002, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism’, in American Anthropologist, 104 (3)
South African History Online, ‘People Against Gangsterism and Drugs’ http://www.sahistory.org.za/organisations/people-against-gangsterism-and-drugs
This story features in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2013) .
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