WORLD

Islamic vigilantes

CHRIS ERASMUS September 9 1996
WORLD

Islamic vigilantes

CHRIS ERASMUS September 9 1996

Islamic vigilantes

WORLD

SOUTH AFRICA

A militant group fights street crime— often brutally

The checkered kaffiyeh head scarf obscures all but his dark eyes. Moegamat, a young Muslim South African, punches the air repeatedly as he joins with his fellow vigilantes in chants invoking blood, death and praise to Allah. Marching through a darkened Cape Town street, his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol tucked into his trousers in clear view, Moegamat is on his way with 200 or so other members of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, or PAGAD, to a local drug dealer’s house to try to mete out street justice.

Heavily armed police in personnel carriers close off the road and prevent the vigilantes from reaching their target, but the militant leaders promise they will try again, perhaps tomorrow night.

When they do, there is every reason to expect that the organization’s secretive hard core—some trained in Middle Eastern guerrilla camps and suspected of pursuing a broader Islamic agenda—will again be joined by throngs of local citizens, mostly descendants of indentured Muslim Malay laborers brought over by the British two centuries ago. They, like the rest of the population, are outraged at South Africa’s runaway crime spree. In the 20 months since President Nelson Mandela and his cabinet first declared all-out war on crime, the country’s record has become one of the worst in the world: 45 of every 100,000 South

Africans are murdered each year, eight times the international norm of 5.5 (Canada: 2.0; New York City: 26.5), a woman is raped every six seconds and nearly 200 armed robberies are committed daily. Tourists are regularly hit, and foreign investors are losing confidence. In mid-August, German business leader Erich Ellmer was murdered by wouldbe car hijackers who shot him in the back outside his luxury Johannesburg home even as he tried to hand over his car keys. The German Chamber of Commerce accused the government of failing to fulfil its promise to create an investor-friendly environment, saying “we are extremely concerned that time is running out.” It is the sense that the social fabric is rapidly unravelling that has led to the emergence of PAGAD and a clutch of smaller vigilante groups in several urban centres. PAGAD rallies have attracted up to 10,000 people. Newspapers regularly carry letters praising its aims, if not its tactics, which are often brutal. In early August, 1,500 supporters stormed through Cape Town streets, pulled notorious gang leader Rashaad Staggie from his car, threw a flaming Molotov cocktail into his lap and shot him dead. Recently, Justice Minister Dullah Omar, a conservative Muslim, fled his home east of Cape Town, where PAGAD rules the streets, after receiving death threats against himself and his family from Muslim militants. Omar’s department is widely seen as unable to stem

the tide of criminality, due to police corruption, weak prosecutions and an unhealthy relationship dating to the apartheid era of the 1980s, when security forces used gangsters to help watch political dissidents. Indeed, the militants have the Mandela government and Cape authorities on the defensive. Despite stern warnings that firm action will be taken against vigilante violence such as Staggie’s murder, only a few of PAGAD’s leaders have been arrested or questioned. Omar and other officials have gone out of their way not to antagonize the militants, dropping charges of sedition against some leaders and conceding publicly that they have a legitimate complaint about the levels of crime.

Still, the organization has caused unease among Western intelligence sources, who see the group as a beachhead for fundamentalist Muslim states such as Iran to ¡5 spread their influence in Africa. A leaked = South African police report recently con| eluded that highly trained Islamic militants 1 had formed revolutionary cells in Cape 5 Town, Durban, Johannesburg and other cities, bent on creating a broad-based Muslim movement. Their agenda, the report said, extends from the unlikely prospect of South Africa becoming an Islamic state— Muslims currently constitute just one to two per cent of its 40 million people, and its largely Christian black population has shown little interest in converting—to sidelining South Africa in the broader geopolitical struggle for influence and conversions elsewhere on the vast continent.

Most Muslim organizations dismiss the scenario as American propaganda. “There is definitely a battle between Christianity and Islam for the soul of Africa, and Muslim activists are very busy recruiting converts, but this has been going on for centuries,” says Ebrahim Moosa, director of the Centre of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Cape Town. He concedes that a few of PAGAD’s militants are Middle Easttrained fighters. But he suggests that the main Western motive in raising the issue is to undermine South Africa’s friendly relations with Iran and Iraq.

Yet there is little doubt that the genuine community anger over runaway crime has become a highly successful vehicle to mobilize Cape Muslims. As police armored vehicles thwart Moegamat and his comrades from completing their torchlight anti-gangster mission, the mood is angry and the enemy is anyone who is not with the militants. “Maybe not tonight,” says a furious Moegamat. “But we will get these scum and we will clean up our streets. We will take on anyone who stands in our way, whether it is the police or Mandela himself. One day soon, this place will be safe for our children.” Then, he disappears into the night, shouting the traditional Islamic praise, “Allah u-Akhbar!”

CHRIS ERASMUS in Cape Town