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The Gangster Preacher

South African preacher Albern Martins really loves a good shout. He has the common preacher habit of standing two inches from your earhole and booming out long, elliptical speeches that encompass God, forgiveness, repentance, gangsters he has known and...

by Gavin Haynes
Mar 3 2011, 11:22am

Pastor Albern Martins

South African preacher Albern Martins really loves a good shout. He has the common preacher habit of standing two inches from your earhole and booming out long, elliptical speeches that encompass God, forgiveness, repentance, gangsters he has known and loved, Muslim vigilante groups he has known and loathed, and the ongoing plight of The Colored Man. These are a few of his favorite things.

“Just before Christmas,” he confides, loudly, “the police were worried they were going to start shooting each other around here. Three calls! Three calls from me was all it took and the whole thing went away.”

Back in the 90s, Martins was The Preacher Who Buried Gangsters. If you had a dead gangster on your hands, first thing you’d do (after the violent reprisals) would be to put in a call to Pastor Albern. A Baptist fire-breather of the old school much-loved in the deeply religious climes of the Cape Flats, in Cape Town, Martins created a speciality and milked it. In all, he did over 200 gangster funerals. Once, he did five in the same day. “That was a hjellluva day,” he whispers, at volume. “I was running back and forth, back and forth! Cos everybody wants Pastor Martins.”

Pastor Martins’ funeral client list soon preceded him. Colin Stanfield – leader of The Firm, monarch of the Cape Flats underworld, caught Al Capone-style on tax-evasion charges not long before cannily dropping dead from lung cancer. Jackie Lonte – grizzled kingpin of The Americans – the first guy to bring crack to South Africa. Mongrels boss Bobby Mongrel. Katy-Ann Arendse – one of the only females ever to rise to boardroom level in a major Cape Flats gang, assassinated in her driveway. Ernie “LaPepa” Peters – who was hosed down in his blue BMW. Thankfully, this was just after Martins had successfully converted him to the ways of The Lord.

Colin Stanfield was his piece de resistance.

Thousands lined the streets of Valhalla Park, singing “It’s Colin and God, Colin and God”. A large white banner proclaimed “The court rules. The community overrules”, and as they watched Pastor Martins eulogising him on big-screens, the common people wept for a man they saw as a latter-day Robin Hood. “He would pay their water and electricity bills. No school fees whatsoever – they would bring their problems to him, and he would solve them. Every complaint, every problem, only a word from Colin and everything can be changed. What you need to understand is that Mr Druglord is often taking a lead in his community. He is making it safe: he controls his area. I say, if you want to bring peace to the Cape Flats, you need to talk to maybe only five men. But those five men – they can make life hell in the Western Cape for you if they choose.”

Rashaad Staggie burns alive There are still an estimated 100,000 gangsters on the Cape Flats, out of a population of around one million. It’s an Elysian Fields of small-time hoods. Gangs remain one of the key job opportunities in an area with 60% unemployment. But the risk-reward profile for taking up a senior position in one of the big five (The Hard Livings, The Americans, The Mongrels, The Firm, The Sexy Boys) began to alter significantly in the mid-90s. On August 4, 1996, to put an exact date to it.

Pastor Martins claims that this date came to him as a prophecy. While praying, he had a vision: of a Muslim man, and the license-plate of a white pickup truck (’bakkie’ to South Africans) that spelled out “04-08-96”. I for one believe him. “I took it to mean that there would be a great struggle, against a Muslim enemy. But that we would prevail.”

Fate’s white bakkie was the one that Rashaad Staggie, co-leader of the notorious Hard Livings gang, had blundered out of as he attempted to help his twin brother and co-leader Rashied. Rashied, it seemed, was having issues with a few Muslim fundamentalists, who were ticked off that he’d been selling industrial quantities of drugs in their neighbourhood. So ticked off were they that their masked militia surrounded his Salt River house with shotguns, threatening vengeance. The footage of what happened next is still some of the most brutal newsreel ever to be captured on multiple television cameras:

Rashaad is pulled out of the bakkie, tries to make it to his brother’s front door, but a wall of bullets makes it impossible. But he refuses to die, by sheer effort of will. After all, he’s a man with a reputation in this town. Despite the lead now clogging his viscera, he keeps on living, so they douse him in petrol and set fire to him. Melting, shot multiple times, Rashaad runs down an alley, getting slower and slower, before finally keeling over on the pavement. Still not dead. The beatings, with sticks, finally killed him. He was the ghetto’s Rasputin.

Few of those living on the Cape Flats could have failed to grasp the basic message: a war had begun that evening. For five years, the Muslim fundamentalist People Against Gangsterism And Drugs would wage all-out battle against the gangs that would ultimately turn into a self-consuming war against the state. For Martins, business was about to boom.

Increasingly dominated by a militant-tendency faction lead by Abdus Salaam Ebrahim, their original goal, of ’standing-up to’ the gangs morphed into a campaign of assassinations and bombings. While PAGAD’s own leaders remained largely unscathed, kingpin after kingpin found themselves being hosed with R5 assault rifles in their driveways, wondering when exactly it was that they’d ceased to be untouchable.

“PAGAD would send us advance notice. They’d call me up and say tomorrow – this guy is going to die. The government basically gave PAGAD a license to kill. It solved a problem for them, so rather than uphold the law, they just let them do whatever they liked.”

They were calling-in to Martins because he was already using his position as a known friend of the gangs to act as a go-between. Eventually, he formalized this status by starting CORE.

“CORE was us saying: ‘you know each and every gang now have a new enemy? So you need now to stand together, say, OK we don’t want to be drug lords anymore, because most of us don’t have any passports, we can’t run away. We are now the victims.’ So we formed Community Outreach. Jerome Booysens, from The Sexy Boys was in charge. We negotiated with the government. We negotiated with the gangs. But the government only saw us as scum…”

He pulls out a shoebox of his old photos. “All the people in this photo are now dead,” he pronounces. “Apart from me.” He picks out one of him and the major gang-leaders, all clad in their swimming-trunks, paddling in some sort of hot springs. “We were having a bosberaad – a weekend conference.”

If PAGAD were targeting people who’d been blowing each other’s brains out unmolested for years, why didn’t the gangsters simply turn their enormous firepower and fantastic bloodlust on them? Well, Martins seems to genuinely think that the entire gang community had been seized by a wave of altruism and that confronted with the violence of PAGAD they were suddenly, miraculously, given over to the cause of peace.

“All of the gangs were willing to say please: we surrender. What else can we do?”

Rumours have never gone away that Martins himself was a front. A man who not only buried gangsters and had extended weekends-away with them, but who was an active front for their interests: A gangster’s mouthpiece, their beachhead in respectability, the velvet glove for their iron fist.

Obviously, he says that’s bullshit, but a few years back police found a tonne of illegal endangered shellfish in his warehouse. It sounds tame, but the levels of possession he’s looking at carry a hefty prison sentence and to quantify it: were he given the option of paying a fine, the fine would be £100 million. He remains locked in the seventh year of a Dickensian trial that also involves his wife and son, and still shows no sign of either resolving or evaporating. He maintains he was set up.

“The guy who was helping me with the warehouse was on the police payroll. They were paid to plant it in my warehouse. Some cocaine, too. Three months, me my son and wife were in jail. I was set up, man.”

By the dawn of the new decade, PAGAD had overstepped the mark. Having racked up over 600 incidents of urban terror, as police started closing the net, they’d taken to eliminating key witnesses. They bombed the offices of the local Serious Crimes Unit. They bombed gay nightclubs and synagogues. Most infamously, they killed one and injured 27 in bombing the local Planet Hollywood restaurant. They murdered the investigating police Captain Bennie Lategan and it was the murder of a magistrate presiding over a PAGAD-affiliate’s case in 2000 was a final straw. The high command went to jail. The vigilantes went away.

Now, a decade on, many of its key agitators have already done their time and PAGAD is about to reboot. The militant high-priest – Abdus Salaam Ebrahim, was imprisoned for his role in the murder of Staggie, but only served five years and is a free man once more. He seem keen on taking the old firm back to its glory days: They’ve got a glossy new website and have announced that they are to open branches on the far side of the South African coast.

Pastor Albern will be waiting.

GAVIN HAYNES

If you’re doing something interesting in a place that isn’t Shoreditch and that something might make for a good Atlas Hoods story, send pictures and info to alexh@viceuk.com and we’ll be in touch.