Cruising the Meth-Riddled Murder Dens of Cape Town

The first thing I notice about Lavender Hill is how the cops drive in convoys and everyone holds their Glocks close. My brother, a South African Police Service cop who visited Rwanda after the genocide, calls Lavender Hill the worst place on Earth.

An officer from Cape Town's Metro Substance Abuse Unit searches a suspect in the suburb of Lavender Hill.

Ibrahim won't stop talking. He's going on and on about how he's persecuted and religious and genuinely as innocent as they come. I hope that one of the cops shuts him up so that at least this dark, noxious-smelling room is silent rather than filled with his noise. But no such luck—the Cape Town Metro Substance Abuse Unit just get on with the job at hand: searching through all of Ibrahim’s possessions, looking for drugs.

They don’t find much—some weed and a “tik lolly,” a small tube with a glass bubble at the end made exclusively for smoking methamphetamine, or "tik" as it's known in Cape Town's townships. Ibrahim starts wailing about how he is a child of Allah, how he's the only person who gets searched, how he has rights. Then one of the cops pulls out a huge pile of porn. At last Ibrahim is quiet.

It's easy to find Ibrahim’s home, as it's just meters away from Voortrekker Road, the main street running through Bellville, Cape Town. His place is a two-story house with a pool and a Mercedes parked outside the garage. But that description might be a little misleading. The pool and the roofless garage are dumps and the Mercedes clearly doesn't run. Even if it did, the draft from the smashed rear window and the scent of the rotting trash in the backseat wouldn't make for the most pleasant of journeys.

Ibrahim in his home in Bellville, Cape Town.

Once inside the house, you're faced with the stench of spoiled food and human feces. The smell gets deep into your clothes and up your nostrils, lodging itself in your brain. The floor is sticky and crudely written Arabic drips down the walls in green spray-paint. Before dealing with Ibrahim, we hear the sound of two women chatting upstairs. It’s 10 AM but it’s pitch black up there. I follow a cop we’ll call James up the stairs and he points to a closed door with vaguely nonsensical scrawl all over it. It warns, “You enemies of Allah, do not break this door again,” and “Mind that supernatural powers: sickness exist, madness exist.”

James knocks on the door and calls in a sing-song voice, “The police are here.” Someone replies in a thick French accent, “Come in.” Inside the room two women sit washing clothes in plastic basins while two toddlers lie on the bed. I step inside but a new, even more pungent smell forces me back. James giggles and points to the bath; it’s overflowing with sewage. These are the living conditions of low-level dealers in the Western Cape—one of the world’s most concentrated hotspots for meth, alcohol abuse, rape, murder, and gangsterism.

Later, in the Metro Unit’s undercover car (camouflaged with lots of rust and “King Rasta” stickers), I sit alongside my escorts—an English-speaking cop with an infectious giggle named James and a huge Afrikaans bear of a man who goes by the nickname “Fluffy.” They are two of only three white Metro cops I see in the field. The rest are all "colored"—the word that South Africans use to refer to anyone who wasn't produced by two white parents.

James apprehends a suspect.

Every major city in South Africa has a Metro division. These units of traffic, street, and specialist cops are set apart from the normal South African Police Service (SAPS). SAPS do not grant reporters access to their operations under the belief that any press is bad press. Which is understandable, considering the daily accusations of corruption, brutality, and incompetence leveled at them.

But despite their objection to press, they don't appear to be camera shy. Recently some SAPS officers were filmed by a crowd of people dragging a man to his death behind their van, apparently unconcerned by the video attention. Being a Metro cop appears to be a whole different kind of operation. Statistically, they are a lot less likely to brutally kill citizens, they are better paid (which isn't to say they're paid well) and they're often trusted to arrest crooked SAPS cops. All of which boosts their morale.

A petite woman known as Captain Jafta is in charge of the drug unit. I say petite, but she could probably take down a defensive line without breaking a sweat. Everyone knows Captain Jafta—the cops, dealers, users, and criminals. During one house search for a notorious gangster she hugs his wife and emerges from a bedroom cuddling a puppy. She’s funny, smart, and likable, and the other unit members clearly go into a kind of patriarchal protection mode whenever she’s around.

I think partly because they are bored and partly because they want to show off, the unit of eight Metro drug cops hit a "drug bar" in the Woodstock suburb of Cape Town—an area attracting a bunch of hipster types but still crummy enough to not yet be considered gentrified. In these drug bars you can buy the narcotic of your choice and then consume your order right there and then, maybe even get a little sleep afterward. The building has a steel door opening right onto the main road, which is there to delay the cops’ entry so the dealers have time to run out the back or flush the goods down the toilet in the event of a raid.

Despite their defenses, though, we still manage to seize a decent stash of tik and grass. Two dealers, who are barely adults, are arrested while stoned users crawl from every conceivable space into the building’s courtyard. They're searched facedown, shouted at, and told to fuck off.

Suspects at a gang house in Brooklyn, Cape Town.

All the users and dealers had seemed quite amiable up to this point, listening to instructions and taking their cavity searches like men, so to speak. But when we hit a dealer house in the dilapidated suburb of Brooklyn, a guy sporting shades and weightlifting gloves refuses to put his hands on the wall. He turns and moves toward one of the cops in a menacing way. That was his mistake—he gets a full-force smack on the side of his ribs with an open hand and duly places his palms on the wall. Later Fluffy explains, “Gangsters need to know who is in charge when we arrive. If we go in weak, it sends the wrong message to these guys, and cops could die.”

The members of the unit (who cannot have clear pictures taken of them or their real names used for this story) seem pretty fearless to me. They chase down meth addicts with abandon and apprehend gangsters armed with anything from rusty knives to stolen .45s. The first hint of fear I spot is when we hit the home of a midlevel dealer and the cops encounter their arch nemeses—dogs.

“I fucking hate dogs,” says James, as he cocks his 9mm Glock—the first time I see any of the men unholster their guns. Later, James tells me he had to empty his full clip into an attacking Rottweiler last year while its owner jumped over a back wall with his drug stash.

I can just see past four Metro cops through the open door into the yard of the house. The young men inside the yard have a pit bull on a chain and are seriously struggling to keep it under control. It’s up on its back legs, barking frantically and straining against the chain. There's a lot of shouting and the sound of cops cocking guns, but eventually the men manage to get the dog inside the house, where it’s locked in a room, wheezing from the damage the chain inflicted on its neck.

A pit bull in a gang house in Brooklyn, Cape Town.

We enter the yard and six men are forced on to the ground and searched. A young pit bull with two puppies barks constantly from behind her cage. As she grows, she’ll be abused and trained to attack until she can seriously injure or even kill a cop. There is another dog in a sealed wooden box—it head-butts the door with all its force and one of the suspects is ordered to lean against it. Five feet away a woman dishes out french fries to two young children and fries up some meat paste from a tube like all this commotion is just as trivial as the dishwashing she's about to do. We don’t find any drugs.

A couple of months ago, Wesley Woodman, a SAPS traffic cop, pulled over a driver and gave him a ticket for a minor violation. That would normally be an uneventful evening in Cape Town, but this particular encounter was in Lavender Hill—halfway between the main city of Cape Town and Muizenberg, hands-down the shittiest beach in Africa—and cost both the cop and the driver their lives.

The story goes that the driver was a gangster. At the moment of his pulling over, a rival gang happened upon the scene and decided it was a great opportunity: kill the rival, kill the cop, take the cop’s gun as a bonus. As a result, all Metro drug and gang units, tactical response, and SAPS police have been told to show the Lavender Hill gangs a lesson. I get to tag along on some of those outings—a rare opportunity for a noncop to witness the depths of this township without being shot in the face (hopefully).

Twenty years ago Lavender Hill was a mostly poor community housed in rows of three-story, fake-brick hostels built by the apartheid government to keep workers out of the city center. But, since then, the Afrikaans-speaking colored population has burst out of their oppression, claiming every square inch of land for houses and shacks, while a Xhosa-speaking population have moved in from black townships. The two groups live side by side, which is one of the few examples of this in South Africa despite the end of apartheid nearly 20 years ago.

The first thing I notice about Lavender Hill is how the cops drive in mini convoys and everyone holds their Glocks close, even the drivers. The second thing I notice is what Lavender Hill looks like: a halfway camp made of tin sheeting, wood, and loose sewage. Shacks and houses are built so one car can just pass by along the watery sludge they use as roads. Unfortunately those same roads are littered with children, dogs, unidentified pieces of cars, and gangsters. My brother, a reservist SAPS cop who has worked in every Cape township and visited Rwanda after the genocide, calls Lavender Hill the worst place on Earth.

A member of the Junky Funky Kids in Lavender Hill, Cape Town.

At random we pounce on a corner and search the kids hanging out there. They don’t look dodgy, really—one is very young, baby-faced. But the cop holding him lifts up his T-shirt to show me the “Mr. No Good” tattooed on his chest and the "J.F.K" on the back of his neck. On closer inspection I can see that his eyes are bloodshot and seeping with something that doesn't look particularly healthy. He’s a junior member of The Junky Funky Kids (the JFKs), a large gang in these parts. They have been at war with rival clans the Americans and the Hard Livings Gang for years.

A cute girl crosses the street next to us. James sees me glance at her. “It must suck to be a pretty girl here,” I say. “Or a pretty boy. Or anyone,” he giggles. “If you are a father of a pretty girl, your life is shit,” he continues. “Either let the gangsters take her or die standing up to them.”

Four kids practice writing their alphabets outside their home while Metro cops search through the grass and trash. They find a hidden stash of "lollies"—tik, Mandrax (a barbiturate), and marijuana. “I got a weekender,” shouts one. “I got an outfit,” replies the unit leader, who we’ll call Penz.

“A weekender is enough marijuana to get through two days,” he explains. “An outfit is half a Mandrax tablet and one joint’s worth of grass. You can smoke them together to get totally off your face.”

Lavender Hill at night.

It's later now and the sun has just set; it’s almost pitch black. There are no streetlights and only very intermittent hijacked electricity running to some houses. My escort, Penz, rests his gun on the steering wheel and looks around, visibly concerned. “We’ll probably have a pot shot taken at us,” he says, “but actually I stress more because we could run over a kid very easily.” I slide nervously from the window to the middle of the backseat. They gave me a bulletproof vest, but my head and neck are feeling terribly exposed.

We continue some searches, seemingly without a real plan, into the night. It almost gets boring. James reminds me that this is exactly when you die—with your guard down, late at night. The end of the shift is two hours away so now it’s time for logistics. It takes at least three cops an hour and a half to book an arrested suspect into what passes for a legal system in South Africa. There are eight cops on duty tonight and we have one suspect in the van to be booked, so it makes good sense to pick up another one and then head off to the station. “How are you going to find someone with enough stuff on them to be booked as a dealer in the space of 20 minutes?” I ask.

Penz answers by pointing to a man walking down the street ahead of us. “Him,” he says. Sure enough, the young man has some tik on him, separated into one-hit plastic packets. A small group of women and children are watching us from across the road. Penz looks at them and shakes his head. “Babies on the street at midnight,” he sighs.

“I wonder why they don’t just rise up and take power,” I say.

“Well,” says a cop, “we have the drugs. It keeps them down. Be thankful for that.”

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @mattbrownSA

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