South Africa a Mafia State? Lessons from Haiti

By Garth L le Pere

As lawlessness and criminality increasingly seep into the anatomy of South Africa’s political economy and national life, a lively debate has surfaced in government, media, and academic circles about whether the country is a failed or failing state.

When examined against the backdrop of the nature and character of the organised criminal ecosystem in South Africa, this is semantic hair-splitting. The cold and brutal reality is that the broad spectrum of criminal activity in South Africa poses a real and present existential threat to the country, especially given its embeddedness, diversity, and violent proclivities.

In this regard, we would do well to examine and understand the power of organised crime in Haiti, where in its capital Port-au-Prince alone and with a population of one million, there are around 200 criminal groups. These groups enjoy high levels of “criminal sovereignty” and even political legitimacy because of their Robin Hood character of helping the poor, desperate, and suffering masses of the country. 

This sad and tragic situation is compounded by high incidences of official corruption and Haiti’s own version of state capture. The gross leadership failures, the breakdown of law and order, and the institutional weaknesses of the Haitian state have resulted in hunger, poverty, and joblessness becoming instruments of criminal governance.

This is a specter that certainly faces South Africa with its own structural pathologies of racialised poverty, inequality, and unemployment, on one hand; and on the other, criminal justice and law enforcement systems that are below optimal in their efficacy, capacity, and functioning. 

In view of these considerations, this article will firstly examine the profile of South Africa’s diverse and increasingly complex criminal ecosystem; and then secondly, it will cast a spotlight on how organised crime has penetrated the sinews of the Haitian state and society and what its consequences have been. Crucially, South Africa can learn from the alarming Haitian experience.

The emergence of South African mafias

Historically and as a unique hallmark, South Africa has always had gangs led by violent gangsters. One is reminded of the Msomi gang that ruled Alexandra and other parts of Johannesburg in the 1950s; the Fast Guns and Spaldings which waged turf wars against each other in Western Township (what is today Westbury) in the 1970s; and more recently there have been The Americans and the Hard Livings street gangs on the Cape Flats.

Styled on the United States gangster ethos, what they have in common is the limited scope of their criminal activity. In the main, this was restricted to the communities where they lived and operated. They had an equally limited stock-in-trade, mainly murder, theft, illicit drugs, and extortion rackets.

Fast forward to what has evolved across the South African landscape since its democratic transition in 1994 to the present where the country has become of a hotbed of organised local and international crime. From pariah during the apartheid era, while South Africa’s democratic transition opened it to the world, it also opened itself up to the dark side of networks of globalised and transnational crime. 

The fast evolution of these sophisticated local and international networks has in no small measure been exacerbated by an anemic, incapable, and ineffective response by the state’s criminal justice, law enforcement, and policing agencies, some of which have been infiltrated or co-opted by criminal groups. 

Increasing lawlessness and social disorder, rising levels of poverty and unemployment, the rapid alienation of a burgeoning population of youth, and a growing population of illegal migrants are the crucibles in which diverse forms of criminality have taken root. These highly fluid dynamics and how they converge have been both catalysts and drivers of the rise of highly organised and entrepreneurial mafias with exclusive operational and sectoral monopolies in which they ply their illicit trade.

A recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) provides one of the most incisive, penetrating, and cogent diagnostic assessments and analytical accounts of organised crime in South Africa. Published in September 2022 and titled Assessing South Africa’s Organised Crime Risk, it examines 15 illicit markets which have experienced a surge in criminal activity and which have been captured by mafia syndicates.

The report disaggregates these markets into three thematic areas, namely, selling the illicit; dealing in violence; and preying on critical services. It is worth summarising the components of each:

Selling the Illicit

This thematic area reviews four dimensions of criminal activity: illicit drugs, illegal firearms, human trafficking and smuggling, and wildlife, fishing, and environmental crimes. The trade-in illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth are a source of endemic social decay and deviance across South Africa’s racial and class divide. Its lucrative nature has been assisted by transnational networks and supply chains such that inter-gang competition has resulted in egregious violence as well as official corruption. 

In turn, the drug trade has benefited from a black market of illegal firearms which have flooded the country. Human trafficking is mainly linked to forced labour and sex workers while smuggling of all manner of contraband is facilitated by corruption among officials and civil servants at South Africa’s porous borders. Concerted attempts by law enforcement and conservationist groups have not been able to stem the tide of the illegal abalone trade and poaching of rhinoceros for its horn, making fears of extinction a real possibility.

Dealing in Violence

The extent and nature of this thematic area relate to the increasing phenomena of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, organised robbery, and organised violence.  There has been a dramatic increase in extortion rackets such as the construction mafia which has undermined a once strategic growth area of the economy. Transnational syndicates have busied themselves with targeting high-value foreign nationals for ransom, which has also inspired local but less sophisticated variants.

 When it comes to organised robbery, its sheer scale has had a major impact on society and the economy and includes cash-in-transit heists, carjackings, and home and business robberies which are often violent and cause their victims serious loss and trauma. 

Professional hitmen have become the purveyors of organised violence, especially in the taxi industry and more recently, at local government levels. In this category, the country has recently been subjected to targeted assassinations such as have occurred with political killings in Kwa-Zulu Natal where 118 have been recorded, which is more than half of the country-wide total according to the GI-TOC report. 

Those that have made headlines include:

  • Charl Kinnear, the section commander of the Western Cape anti-gang unit, was killed outside his Cape home on 18 September 2020; 
  • the anti-corruption whistle-blower, Babita Deokaran, was also killed outside her residence in Johannesburg on 23 August 2021; 
  • the well-known rapper Kiernan “AKA” Forbes and his friend Tebello “Tibz” Motswane were killed outside a restaurant in Durban on 10 February 2023;  
  • and Cloete Murray and his son, Thomas, were killed on 18 March 2023 on the N1 highway traveling from Johannesburg to Pretoria. Murray was well-known for investigating high-profile corruption cases and for being a well-respected and experienced liquidator, including that of BOSASA, a company linked to corrupt activity.

Preying on Critical Services

This thematic area has several key elements while others are on the increase. Citizens all over the country have experienced the disruptions caused by the organised criminal assault on critical infrastructure, mainly cable and copper theft which have direct knock-on effects on transport, electricity, water, and communications systems. 

This together with high levels of official and organised corruption as chronicled in the Zondo Commission reports has further compromised service provision, job creation, and economic growth. The scourge of illegal mining is a critical element where diamonds, gold, and platinum find their way into transnational criminal networks of smelters and syndicates, who thereby reap windfall profits.

Those on the increase include cyber and economic and financial crimes while the health sector has fallen prey to corruption, as witnessed during the Covid pandemic as well as experiencing a rise in fake pharmaceutical products. Cybercriminals, through hacking into computers—using malicious codes of worms and viruses, or installing malware and spyware—have managed to siphon millions of Rands from individuals, businesses, and state-owned enterprises. 

This crime has affected internet services, with severe disruptive effects on social and economic activity. South Africa’s sterling financial reputation and tax revenue have further been threatened by fraud, money laundering, and counterfeit goods.

The above summary audit, based on the GI-TOC report, reflects how prominently organised crime with its own mafia hierarchies has grown a deep tap root across the country. However, its sub-text also points to how urgent the need is for appropriate reforms in the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, supported by robust institutional leadership and assertive political management. With this in mind, let us now turn to Haiti as a cautionary tale.

The Making of a Criminal Federation in Haiti

With some 200 criminal groups operating in the capital, the state and government of Haiti have come to resemble some of its post-colonial counterparts in Africa. As such, it survives as a hollowed-out entity in a chaotic environment, unable to establish its writ and legitimacy in a smouldering cauldron of poverty, starvation, and human suffering. 

This situation has created a political vacuum into which criminal networks have stepped by acquiring the ability to govern as well as create their own spheres of influence which became especially evident following the assassination of a former president, Jovenel Moïse, on 7 June 2021. Among others, the assassination had a direct and negative impact on the country’s humanitarian relief and food security requirements, a situation made even worse by limited access to Covid vaccines.

Pact-making and Criminal Control

Consequently, state weakness and fragility allowed criminal networks to police and control Haitian citizens and communities by making their own rules and moreover, to even curtail freedom of movement and decide who could have or be denied access to food. Furthermore, the Haitian story strains credulity because pacts between ruling governments and criminals have been commonplace. For example, a well-known crime boss and former policeman, Jimmy Chérizier, entered into a non-aggression pact with President Moïse.

 Such pact-making provided him, Chérizier, with territorial control and legal immunity in exchange for “taking care” of Moïse’s political opponents. However, President Moïse was simply following a script written by former presidents such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide (2001-2004) and Michel Martelly (2011-2016) who turned a blind eye to organised crime and their activities allegedly in exchange for bribes.

With democratic accountability and proper governance as fatalities, Haiti was thus awash with domestic incentives that came with territorial control by gangs. Alliances were easily forged with police and the security establishment during the Moïse regime, thanks to the non-aggression pact. Like South Africa, state weakness has resulted in increasing levels of kidnapping for ransom, targeted assassinations, and human trafficking, and with these a huge market for illegal weapons took shape. 

However, particularly egregious was that after Moïse’s assassination, criminal gangs gained control of or influence over political institutions and thus acquired de facto governing authority. This is clearly evident in how they have manipulated the food security situation in Haiti for criminal gain.

The Hunger and Crime Nexus

The World Food Programme estimates that in a total population of 11.4 million, there are about 5 million who do not have access to basic foods or who face starvation and disease on a daily basis in the context of a broken and dysfunctional public health system. This condition has less to do with the food supply which increased substantially following the calamities of the earthquake in August 2021 and the hurricane in November 2022. It is more a direct consequence of how criminal gangs have managed to control not only food distribution but also fuel, medicines, water, any form of humanitarian relief; and crucially, access to routes from urban to rural areas. 

Given Haiti’s extremely weak to non-existent enforcement mechanisms compounded by the high levels of food insecurity and poverty, territorial control is an asset worth protecting. Armed gangs thus engage in open warfare with forces of the state such as exist but also among themselves where members of rival gangs are even beheaded in public or burnt alive. Criminal symbolism to send clear messages about the power of gangs has seen trucks carrying food without appropriate gang clearance being hijacked or burnt.  

The capital of Port-au-Prince represents the main node of Haiti’s food supply infrastructure and battles for its control are violently contested by fragmented but powerful criminal players.  For example, an alliance of two gangs, the Canaán and Five Seconds, once controlled road access to and from a flour processing company in the north of the capital; the road’s usage, therefore, had to be negotiated for a fee.  The poor and starving are thus at the mercy of criminal gangs for their sheer survival in a brutal moral economy, which now includes sex trafficking and sexual favours in exchange for food. 

By way of conclusion, Haiti represents all the dystopian characteristics of a failed state in which a federation of criminal gangs has been allowed to flourish. Endemic corruption, institutional decay, the escalation of criminal violence, an unproductive and rentier economy, and extreme governance failures have all conspired to produce an environment of widespread poverty and social instability, thereby giving gangs the political power to determine the fate of the country. 

South Africa certainly has constitutional safeguards, institutional checks and balances, judicial independence, and a lively civil society which Haiti lacks. However, it has all the ingredients for its organised criminal ecosystem to cause insidious damage to its nascent democratic foundations, what with an embattled economy still struggling to deal with recessionary headwinds and a post-Covid recovery. 

By virtue of the evidence in the GI-TOC report, the already frayed fabric of South Africa’s system of government, especially in its criminal intelligence, police and law enforcement arms, and prosecution authorities have facilitated the emergence of mafias which have a significant hold on all levels of society. As with Haiti, unless the full apparatus of the state is mobilised in the moral equivalent of war against organised criminal mafias and their related syndicates, whether South Africa is a failed or failing state is academic since the future of the country will be at stake.

Dr. Garth le Pere is a Visiting Professor at the University of Pretoria and writes in his own capacity.   

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