The Cape Flats is a flat sandy stretch of land located on the outskirts of Cape Town and is where the mixed race inhabitants of “District Six” were relocated during the apartheid years. Twenty years on, unemployment is rife and entrenched vigilantism remains a feature of the country’s gang capital.
Elsies River is one of the townships where a community struggles to make ends meet, their overcrowded environment a breeding ground for gangs and other unsavoury activities. I was involved in shooting a documentary about the “Numbers” gangs in the area and came to know some of their members. The Numbers Gang are a well-known prison gang comprised of three groups (the 26s, 27s and 28s) with one of the most fearsome reputations in South Africa. The 26s are associated with robberies, the 27s for violence (mainly rape), and the 28s are the most violent and associated with murder. They are known to operate primarily in the Western Cape prison of Pollsmoor, however it is thought that they control most of the South African prisons.
The shooting location on this day was Groblersdal which is a government funded housing estate. We had agreed to meet a man named Hilton who is a high ranking Lieutenant in the 27s gang. When we first arrived, Hilton met us at a mutual pre-determined place before leading us through “safe” streets to the location. On each street corner was a member of his gang on a cell phone, apparently keeping tabs on our progress. They were currently in the middle of a turf war and thought it necessary to post lookouts.
Hilton has been involved in gangs and crime for all of his life, and spoke to me about being a gang member as the only way of life he has ever known. He interacted with me and was polite and civil, yet at one point when his mobile rang and he stepped away to answer the call his shady dealings were revealed. He mentioned that he had become numb to the everyday harsh realities of being a gang member, and when asked if he ever felt troubled about his past actions, Hilton’s response was, “I don’t know any better.” His actions were motivated by his survival instincts.
As we arrived at Groblersdal, we were immediately inundated by a mob of people who were mostly high on crack and alcohol. Once the novelty of our arrival wore off, we began scouting the location for ideal areas to begin shooting.
Mostly, we were watched suspiciously by the inhabitants, but some invited us into their “homes” and showed us around. Their living quarters were bare and minimal, but kept rather clean. The smell of indistinguishable food cooking was thick in the corridors. People were casually hanging about on their balconies and the corrugated stairwells.
Sadly, only a month later, Hilton was murdered by members from another gang.