‘We can’t afford to have bombs exploding. Get your act together’—Read an excerpt from Breaking the Bombers by Mark Shaw

The JRB presents an excerpt from Breaking the Bombers: How the Hunt for Pagad Created a Crack Police Unit by Mark Shaw.

Breaking the Bombers
Mark Shaw
Jonathan Ball Publishers SA

Read the excerpt:

During 1999, the Pagad bomb squads continued to unleash a wave of violence. After the V&A Waterfront car bombing there were numerous other attacks, including the bombing of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Athlone in January and the attack on Caledon Square police station that so enraged Frank Gentle. In late January there was a bomb attack on another police station, this time Woodstock, and in May a blast outside Athlone police station.

The end of the year saw a string of horrific bombings targeting popular civilian venues. On 5 November, the summer evening on which this book opens, the Blah Bar in Green Point was bombed, and a few weeks later Pagad targeted the St Elmo’s pizza restaurant in Camps Bay, leaving young waitress Olivia Milner in a wheelchair.

Another device, also detonated remotely, exploded on Christmas Eve in Green Point, injuring seven police officers. That attack was carefully planned for maximum impact in a teeming part of the city a stone’s throw from the Waterfront. It was preceded by a bomb threat on Mano’s restaurant and it appears the plan was that the device, placed in a rubbish bin nearby, would be detonated once a number of police officers had arrived to secure the scene. Some speculated that the blast was designed to target the bomb squad, the ubiquitous ‘men in black’. The planning was sophisticated and one of the seven injured police officers, Natasha Pillay, lost a leg. So ended the bleakest year in the state’s inept attempts to mount a viable response to the vigilantes.

Almost everyone involved on the state side agrees the Christmas Eve incident was a decisive turning point, not only in the battle against Pagad but in how it ultimately shaped a more confident approach to organised crime. The period from the formation of Idoc [the Investigating Directorate of Organised Crime] in 1998 to a successful, if controversial, Crime Intelligence operation in November 2000, marked a key chapter in the development of criminal justice. Arguably, it was also the most important period for the formative democracy in terms of how it found its way through a morass of security challenges, including serious and organised crime.

The Mano’s explosion made a mockery of earlier government pledges to end the bombings. In his inaugural speech as president, Thabo Mbeki had announced the creation of a special unit to fight serious crime: the Scorpions. It evolved from Idoc both conceptually in terms of the prosecutor, police and intelligence mix, and in terms of the personnel already involved. The unit, its name coined by the new Safety and Security minister, Steve Tshwete, was launched to some fanfare on 1 September 1999, but by the end of the year that’s all there was: a name. It did not become operational until January 2001, and Frank Dutton, its head, was not even in South Africa at the time of the launch. With seven police officers injured in the latest attack, Mbeki’s announcement of a fancy new unit would have rung like hollow propaganda.

And the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Mano’s bombing occurred just a week before large crowds were expected to see in the new millennium with a party at the V&A Waterfront. Furthermore, there was to be a symbolic handover from Mandela to Mbeki on Robben Island. The prospect of another bombing must have been unthinkable to the government and security agencies.


At the end of 1999, Mbeki administered a shock to the system that significantly altered the course of events. He needed concrete responses to the mounting challenges the country faced, and after being told of the Green Point bombing he read the riot act to his security officials. I have heard the story from several sources and it has acquired a kind of mythical status. Events seem to have unfolded as follows: early on Christmas Day, Mbeki phoned Tshwete, the tough-talking new Minister of Safety and Security, who had replaced Sydney Mufamadi. The president said something along the lines of, ‘This is enough. Stop it now!’ Tshwete called [Bulelani] Ngcuka, who was in Cape Town. ‘It was 7 a.m. on Christmas morning,’ Ngcuka told me. ‘I was at home and about to go for a walk. Steve called. He said the president wanted us to go to the scene and visit the victims. Mbeki put fire in our bellies. The message was, “We can’t afford to have bombs exploding. Get your act together.”’ The expectation was that arrests needed to follow.

Ngcuka left home immediately and called Percy Sonn and others to meet him at Idoc’s offices. Ngcuka, Tshwete and the bluff Justice minister, Penuell Maduna, then visited the scene of the bombing. As he walked carefully around the debris, Ngcuka recalled, he had an exchange with Leonard Knipe. The detective had been at dozens of explosions, and exhaustion and frustration must have been setting in. ‘Please take this case,’ he pleaded. ‘There is lots of proof lying around here. It can’t be done within the SAPS. It should come to you.’ That Christmas morning there seemed to be an understanding that the time for petty, factional institutional politics was over. Ngcuka left the crime scene with a new respect for Knipe.

Tshwete, squinting through his Coke-bottle glasses at the media, flatly told a group of assembled reporters: ‘This is an organised terror campaign.’ Although he would not be drawn on who might be responsible, in private he let it be known that he believed it was the work of the Pagad G-Force, and within a few weeks, as explosions continued to rock Cape Town, he directly pointed the finger at Pagad. When the press conference ended, the team at the centre of the struggle against Pagad—police, prosecutors, spooks—returned to Idoc’s offices in the deserted city centre. The atmosphere was pregnant with the sense that this Christmas Day call-out and the president’s orders were about to change things. There was also considerable anger in the room, partly because of the deliberate targeting of the police but also because of a sense that enough was enough.

It was significant that the meeting was held at Idoc’s premises, a confirmation that the directorate had taken the reins in the struggle against Pagad. A police general would normally have chaired a security meeting like this. Now it was the country’s lead prosecutor, the energetic, driven and politically sussed Ngcuka. Hermione Cronje, then Ngcuka’s assistant, told me in reference to the bombing: ‘He can grab a situation by the scruff of the neck and take it somewhere.’ With his close ally Percy Sonn, Ngcuka had something to prove—and he had significant political backing. Ngcuka’s appointment as NDPP [National Director of Public Prosecutions] was accompanied by controversy. There was a feeling that the new director, with his ANC connections, might ride roughshod over the independence of provincial attorneysgeneral and impose a political flavour on what should be a neutral prosecutorial body bound by the prescripts of the law. A few years later, Ngcuka told an academic interviewer the attorneys-general were left alone but insisted he had to act decisively to stop the bombings in the Western Cape. They were not being dealt with, he said, and he saw ‘an opportunity to do something different without interfering with anybody’. I have often wondered why that Christmas meeting and Mbeki’s message to Tshwete were so significant. After all, other ministers—and Mandela—had promised action. Why was this time different? The answer is that things had fundamentally changed. There was now a clear chain of command and an identified person in the form of Ngcuka who was not only clearly in charge but willing to take risks. That individual was also personally and politically close to the president in a way old-order white police officers could not be. So, when Ngcuka spoke, what he said carried significant weight. Urged on by Sonn’s belief that the threat must be confronted, he was eager to move into the vacuum that he felt existed in the response to the bombings. Ngcuka was also politically astute and unlikely to have missed the significance of the moment. At the time, he was arguing for the expansion of the Scorpions, so he had much to prove.

Around the conference table were Sonn’s newly minted investigators: SAPS men now incorporated into the Idoc fold; a scattering of prosecutors and other NPA people, including Dawood Adam, a former human rights lawyer; and Crime Intelligence’s undercover unit of Mzwandile Petros, Anwar Dramat and David Africa, who were determined to make things work. Once everyone was seated, Ngcuka gave a briefing on what he had gleaned from discussions at the Mano’s bomb scene, including his exchange with Knipe. He also spoke about the condition of the injured officers.

There was silence as people processed the information, then Ngcuka underscored that he had instructions from the president to arrest those responsible for this attack and others. He intended, he said, to honour those instructions. No one at the table had attended a Pagad meeting quite like this one.

The team picked on the food Ngcuka had ordered, and he produced a bottle of whisky to lubricate the discussions. I am told by several people close to the process that the state still did not know which individuals were responsible for the bombings. The Pagad bomb squad remained cyphers. The intelligence people did not have a list of perpetrators who could simply be rounded up. How then should the state respond? The debate interrogated this, exploring the structure of Pagad and various members known to be active in violent operations. Some current cases and suspects were reviewed. But there was no easy way forward, no clear target where evidence was available to make an arrest and prosecute.

Then an idea emerged, and like a wave it swelled until it broke over the meeting, breaking what felt like a stalemate. Was it not clear who was responsible, someone asked. Why was the group discussing a wide net of targets? Who else should they nail other than the leader of Pagad, Abdus-Salaam Ebrahim himself? It’s not clear who had the initial idea but the tenor of the argument was along these lines: ‘Why are we beating about the bush? It is not necessary to catch him red-handed. We have evidence of Pagad killing Rashaad Staggie in full view of the cameras. We need to go for Abdus.’

Everyone around the table knew Ebrahim had been caught on film among the group that marched in 1996 to London Road and killed Staggie. It was widely agreed that, given the seriousness of the situation, this evidence should be used to bring down the leader. The argument was that if the Pagad mob had killed Staggie, was not Ebrahim, their leader, the instigator of the crime? It may seem an obvious solution in retrospect, but Pagad had constantly denied its involvement in the bombings and there had been no usable evidence against Ebrahim. It was a hugely significant decision. Going for Ebrahim identified the key player at the head of Pagad’s campaign of violence. But it also focused on a crime which, among the Pagad faithful, was emblematic of their response to gangs and drugs. Staggie’s flaming body was the symbol of Pagad’s crusade against the underworld heathens. There was another advantage: Pagad had never claimed responsibility for the bombs directly, so arresting Ebrahim after political pronouncements about responding to the terror attacks built a direct bridge between the bombs and the organisation. For the authorities, this was a highly audacious way of connecting Pagad directly to the bombing campaign. Idoc did not, however, hold the dockets. In the Staggie case, investigative work had not moved on for years and the docket was buried somewhere in Leonard Knipe’s detective section. Phone calls were made, a sharp word from Ngcuka overcame the detectives’ resistance, and the dockets were delivered to Idoc.

Willie Viljoen, who started work as a prosecutor straight out of Stellenbosch University in 1976 and handled several ANC and Apla cases, was Cape Town’s senior prosecutor before being integrated into Idoc. As he explained the contents of the dockets to some of the people he had sought to imprison in his younger years, it became apparent that the investigations had basically gone nowhere. Ngcuka was too polite to tell me this, but others confirmed that Viljoen took the brunt of the participants’ frustration as they listened to him. It was a sign, if any more were needed, that things had to change.

The Staggie case presented serious obstacles for the prosecution. Ebrahim had indeed been caught on film at the scene but there was some important background to the matter. An inquest into Staggie’s murder had been held earlier in 1999. Several members of the media who witnessed the lynching were served with subpoenas and argued that journalists ‘are gatherers and disseminators of news for public consumption’ and that ‘it is not their function to assist any government … in criminal proceedings’. Media representatives emphasised that several witnesses to the murder had already lost their lives, as had others in related cases. Viljoen, meanwhile, accused the media of ‘not doing their civic duty by refusing to make evidence available’.

In that Christmas Day meeting, however, there was the feeling that perhaps the media would now capitulate, given the seriousness of the situation. Benny Gool, a Cape Times photographer, apparently had pictures of the events of that night, and Sonn contacted him. While Gool was sympathetic, he refused to provide evidence. Several editors were phoned, but they were ‘nervous’ or ‘played for time’. Taking on the press would be a tough fight, with no guarantee of victory. Ngcuka heard out the arguments of his team and decided to proceed with Ebrahim’s arrest anyway. ‘Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. I can’t in all conscience allow this to continue,’ he concluded. It was a decisive and courageous move. The unconscionable prospect of another bombing—perhaps one targeting new year revellers—had to be avoided at all costs. Ebrahim was apprehended in an early-morning raid on his Lansdowne home on 29 December. The military secured a wide perimeter and the police Special Task Force made the arrest. Pagad members mobilised but soldiers stopped them converging on the house. Ebrahim was surprised to be arrested, even more so to be taken in for Staggie’s murder. Roused from his bed, he submitted quietly, although at his bail hearing a few days later he held forth from the witness stand for over three hours. Unexpectedly, his wife, Zanie, was also arrested for the illegal possession of a firearm. In a police raid earlier that day in Rylands, incriminating evidence—cellphones apparently being modified in a similar way to those used in other attacks, as well as bomb-making guides—was also found. This action was a belated follow-up to a three-year-old investigation which was also tabled at the Christmas Day meeting. The arrest met with criticism from some. Why, new SAPS commissioner Jackie Selebi wanted to know, were Ebrahim and others arrested for three-year-old cases? Why had these cases not been followed through? It was a pertinent question that caused internal ructions in the SAPS, now ever more sensitive to the idea that the NPA-based Scorpions might steal their thunder (and resources).  


  • Mark Shaw is the author of Hitmen for Hire and Give Us More Guns. He is also director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Shaw was previously the National Research Foundation Professor of Justice and Security at the University of Cape Town and worked for ten years at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He has held a number of positions in the South African government and civil society, where he worked on issues of public safety and urban violence in the post-apartheid transition.


Publisher information

At the very dawn of the country’s brave new democracy, Cape Town was at war. Pagad, which started as a community protest action against crime, had mutated into a sinister vigilante group wreaking death and destruction across the city. Between 1996 and 2001, there were more than 400 bombs—most famously at the popular Planet Hollywood restaurant at the V&A Waterfront—and there were countless targeted hits on drug lords and gang bosses.

The police were at their wits end. The new ANC government was alarmed. The citizens of Cape Town were living in fear.

Mark Shaw tells the incredible tale of how the police’s response pulled together former foes—struggle cadres and the apartheid security apparatus—to break the Pagad death squads. It is a story that has never been told in full and was not possible until recently, when many were released from prison or had retired and were finally willing to talk openly about this revealing chapter in South Africa’s recent history.

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