Artwork by Lex Trickett

Bouncers, bullets and pills: the criminal underbelly of South African nightlife

The Mafia is not an outsider in this world; it is perfectly at home. Indeed, in the integrated spectacle it stands as the model of all advanced commercial enterprises- Guy Debord

The recent death of former football player Marc Batchelor, shot by two motorbike gunmen in an apparent contract killing, put the media spotlight on a complex life. Batchelor was best known for playing as a striker for Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. But, his life was equally defined, and probably ultimately ended by, his proximity to a criminal underworld of ruthless drug dealers and assassins.

At one time, Batchelor had been a close friend to Mikey Schultz, a notorious bouncer and the self-professed murderer of mining tycoon, and art world patron, Brett Kebble. In recent years, he had fallen out with Schultz, instead becoming friends with Nafiz Modack, an alleged crime boss whose name has been at the centre of a string of gang murders and nightclub shootings in Cape Town. Modack even publicly and theatrically swore to seek revenge for Batchelor’s death. And since his murder, allegations have emerged that the soccer star had become involved with Serbian mobsters operating in Johannesburg and that his murder may have been linked to the theft of a shipment of cocaine.

This saga is the latest iteration of a remarkable feature of South African society. Street level murder for hire and violent struggles between nightclub bouncers often overlap with the upperworld of celebrity, politics and big business. And increasingly, evidence is emerging that what may appear to be violent gang disputes are actually proxy wars over byzantine corruption within the police and state security agencies.

Journalists and writers have bravely exposed this murky and dangerous reality, in books such as Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble (2011) and Ministry of Crime (2018), Mark Shaw’s Hitmen for Hire (2017) and most recently, Caryn Dolley’s The Enforcers: Inside Cape Town’s Deadly Nightclub Battles (2019).

Dolley’s book is a dense, revelatory look into the blood, bullets and drug underside of Cape Town’s exclusive nightclubs. It shows that the violent clashes over the control of nightclub security are intimately linked to both police corruption and the brutal gang wars which terrorise the Cape Flats.

South Africa’s reintegration into the world economy, at the height of 1990’s casino capitalism, was accompanied by the globalisation of the local crime world. Her book introduces a UN of dodgy characters such as alleged high-ranking member of the Sicilian Mafia Vito Palazzolo, Yuri “the Russian” Ulianitski and the imaginatively named “Houssain Moroccan”, from Morocco.

But the book’s primary focus is notorious local ‘legitimate businessman’ such as the deceased Cyril Beeka and the present murderous rivalries between Mark Lifman, Nafiz Modack and the feuding Booysen brothers. The book is a fascinating insight into the berserk, hyper-macho, hyper-violent, hyper-consumerist career criminals and rogue security agents.

As Dolley stressed at her recent Johannesburg book launch, it’s ordinary people who pay the price of organised crime. The resulting violence affects everyone from bystanders caught in the crossfire to low-level gangsters fighting for the glory of remote drug barons, who don’t even care if they live or die.

Organised criminality is also a serious political challenge to our fragile democratic order, with compromised politicians, businessmen and police working to cover up their dark secrets, many of which stretch back to the dying days of the apartheid state. In Dolley’s telling, these secret conflicts have now been passed down, becoming an intergenerational nightmare.

The fragmentary understanding that we do have of this hidden history reveals startling and unexpected connections between murky realpolitik and hedonistic nightlife. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johannesburg was terrorised by Ferdi Barnard, a mullet-wearing, crack addled policeman-assassin. Barnard, who murdered the activist David Webster, straddled the worlds of political repression and dirty commerce, showing how apartheid broke down any meaningful distinction between cop and criminal.

In a drug fuelled interview, Barnard revealed his crimes to the journalist Jacques Pauw. Pauw would turn this chilling experience into a fiction book, Little Ice Boy, which dives deep into Barnard’s twisted psyche. The novel shows how apartheid weaponised the violent, insular culture of white South Africa. A monstrous system not only produced absolute low-lives like Barnard, but actively needed them to do its endless dirty work.

Simultaneously, the early 1990s arrival of the utopian rave scene in South Africa was fuelled not only by excitement about the death of apartheid, but by potent ecstasy and LSD. Evidence from the times shows that some drugs may have in fact been manufactured by Project Coast, a top-secret chemical and biological weapons project overseen by Wouter “Dr Death” Basson. Among a litany of other crimes, Basson also decided to make money on the side by selling ecstasy, which the apartheid military once thought might be deployed as a pacifying crowd control agent.

It’s strange to think that the pin-eyed, brightly coloured hedonism of club culture may have been partly enabled by Basson, a man who epitomises the blood stained khaki venality of the apartheid war machine.

This entanglement of druggy counter-culture and the security state is not without precedent. The widespread diffusion of LSD through popular culture in the 1960s was inadvertently aided by government attempts to turn the substance into a Cold War mind control tool. As noted psychonaut John Lennon once said “we must always remember to thank the CIA and the army for LSD, by the way”.

One person who was profoundly shaped by their engagement with drugs was Mikey Schultz, who in Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble can be found fondly reminiscing about his tripping days. But Schultz was no run of the mill raver. He was a frightening member of the security company Elite, a notoriously murderous bouncer mafia, which specialised in extortion and the nebulous  business of “just sorting people out”. In Elite’s case, sorting out meaning things like gunning down Hell’s Angels in busy restaurants and stabbing rival bouncers to death in a parking lot, the aftermath captured in ghostly CCTV.

In an almost unbelievable series of events, Schultz and his accomplices Nigel McGurk and Faizel “Kappie” Smith ended up as the henchmen of politically connected businessman Brett Kebble. Kebble had gotten himself trapped in a landslide of fraud and white-collar crime. He apparently decided to arrange his own murder, so that his family could receive his life insurance payout before the law closed in on him.

After several incompetent failed attempts, (a recurring motif in the criminal careers of Mikey Schultz and the boys), they succeeded, indeed in, finally killing Brett Kebble. However, they were ultimately given immunity for their crimes, in exchange for testifying against drug smuggler Glenn Agliotti, which in turn would bring about the downfall of police chief Jackie Selebi.

Even though it came out almost a decade ago, the book’s depiction of state capture and general sleaze feels like it’s ripped from today’s headlines. In particular, Wiener offers the rich frisson of low life meets high society, with a street thug like Schultz intersecting with the gilded life of Brett Kebble, a patron of the arts and manipulator of politicians.

The books also offers dark comical portraits of oversized characters like Jackie Selebi, who melodramatically ponders his plight like an aging Shakespearean actor. And then there is Glenn Agliotti, a man completely enwrapped in the fantasy that he is a Godfather style mafioso, despite coming from the Free State. He’s the type of person who casually makes statements like “he was also in business selling arms to Columbians and I was told their silent partner was an apartheid era- cabinet minister”.

Too be fair, South Africa is hardly unique in having its nightlife economy corrupted by the underworld. Most famously, Manchester’s legendary Hacienda nightclub, an iconic part of the acid house movement, was forced to close down because of gang violence.

The Hacienda was itself founded by members of the band New Order. In their earlier incarnation as Joy Division, they released a song that could serve as epitaph for Brett Kebble’s staged murder. I’m sure Kebble, the aesthete, would appreciate these words from “Shadowplay”:

In the shadow play, acting out your own death, knowing no more,

As the assassins all grouped in four lines, dancing on the floor

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