Gansbaai on the Cape south coast and criminal triads operating in the Far East have a deadly connection.
The tiny fishing village is the hub of South Africa’s illicit abalone trade, which has developed into a violent “perly” (perlemoen) turf war, which in recent times ended in bloody shoot-outs with law enforcement officers.
In exchange for the threatened mollusc species, a delicacy in Asia, Chinese/Asian gangs, otherwise known as triads, provide local drug merchants with a steady supply of Mandrax and tik (methamphetamine), which have flooded the Cape Peninsula and are causing huge social problems.
Criminal experts say the drug trade is at the heart of gangsterism and the main reason why parts of the Cape Peninsula have the highest crime rates in South Africa.
Abalone on the overseas market is worth more than R400/kg. It is estimated that 75 million abalone – 40000 tons – have been illegally harvested in South African waters since 2001.
An illustration of how the drug kingpins become instant millionaires was shown in the last case study conducted in 2014 by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) on the illegal abalone trade in the Western Cape.
The report said a prominent gang leader reportedly said he could trade $43000 (R584000) worth of abalone for methamphetamine worth $64000.
“For two days work, I make an extra R150000,” he said.
An investigator into the illicit abalone trade in Gansbaai was at the receiving end of death threats and is in hiding.
Speaking on condition of anonymity in fear of his safety, he said: “Gansbaai is the Mecca for abalone syndicates.The 28s (a prison gang) have depleted the shores in Hawston and now it is an all-out turf war with the 26s in the area. People are being killed in drive-by shootings and in their driveways.
“The 28s gang are using high power rubber ducks that are faster than the ones used by police officers. Sometimes, they are dropped off in bakkies in Gansbaai and make their way back on the speeding rubber ducks.”
A police officer commenting on the abalone trade said: “It runs very deep into the channels of police, politicians, law enforcement, the judiciary and organised crime. It’s a well-oiled racket that fuels the drugs business in the country.”
The ISS report also focused on Cape Town’s Hout Bay community which, according to researcher Khalil Goga, is the location of major organised criminal poaching activity and typical of the poaching trade across the province.
“Many people in the community don’t see poaching as a crime and in the Hangberg area of Houtbay poaching is sometimes referred to as informal fishing.
The likelihood of poachers being reported to the authorities is far less likely than in other crimes,” Goga said.
He also found there was evidence that large-scale poachers, who employ a number of divers and collect and dispose of abalone, have turned to “criminal philanthropy” to gain community support in certain areas. This involves donations to people and religious bodies and financial support of local projects, a strategy similar to that employed by drug dealers on the Cape Flats.
Goga found that in Hangberg many young people have rejected gangsterism in favour of poaching as the risks were lower and the rewards greater.
“This has led to many youth leaving school at a young age as they poach at night and are too tired to attend school during the day. Failure to gain sufficient skills means that poaching is the only viable job opportunity for such persons.”
Both the investigator and Goga concurred that the scourge was compounded by corrupt police officers “looking the other way” in the Western Cape and across the country.
In May last year, police bust WO Daniel October in Gansbaai after they found 8 397 shucked abalone in his garage. He is one of five police officers on trial in the Western Cape High Court with 20 other accused in a racketeering case involving one of the biggest abalone syndicates in the country.
It’s estimated the main abalone poaching syndicate has 700 members.
Research shows poached abalone turnover over a 13 year period could have reached R2bn.
Court papers said the illicit enterprise was headed by a Frank Barends and Chinese fugitive Ran Wei who has been at large for seven years. Barends alone benefited to the tune of R14m.
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, responding to questions about the threat to abalone as a marine species, said it was engaged with Interpol in a bid to stem the illegal trade in abalone at an international level.