The Staggie I know

Rashied Staggie seemed bemused to be greeted by the media attention as he left Pollsmoor Maximum Security prison for his first day parole this week. It would have been interesting for him to see that he was still newsworthy. But he may well be bemused as he confronts the question of what lies ahead for Rashied Staggie?

The story is well known: the Staggie twins grew up in abject poverty and took control of Manenberg on the Cape Flats to build one of the country's most feared streets gangs, the Hard Livings, as well as the most lucrative drug cartel of the time. The legend was that Rashied was the violent partner while his brother Rashaad was the brains of the operation. Their rule was broken when Rashaad was brutally killed in 1996, after a group of Pagad members marched on his Salt River home.

But before their demise the Staggie twins were a force to be reckoned with. Before the 1994 elections, as politicians and activists tried to wrest control of the Western Cape, they courted Rashied and Rashaad as a means to sway the people's vote. The brothers saw right through this and play-acted their way through the elections with mocking glee. Rashaad played himself off as very much a National Party man while Rashied was known as an ANC man after he had been approached by activists to persuade residents in Manenberg that it was the only party that could change people's lives. It became an amusing rivalry for the two brothers and their charges in the Hard Livings gang and became as mythical a story as the one about the brothers regularly driving down the streets of Manenberg, throwing wads of cash out of the window of their latest luxury German sedan for the poor people of the suburb.

I am under no illusion that Rashied Staggie was a bad man who did very bad things. A victim of circumstance? Perhaps, but there were others who grew up under worse circumstances. But Rashaad's death was the turning point for Rashied. He may not have wanted to give the impression that his brother's killing had rattled him - even suggesting at the time that those who set Rashaad alight and shot him to death got "the wrong brother". But make no mistake ... something inside Rashied Staggie changed on that fateful night of August 1996.

Soon after Rashied was baptised at the Shekinah Tabernacle Church in Beacon Valley, Mitchells Plain, and claimed to be a born-again Christian, advocating peace among rival gangs. He was fully aware of the ever-present threat of Pagad. It was during this time as a crime reporter for a Cape Town newspaper that I came to know the man (who referred to his twin brother Rashaad simply as "Broer") a little better.

I learnt that Rashied may well have been the brains of the Staggie twins' partnership. He cunningly used every opportunity available to him during press conferences at the Mitchells Plain church and during court appearances to spread a message of peace and to portray to the public that he was a rehabilitated man (he was by now on trial for weapons theft from a police base as well as a charge for ordering the rape of a police informant, both of which would lead to his most recent 10-year prison stint). On one occasion, as he addressed a magistrate in a Cape Town court, Rashied didn't answer a single question relevant to his trial but chose the platform to denounce the type of lifestyle that saw him rise to power in the underworld. The magistrate tried to steer the interrogation but it was a futile exercise. One got the impression that while he didn't want to go to jail he thought it was inevitable. But if he was going down he was at pains to paint the picture of a man who had changed his ways. Rashied used the most eloquent Afrikaans on the witness stand to make his point in court, often leaving his high-price lawyer exasperated because he wasn't sticking to the story. Rashied could easily switch to fluent prison gang language, called sabela, depending on his audience to run his public relations campaign.

During an interview with Rashied at Brandvlei prison he pointed out a Pagad member to me who was in the same jail for a case related to the anti-drug group. Rashied claimed he had smoked "a peace pipe" with the Pagad member and he claimed the Pagad member had now forgiven him. It was a dangerous game Rashied was playing. But I got the impression that he knew exactly what he was doing. On other occasions I would get access to Rashied via his wife calling him at the prison. It was most useful to get Rashied's perspective on whatever gang battles were raging on the outside.

Some may argue that Rashied, already in his 50s, is a spent force. A new leader is in charge of his Hard Livings gang and the younger successor won't easily relinquish his position of power. This may well make him a target. The underworld of Cape Town may also view Rashied as a threat to their existing drug and gang networks. He is a resourceful man who should not be underestimated. But 10 years in prison is a long time in the world of crime. The Rashied Staggie I saw interacting with his family while he was behind bars was no different to any other doting father and husband. After spending a decade in prison, is Cape Town ready for a Rashied Staggie who wants to return to a life of crime? Or is Rashied Staggie ready for Cape Town where the reins of drug and gang empires have changed hands a number of times over the past few years?

Despite the attention of some interesting characters like Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene, who waited patiently outside Pollsmoor Prison for Rashied's release, life on the outside is going to be a challenge. Correctional Services is going to watch him like a hawk thanks to all the media attention. Throw into this volatile mix the recent resurgence of Pagad and the picture of what lies in store for Rashied Staggie becomes fuzzier. One way or the other, the path he claimed to choose before going to jail - the one of a born-again, reformed man - is more likely to ensure his survival. The Rashied Staggie I know will choose this path … but then I got to know the Rashied Staggie who was down and out and had everything to lose.

Gasant Abarder is the Cape Town editor of Eyewitness News.