Cops & dealers on Joburg's streets

Paul McNally writes on the relationship between 'the law' and the drug trade in the metro

Obi always predicted he would manage his own business. When he came to Johannesburg from Nigeria he began to work for Chuba, selling pieces in the street, outside the security gate on Raymond’s patch of Ontdekkers.

‘Obi was a worker. He was Chuba’s right-hand man. His main man,’ says Raymond. Obi was prone to working the system. He knew that Chuba would never let him leave the business voluntarily; he would need to crank open a door, with his own sweat and money, and rush through it if he wanted to escape.

All of Chuba’s dealers are in the country illegally. He holds the strategy of keeping them poor so they won’t have the agency to move away from him. It is in his interest to keep them downtrodden and needing him and so he controls their income carefully. Because they are on the street, he turns them into obvious criminals, who are known to the police.

There is a sense that all the dealers are on trajectories to try to start their own operations, but a new break-away business needs capital. Obi is one example who played the game cleverly to the end. He had valuable product available (as all the dealers do) so he planned a way to extract the product without paying Chuba, avoiding the dreaded written tally Chuba keeps for the total number of packets, and money in and money out, in his book behind the security gate.

Obi’s scheme was to pretend to be the victim of a mass robbery of supplies by the police. His story to Chuba was that his supplies had been taken. He had regrettably been unable to swallow them in time – breaking one of the important rules of Chuba’s empire. And once he had convinced Chuba that he’d been mugged, he sold the pieces. This he did initially while still working for Chuba. He had the customers trusting him, coming directly to him, so he would use that attention to sell a couple of Chuba’s pieces and a couple from his own business pile. And with each of his own personal sales his profit was remarkable, while with Chuba he was on a standard hourly salary.

A point was building where Obi would have amassed enough funds to break away entirely and start his own enterprise which, he hoped, would rival Chuba’s. His plan was to find his own supplier and begin a rival stream of sales. This put him in a precarious space. Sooner or later he knew that his private sales were bound to attract attention. The race was on to see if Obi could gather the funds faster than Chuba could notice. But Obi had a parallel pursuit.

This one involved keeping a close eye on the strong, short-haired South African cop called Lerato. Being based in Lerato’s jurisdiction helped Obi find her, but it wasn’t vital. ‘Drug dealers don’t care about borders’ is often said on the strip, referring to the idea of officers sticking to their patches of jurisdiction while dealers (and cops collecting bribes) don’t need to be so rigid.

Lerato came from an impoverished home. She arrived at Florida as a student constable about six years ago in her late-twenties. She was a nice young woman, according to those who knew and spoke to her back then; in fact, she was described as ‘a wonderful person, sweet and innocent by all accounts’. And then as a student constable, in the course of performing her duties, which would have brought her into direct contact with drug dealers, she met Obi. The story of how they met has a mythological quality among those who know her and have been shouted at by her. ‘You could even say they met through work. He whispered sweet words to her while she was searching his car,’ one member of CPF joked to me.

Whatever it was, Lerato and Obi, the cop and the drug dealer, saw something in each other, and in each other they found a match. Obi’s business was taking shape nicely, but like all dealers, he ran the daily risk of police interference, in one form or another. Cynically, the potential for immunity from the law if he became intimate with a police officer may have occurred to him.

When Raymond is telling me how long he has been compiling his pictures and videos he says: ‘I still have a memory card from when Obi was working here, for Chuba.’ He says this with a tone of nostalgia, like they were the good old days. ‘Obi used Lerato to get his new premises and to chase whoever was there out,’ he says.

Obi started to get Chuba’s customers too.

Raymond’s view is that Chuba is afraid of Lerato. The fear isn’t from sheer force, but more the financial choke she can present. ‘He is making R90k a day and Lerato has the power to prevent him from making this R90k a day. She can cut off his livelihood. If you can cut me from R90k to R20k, am I not going to bow down to you?’ This is what she holds over Chuba, Raymond says.

Raymond isn’t afraid of either of the two lovebirds, and has told them so to their faces, but individually and on separate occasions. As a united force, however, he might have cause for concern. Together they are a different enemy. Together they terrorise members of the strip with immunity and no one can be sure how far they will go.

In reaction to Lerato being back on normal duty after her period of discipline, Raymond begins confronting the police out on Ontdekkers as they idle in their cars waiting for a dealer to serve them. The more paranoid he becomes about the police in private, the more aggressive he becomes towards them on the strip.

‘I tell them that we all know that you are corrupt and that you are taking money,’ he says. The cops get angry. They don’t shout and swear, but they became scared enough to resist the bribe money, at least, he says, while he’s watching.

Raymond has accepted that his actions towards the police may mean he’ll become a body that is never found and a docket that is deliberately spoilt, but he hasn’t considered that his tragedy might not be his death but his own corruption. In these early days this hasn’t crossed my mind yet either.

‘I prefer someone who respects me,’ he says one day soon after he has terrorised one of the cops in the street. ‘The Nigerians respect me more than the police do. A cop comes in a police van and knows someone is doing something illegal and takes money from them instead of arresting them. While a Nigerian will bend down and greet me with respect.’

There is a new, more substantial reason why the dealers won’t destroy Raymond. It is because he wants to break down the corruption, which for the drug empire is an expense. He hasn’t always wanted to break the corruption. It used to just be the dealers. This turn on the police is new, but the drug dealers understand how to play a long game with the folk around them. The cops are a debit in the ledger Chuba meticulously keeps.

This new behaviour by Raymond is encouraging to them: every cop that Raymond approaches and barks at from the pavement and instils with enough fear to send them away without taking ‘bread money’ that day streamlines Chuba’s empire. A community member’s rage against corruption is a state encouraged by the dealers.

If Raymond was to expose and remove the corrupt police force entirely, then it is feasible to think the result would be that Chuba’s operation would be left entirely vulnerable. Theoretically, the dirty cops would be replaced by clean cops and Chuba would be put out of business and arrested. But the dealers don’t believe an ending like this is possible.

This was made palpable for me one afternoon when, just after midday, a man named Punja comes into Raymond’s shop. Punja is the floor manager of Chuba’s drug activities. He looks tired and fidgety.

A dealer is paid according to the number of hours he performs. But there are certain dealers who are on call (like a surgeon) for 24 hours at a time, when they live and nap perpetually on the premises. Punja is one of these.

Punja doesn’t look at me directly, but straight ahead at Raymond.

Nevertheless Raymond introduces me, telling Punja I’m a journalist. I understand that ethically this is the right thing to do, but still it makes me nervous.

‘He’s a good employee,’ says Raymond, pointing at Punja, who is wearing a striped dark purple shirt and has his phone in his hand. It rings constantly and he answers it again and again. He only comes to life with a laugh when I tell him that he’s clearly an asset to Chuba’s company.

Punja is upset because, he says, when six guys were arrested earlier this year (properly arrested, not a fake bust) only three of them were carrying drugs and three were ‘planted’ with 20 pieces by the cops.

Raymond is sympathetic. For him the moral code is obvious. ‘I believe if you catch him with something, then arrest him, but don’t beat him,’ he says.

He is becoming sickened by the abuse he observes at the hands of the police.

He seems to keep his own battering of the dealers – to pick up his baseball bat when the mood takes him – in a separate category, with his own set of justifications. ‘They plant drugs on him and then release him when he’s bleeding,’ he says. This is where Raymond draws a line: it is fair to arrest a dealer if there’s evidence, but planting drugs on a dealer is wrong.

The average daily wage Chuba pays his dealers is about R600. He finds most of his dealers in Hillbrow on the streets, promises them food and money and holds their passports so their options remain limited. They will be ridden by their boss until their bounty exceeds their worth and they vanish into jail.

Once they are in jail they are lost, Punja says to Raymond – that is why the bribing had to happen. Raymond nods. ‘No foreigner is ever going to go to the cops,’ he says. Punja agrees to speak to me, knowing I’m a journalist, because, he says, if we expose the corruption of the police, then his life will become infinitely easier. He pulls a chair closer towards me and sits down.

I ask him if he’s concerned about speaking to a reporter. Punja say he doesn’t care. He knows that the drug operation is a constant, because they are producing a product that people will demand forever (and he’s resigned to the idea that he will be forced to work this job until he’s killed or put in jail).

Every cop who is exposed for torturing a dealer and is taken out of circulation is considered a positive for Punja. It’s totally incomprehensible to him that if the corrupt cops are removed, then fresh, straight policeman will arrive and close down Chuba’s dominance. Punja believes there is no way the bribery is going to stop.

He wants corrupt cops exposed and arrested and removed from the territory so new and less experienced cops will take their places and will be content for a while with accepting smaller bribes. Punja sees fresh policemen as less greedy, at least to begin with, and so believes they will take less money.

It will take time for them to become unsatisfied with the ‘bread money’ and feel the need to go for the big fake busts. Each cop is on a path to being a greater liability for the operation, but if the tank can be regularly cleaned then the expense is kept to a minimum. Punja wants the corrupt police exposed and for a moment, even if we have different motives, the three of us are in agreement.

Punja stands up, apologises to me and exits to supervise a considerable shipment of drugs that has arrived in the blue Toyota Tazz.

‘The way they see it,’ says Raymond, watching him go, ‘is if the police aren’t stopped by me or by journalists,’ he waves his hand at me to signify the media, ‘they can’t work.’ The corrupt stalwarts are clogging the system. This situation exists because of a total breakdown of management and lack of accountability within the police. ‘Punja wants it broadcast that the police are corrupt so they have more freedom to work.’

Obi owns a Mercedes-Benz. It isn’t quite silver, it’s grey, but it is a convertible and on occasion Lerato drives it to work. The Mercedes shines in Florida police station’s parking lot beside the standard Volkswagen state vehicles. This is the obnoxious flaunt of Lerato not caring who knows about their relationship.

Paul McNally writes about the relationships between the drug dealers and the police in Johannesburg in The Street: Exposing a World of Cops, Bribes and Drug Dealers(Pan Macmillan, 2016), from which the article above is extracted. Available at all good book shops. For info on ordering the book visit www.thestreetbook.co.za