The murder of a Congolese doorman in Cape Town’s bustling Long Street on Saturday night has revived longstanding concerns about the city’s nightclub security industry, which researchers say has been controlled by powerful criminal groups for the last two decades. Joe-Louis Kanyona, 32, was stabbed in the neck at the entrance of Beerhouse, a popular bar located on the busiest section of the street, shortly after 10.30 pm. He died on the scene, leaving his wife and four-month old baby behind. CCTV footage of the incident shows four men entering and conversing briefly with the doorman — there were two on duty — before attacking Kanyona and running away. Customers fought to save his life but were unable to stem the wound: by the time paramedics arrived it was too late.
“Joe was a much-loved colleague and friend,” Beerhouse management wrote in a statement the following day. “Although he worked in the security environment he had a gentle soul, friendly demeanor and ready smile.”
This week has seen widespread speculation that the attack was orchestrated by protection rackets masquerading as legitimate private security firms, who since the end of apartheid have maintained a dominant position on the city’s lucrative nightlife market. According to research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) there is a deeply entrenched history of Mafia-style extortion in central Cape Town, where a network of ‘violent entrepreneurs’ capitalised on high levels of crime and weak policing in the early 1990s to set up alternative systems of patronage and control.
Extortion rackets wield disproportionate power over their clients and blur the lines between service and exploitation. They represent the archetypal form of organised criminal activity, appropriating functions typically reserved for the state, such as taxation and the enforcement of rules using violence.
Some scholars have flipped this to argue that the concept of the state is itself premised on racketeering, framing the state as a particularly widespread and successful manifestation of organised crime.
Rackets are dangerous because they attract underworld figures and operate beyond the confines of law — the same can be said of many governments, most recently evidenced by the Farlam Commission’s Marikana Report in South Africa, which has exonerated key political figures linked to the massacre — leaving their subjects vulnerable and without recourse in case of injustice.
In Cape Town, business owners were invited to sign up for ‘protection’, ostensibly from crime and other external threats but in reality often from the people doing the protecting.
A series of mobster figures have been linked to the city’s nightclub security industry. In the 1990s Cyril Beeka, a feared bouncer and karate instructor, allegedly held domain over the business, which, in addition to generating profits from fees, enabled dealers from the racket to sell drugs inside clubs they controlled. (A popular maxim in the trade holds that “whoever controls the door controls the drugs”.) Beeka repeatedly denied involvement in any racketeering activities.
After Beeka’s assassination in 2011 two former rivals, Mark Lifman and Andre Naude, partnered to form Specialized Protection Services (SPS), a new company that quickly monopolised the racketeering market, according to researchers. Within a few months SPS controlled security at nearly 200 venues, employing about 400 bouncers, the majority of whom were Congolese.
French-speaking Congolese immigrants dominate the city’s bouncer trade, a fact that has received little attention in the mainstream media to date.
In 2012 SPS was shut down for failing to register as a private security company. Business owners on Long Street say that the racket continues to operate under a different name, however.
“Their argument is that it’s better to have bouncers from a single company working at all the clubs,” said one bar manager, who requested to remain anonymous. “That way, if there is trouble at your venue — say five guys are fighting and you just have one bouncer — it’s possible to call for help next door.”
John Davidson, the owner of a bar further down the road, has spoken out since Saturday’s attack, telling radio station Cape Talk that protection racketeering was a “huge problem” on Long Street.
“They make you pay. I didn’t pay four years ago and I had my windows put through,” he said. “The murder of the bouncer is too much of a coincidence for it not to be related.”
According to reports this week, Beerhouse has repeatedly refused offers to sign up with the company, which now trades as Lifestyle and Entertainment Security Service, since opening its doors in 2013.
“If the only purpose of the proposal is to protect me from a threat that they cause themselves [then] I’m not going to feed that,” owner Randolf Jorberg said.
He has not responded to questions asking which company the murdered Kanyona worked for and what training he had for the job.
Lifman and Naude have previously denied allegations of wrongdoing and could not be reached for this article.
Shock at the display of violence has prompted debate about how to turn things around in Cape Town’s party hub and, inevitably, a new hashtag, #SaveLongStreet. The deeply entrenched nature of protection racketeering in the city, though — coupled with its links to broader criminal networks, and in turn to corrupt figures in government — will make stamping out the system that appears to have claimed Kanyona’s life difficult. Rackets are as much a part of nightlife here as music and drinking.
An online fundraiser had brought in close to R45 000 for Kanyona’s wife and child by the time this article was published.