KHUTSONG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The two young, black gang members wore knitted bonnets pulled low over their foreheads and spoke matter-of-factly about the people they had killed.
"We would meet after school and decide what to target," said Michael Moni, 19. "It was mostly the police, who are enemies of the people, and others who sided with the police. Then we would take action" -- a euphemism among South African street toughs like Moni for firebombing a house or "necklacing" a person -- an execution in which a gasoline-filled tire is secured around a person's neck or body and then ignited.
Moni and his young friend, Lord Phage, 16, are members of the Gadhafi Gang in this black township outside the gold-mining town of Carletonville, 70 miles west of Johannesburg. Their gang, and others like it, have contributed to the recent rise in violence in black townships around Johannesburg by killing, burning and firebombing -- all in the name of the African National Congress. None of these gangs is affiliated with the ANC, but they have claimed falsely that their actions were authorized by the black nationalist movement.
The Monis and Phages of the township gangs may have thought they were fighting apartheid, but the only thing they furthered was violence against blacks by blacks -- by taking part in the bloodshed and thereby giving rise to vigilante groups to oppose them. The ANC, here and elsewhere, has reacted to these gangs -- as well as to the vigilante groups they spawned -- by trying to drive them out of existence.
Tsotsis, or street thugs, such as Moni and Phage have been a longtime feature of South Africa's black townships. Now they are called comtsotsis in township slang, because they have presented themselves as ANC "comrades," or freedom fighters involved in the black struggle to end apartheid, the white government's system of racial separation.
"They are really tsotsis who grew up in an atmosphere of revolution. They think that what they are doing is right, that they are furthering the liberation struggle," said Malcolm Tshupe, a doctor and member of the Khutsong Civic Association, who has helped establish an ANC youth branch in the township in an attempt to bring the young gangsters under control.
"Vehicles and business premises were set on fire, students were intimidated, young girls were raped, people who called for discipline were necklaced, and the police could do nothing to help because the gang drove them out of the township," Tshupe said.
Moni and Phage said their gang was named for its leader, who had styled himself after charismatic Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. They agreed to give an interview, which took place in a high school classroom, because the South African police presence here is so minimal that the two have little fear of prosecution for the crimes they freely admit to.
Moni insisted that the Gadhafi Gang, or G-Gang as they became known here, chose their "targets" for good reason. "There was this businessman who had a shop and fixed cars in his spare time," Moni said, giving an example. "We told him he shouldn't repair policemen's cars, but he said we couldn't tell him what to do. He was uncooperative, so his shop was burned."
Phage told of a local businessman who ran for election to the township council. He collected money to build a day-care center, but after he was elected, none appeared. He, too, was "found guilty" by the G-Gang, and his shop was burned down.
"There was no trial," Phage explained. "We just sat down and discussed the case and decided he was guilty."
Another target was a tavern-keeper who served drinks to off-duty policemen -- until his tavern was firebombed.
Moni and Phage said that until a few weeks ago, when the ANC negotiated a kind of peace here, any commercial vehicle entering Khutsong was liable to be stoned and set afire.
"Delivery van owners pay tax to the government, so by burning the vans we were weakening the apartheid economy," Moni explained.
According to Michael Cross, a specialist in township youth culture at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, comtsotsi gangs began appearing after the first major black uprising in Soweto in 1976.
In trying to repress the uprising, the government outlawed black movements and detained nearly all black political leaders. "The uprising popularized the political struggle. Then the detention of the political leadership created space for the expression of gang culture," Cross said in an interview.
He said the same thing happened, but on a larger scale, during the black uprising between 1984 and 1987. After the government declared a state of emergency in 1986, thousands of black political leaders were again arrested, Cross said, leaving undisciplined gangs free to exploit the popularization of the anti-apartheid struggle.
According to Cross, as the political leaders began to reemerge in 1988, the comtsotsis became regular gangsters again. But the legalization of the ANC and release of its leader, Nelson Mandela, last February caused a new political surge that they have been able to exploit, Cross said.
"The comtsotsis are again manipulating this popular explosion, especially in areas where the ANC is not sufficiently organized, creating one of the biggest problems facing the movement," Cross said.
Khutsong was one of the townships where the ANC was slow to organize. Its absence enabled the Gadhafi Gang to emerge when the black miners' union called for a consumer boycott last February to protest a decision by the Carletonville town council to close the town's parks to blacks.
Moni and his friends presented themselves as monitors of the boycott, taking reprisals against anyone seen buying in Carletonville's white-owned shops.
From there, their role as a self-styled ANC gang grew to targeting anyone or anything perceived as aiding the state. As the G-Gang terrorized the township, resentment grew. A rival gang, also claiming ANC provenance, arose to counter them.
Known as the Zimzims, this second gang was supported by many of the township's black businessmen whose shops, taverns and trucks were being burned. "The Gadhafis were waging war on the community," said David Lesotho, one of the Zimzims. "No one was allowed to report a case to the police. If you did, your life was in jeopardy. Every case had to be reported to them. They formed their own kangaroo courts. They started raping, necklacing, hijacking cars and taxis -- and no one could say anything about it. We felt we had to organize ourselves to combat this crime."
A bitter gang war ensued, in which 22 people were killed and 19 houses destroyed. Now an uncertain peace has returned to Khutsong. The ANC stepped in a few weeks ago and, working with Tshupe and other members of the civic association, established a youth branch, drawing members of both gangs into its executive.
"That is the only way to deal with this problem," said Tshupe. "You have to draw them in and make them responsible for keeping order."
Once an official ANC presence was established in the township, the gangs could no longer claim affiliation with the movement. Both the Gadhafis and the Zimzims are now believed to have disbanded.