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Star Force's reign of terror . . . and the rise, decline of Bulawayo street gangs

02 Feb 2020 at 12:15hrs | Views
IT is hard to separate truth from fiction when one talks of the legend of the one-time Bulawayo street gang known as Star Force.  

When those who grew up in Nkulumane, where it is thought to have originated from, speak of the gang, it is with a mixture of awe, excitement and fear. The stories about this group and its leaders send a chill up the spine of the hardest of men. Years after the gang disbanded, the stories about Star Force may tickle any eager listener.  

Anyone who grew up in Nkulumane or surrounding suburbs knows the stories. This was the same gang that, according to urban legend, forced a headmaster and his teachers to sing the country's national anthem backwards. How they did this no one knows or cares to explain.

While machete gangs are running amok around Zimbabwe, hacking their way into infamy, writing their way into the history books with blood, Star Force had in the early 90s already had a tool of their own to spread alarm and despondency.

"Andrea Mutonono was the most ruthless of the Star Force members. I remember they loved using shovels and he would go to the shops at Munyoro and demand that they give him the alcohol he wanted or he would destroy the shop," said Gloria Ndlovu, who once lived opposite the gangsters in Nkulumane 10.

"I don't know why they loved using shovels. They preferred to use shovels and bicycle chains," she said.  

Living near Mutonono sometimes made one an accessory to crimes they sometimes did not know about.

"At one time he took cases of booze from the bottle store and dumped them near my window. My neighbour alerted me to this and since he lived in the house opposite mine I told him I don't want to be arrested and he said he understood and came to take the alcohol. He then came with his shovel and told my neighbour that because she was someone he lived in the community with, he wouldn't beat her up but instead he would break all the windows in her house. He went on to do just that," said Ndlovu.

Star Force's actions sometimes seemed to have been plucked out of the liveliest pages from a crime thriller. For those who lived near them during the height of their reign of terror, however, they were not the loveable outlaws urban folklore has made them.

"Andrea and Casper were the ones that seemed to be most alike in thought. They were so daring that when they wanted a girl they would come and take her from her parents and there was nothing that they could do.

"There used to be a disabled man called Polite that lived with his family and he would ask that young guy to pick a stick and start hitting him until it broke. When it finally broke he would pick his own stick and start hitting his disabled relative. It didn't matter how much he cried, he would hit him until the stick broke. He would call that training," she said.

From police officers to teachers, no one was spared when Star Force took to the Nkulumane streets.

"I got to know about Star Force after I moved to Nkulumane because when I started staying there those guys gave me a baptism of fire," said former Sunday News Sports Editor Phineas Mukwazo.

"Those guys attacked me and I decided to retaliate because I believed that the pen is mightier than the sword. I said I will use my pen to destroy you."

Mukwazo went on to document Star Force's various escapades in the 90s. He remembers the one day when they forced teachers at Nketa High School, including one Wellington Takavarasha, now the CEO of the Zimbabwe Mining Federation, to line up and sing the national anthem. He remembers the day he met them, after they had been released from prison, sleeping on the road near Munyoro, blocking all traffic. When asked why they were doing this, they simply replied that they were celebrating their release.

"Star Force was a terror gang, pure and simple. At one time they beat up a police officer and took his cap and came to Munyoro. They were dancing around wearing the cap. When the riot police came they beat up everyone there, including me, but those boys had already left. It was like they could smell police coming their way and they would always disappear before the officers got there," he said.

Mukwazo, using the old adage that it takes a thief to catch a thief, had convinced law enforcement bosses in Nkulumane to use members of Star Force as crime busters. The measure worked for a while, as the crime rate dropped in Nkulumane. However, the officer in charge, an Assistant Inspector Clever Gwenzi, returned from leave and as an old school law enforcement agent, reportedly preferred a heavy handed approach. He fired the Star Force and they immediately went on another crime wave.

"There were others like Andrea Mutonono who was against the idea of becoming a part of the police force. They were resistant. I remember they had a hideout in Pumula and that is where he was hiding after one of their jobs and police found out about the hideout. They found him but he escaped and he ran all the way to Mpopoma and that was where he was shot," said Mukwazo.

While Star Force was the most notorious of the street gangs in the 90s, it was not the only one. Nkatha was a smaller rival while Bulldogs and Amandebele operated in Lobengula West and Magwegwe North respectively. Pelandaba had its own fair share of a group called Masakura ninja.

"It was just plain territoriality," said Philani  Nyoni who saw the later two groups in action. "It was a means of organising the local boys into a group that could defend the neighbourhood from 'invaders' which usually meant one would just beat you up for living on the wrong side of the road."

However, these groups were also not the first. For Cont Mhlanga, Star Force, Terror 10 and other street gangs that mushroomed in the 90s were a watered version of the real gangster they saw growing up in Makokoba.

"I think a lot of people might point to the 80s and 90s as a time of great street gangs but for those who know the old Bulawayo, the period from the 50s to the 70s is when there were a lot more gangsters. There was a noticeable decline in the gang life in the 70s because that was when the war was now at its peak. Those same guys that were on the streets also went to join the war effort," he said.

Mhlanga remembers such notorious names as Zandla Ezibomvu and Green Bomber, gang leaders who doubled as boxing promoters. This was during the era when people could still challenge each other in fights at township square. The fights had no referees or breaks and even weight divisions were done away with.

"You can't talk of the gangsters of that era without talking about the sport that natured that gangster culture. That sport was at the centre of gang activity and when that sport went into decline so did the gang culture. That was the sport of boxing. During colonial times that was sort of legal for black people. So that is why Stanley Square became the centre of all activities.

"One thing that people need to understand is that gangsters just don't come from nowhere. There have to be social conditions and a culture that makes it possible for gangs to be born. So the gangster culture in Makokoba started in Makokoba because you had the Vundu Flats which were an all male hostel and there used to be a place called Ezinkabini which also made Iminyela a hotbed for gangsters. So crime sparked in those places because it was all men in one place and if one wanted to be a boss amongst the gangsters and earn the respect of their peers they needed to be able to prove that they could put people down with their fists hence the popularly of boxing," he said.

While for Mhlanga Star Force, which some allege started as a karate club, was an offshoot of Makokoba's gang culture, Mukwazo said that they were a different proposition altogether. With the passing of Mutonono, Star Force, and gang culture in Bulawayo, went on a steady decline. Casper Maphosa is now a man of God while fellow leader Godfrey Mlalazi is also now reportedly a pastor. With their leaders either dead, in prison or born again, Star Force has not been a factor on Bulawayo streets for two decades. The gang's name however, lives forever in infamy.   

"Star Force was a terror gang. They weren't like gangs like Spoilers who came before them. Spoilers took advantage of the Rhodesian situation to undertake their operations. Those guys were straight killers and were not afraid to murder which was a bit different from Star Force. Those guys wanted to just cause chaos and instil fear among people," he said.

Source - sundaynews
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