Photograph © Ashraf Hendricks

GroundUp News

In the fishing community of Hangberg, below the westernmost kink of the Cape Peninsula’s crooked spine, lives a man who has, by his reckoning, mugged more than forty hikers and mountain cyclists in the last eight years. His name, for the purposes of this account, is Norton. He is diminutive and quick-eyed, with slicked hair and a bony jaw. He has thin scars across his forehead and neck. Although he is older than thirty, he looks, from afar, like a compact teenager, with arms too long for his body. He is not at all physically imposing but is capable of astonishing acts of violence.

His first mugging took place at the base of the Karbonkelberg trail, less than two kilometres walk from his current home, an overcrowded tenement belonging to his aunt. The trail winds steeply towards an abandoned radar station, built during World War Two, and offers grand views of Hout Bay and the Atlantic. It was once a popular recreational route but has become a mountain crime hotspot over the last decade, drawing fewer visitors than it used to. Most updated guides carry warnings — “It is not recommended that you go alone. Keep a mace spray on you for extra protection. Do not display your gadgets too publically,” advises one Western Cape hiking blog. Table Mountain Watch, a volunteer safety group, declared the area a no-go zone in 2010, a few years after Norton began working the slopes.

“It was a gay guy with a 4x4,” he told me of the incident that established his routine. “He had six or seven ladies with him. I was waiting a few turns up from the gate and watched them park. As they approached I hid myself in the bushes and started to practice. When they passed I took out my gun and asked them just to relax.”

Norton demanded their cash, jewellery, and cellphones, making them lay the items on a jacket to avoid scratches. Then he told them to step backwards. “You get mad people who will grab the gun or try fight. I didn’t want to shoot anyone; then I’d have had to shoot them all. Not that I don’t have the guts.”

It was an easy heist, and after visiting a local stolen goods dealer Norton made off with several thousand rand. He hadn’t needed to take risks or go out of his way: his victims, seeking solace in nature, had come straight to him. Born to a high-ranking 26s gangster, Norton had dropped out of school at the age of 15 and been a criminal his entire adult life. He’d worked, briefly, as a poacher — first as a deck assistant, or bootsman, aboard the high-speed rubber ducks used for targeting offshore reefs; later as a novice diver — in the boom years of Hangberg’s illicit abalone fishery, when black-market prices for the shellfish skyrocketed in the early 2000s. He quit when rival poachers shot holes in his crew’s boat and police confiscated his scuba gear. Next he sold drugs, supplied by connections in the Junior Cisko Yakkies (JCYs), a notorious Cape Flats street gang he’d joined. The JCYs, or ‘Yakuzas’, named after Japan’s centuries-old mafia, were at war with the Americans gang in Mitchells Plain; to prove himself to his bosses, Norton had committed his first murder, he said. Lying in wait for well-resourced hikers, drawn to the mountain by forces from a different social universe to his own, was a far simpler method of obtaining money.

The murder Norton described to me in minute detail the first time I interviewed him, sitting outside a rundown bar in Wynberg one Saturday afternoon in 2015. I was taken aback by his willingness to talk. I’d met him through a contact in Hangberg, a former drug merchant who’d tolerated my questions about illicit trades for nearly two years. Perhaps to rid himself of me, the ex-merchant had taken me to Norton’s official place of work, a tradesman’s premises in Hout Bay where Norton earns less than R1,000 per week as a skilled labourer (redacted here to protect his identity). After a few words of introduction we’d exchanged numbers and made loose plans to connect. Mountain crime stories flood Cape Town newspapers and online forums but are told almost exclusively from the perspective of victims and law enforcement; I wanted to approach the issue, which is prominent precisely because it affects people of privilege, from the opposite direction. Norton seemed unperturbed by my request, and happened to be passing through the southern suburbs a fortnight later.

The man he killed had been bailed out of prison by the Americans “on condition that he shoot one of the JCYs in Eerste Rivier,” he explained in a low monotone, peeling the label off his beer. “After that shooting I was ordered to kill him. I went to his house and his mommy came to the door. She was disturbing me. I didn’t want to shoot him in front of her. I could see him standing around the corner; he had a gun and was wearing a genuine leather jacket. I told him that his ex-girlfriend wanted to talk, that she was sitting in my car down the road. His mommy went into the dining room, just past the wall. I shot him then, as he looked up at me, three times in the face and once in the chest. He fell and I shot him in his face again. His mommy was screaming so I kept one bullet in the gun, just in case.”

Norton, who recounted the hit with no discernible emotion, said he’d shot a total of five people; three of them had died. He has stabbed and assaulted countless others, often with minimal provocation. This is a lesson he learned from his father, a Numbers Gang General with six stars tattooed on each shoulder, representing individual murders he committed or ordered inside jail. “He would hit me if I ever came home crying after a fight,” Norton told me. “He’d say, ‘Are you a moffie? If anyone tries to hit you again, stab him.’ He taught me to stab the strong one in the group, the one with the most to say. To stab him in the face or eye, and run.”

On the mountain this experience translates into a ruthless calm. Norton typically approaches hikers to ask for water or coins; their response helps determine what happens next. If they are rude, or shrug him off, he hardens his voice and draws his gun. Few victims resist, although men sometimes try call his bluff or disobey his commands. It is very quickly apparent that Norton is not joking. “If you move one more time I’m going to shoot your wife,” he warned one young man in 2013, after being told to go to hell for requesting a cigarette. The man sat on the gravel and handed over his camera, two cellphones, rings, a gold chain, and the keys to his Volvo station wagon. In the car Norton discovered a wad of cash. He rolled to the bottom of Hangberg, abandoned the vehicle with the door open, and walked to stow the loot in one of the many shanties behind his aunt’s flat.

Norton calls his aunt “mommy” and hates disappointing her, though this has not prevented him from causing her a great deal of distress. He moved in with her at the age of two months and has returned during times of personal crisis; currently, he and his girlfriend sleep on a mattress in the dining room with their infant daughter. Norton’s father, who died several years ago, had fourteen children, five of them with Norton’s biological mother. The couple fought and drank heavily. Today, Norton’s mother lives in Hangberg, but he seldom visits her. “She wasn’t there for me,” he told me. “I don’t feel the same way about her. She’s still addicted to drugs.”

As a child Norton picked wild figs and built hideouts on the Karbonkelberg, the only section of the Table Mountain range, excluding the Cape Point reserve, not encircled by human development. He was a talented soccer player, representing Cape Town Spurs and FC Fortune at junior level. He attended trials for Ajax Cape Town when the club formed in 1999, and made the squad, but started smoking tik soon afterwards, signalling the end of his playing days. A growing methamphetamine addiction tugged him towards gangs, drug dealing, and the relentless churn of the stolen goods market, a lifestyle he is still trying to escape.

This August, I interviewed Norton for the second time, more than a year after meeting him in Wynberg. We’d kept in sporadic contact via Whatsapp. Though he’d told me, back then, that he’d cut ties with the JCY gang, his frequently updated profile pictures suggested otherwise, with underlined captions like 2”YACKUZA”6 appearing below blurred self-portraits. (Another image, a cartoon of a man going down on an impossibly big-breasted woman, stated: “IF YO MAN DON’T DO THIS TO U… U’RE IN A BAD RELATIONSHIP”.) He was taking a bath at his sister’s house when I arrived in Hangberg, so I waited in the street. A kid with a round face offered me marijuana from his backpack: “Indoor R200 a gram, outdoor R30 a gram.” A very direct teenage girl asked me if I was waiting for Norton after the young salesman left. “He’s like a father to me,” she said, pursing her lips and lighting a thin joint; it smelled like the expensive variety. She smiled at me and rejoined her friends behind a bright-painted shipping container, one of several spaza shops that sell cheap calories and cigarettes in front of the flats, to smoke and gaze out over the harbour. Norton walked up the stairs a minute later, looking even smaller than I’d remembered him, dressed in jeans and a long leather jacket.

“She’s talking kak,” he said, when I asked him about the girl. “She’s a prostitute. Girls like that sell their bodies from age ten.” His voice was barely audible and his cheeks were pallid. He was uncomfortable standing outside — “Everyone is wondering what you’re doing here with me” — so we drove to Fish on the Rocks, a takeaway spot, popular on weekends, tucked in a narrow tourist corridor between the port’s ice factory and Hangberg’s ragged lower slopes. (The Bay Harbour coffee-and-artisan-food market, “where the creative energy and the vibrancy of South Africa come alive in an old authentic fish factory,” according to the website, is up the road.) I parked and went in to buy coffee, leaving Norton in the car. A north wind was tugging the South African flags at the entrance, their ropes pinging the metal poles. Norton drank slowly, rolling his empty sugar sachet into a tight tube and drumming it against his thigh.

We’d been due to meet the afternoon before, but Norton had postponed. Actually, he’d gone to mug people on the mountain. “If I get money where I am now,, then its ok,” he’d responded when I’d texted him to confirm a time. Then he went offline for three hours. Finally, he updated me. “I came back 2 chapmans peak quickly lo0king for a Target.”

This information placed me in a bind. Knowing that Norton was, in all likelihood, preparing to point a gun at somebody innocent, I could have contacted SANParks or Table Mountain Watch, urging them to position a guard on the trail. This would have betrayed the trust Norton had placed in me. There was also a chance that he was lying. He went offline again and I couldn’t reach him all evening. I chose not to alert the authorities, and inquired after his endeavours the next day.

“I hid in the bushes near the parking spot and watched two people lock things in their boot,” he said. “Another couple came; I could see they’d brought nothing with them. I followed the first two up the path. I stopped them and asked for the car key, but the lady refused to give it to me. When I started to cock the gun” — he pronounced it “cork” — “her husband saw I was serious. He could see something was going to happen. He told her to give me the keys.”

Norton returned to the car, where he found R600. He threw the keys into the fynbos to delay the owners. There is no record of the incident at Hout Bay Police Station, but “not all mountain crimes get reported,” according to Andre van Schalkwyk, the founder of Table Mountain Watch. “Sometimes victims don’t bother opening a case. Other times, police officers actively discourage people from doing so — it just adds to their workload, and the cases are seldom solved.” The detail of Norton’s account led me to believe its veracity.

“The money was much too little,” Norton went on. He’d stopped working for the tradesman, fed up with the poor pay, and needed to support his children, he explained. (He has six, with six different women.) He was also using tik again, although he didn’t tell me this at the time. One of his daughters called while we were sitting outside the fish and chips shop. He told her that he was coming home soon, then placed the phone between his legs and continued talking to me. I could hear her voice buzzing through the speaker before the line cut. His phone rang again and he answered. “I didn’t put the phone down on you,” he said angrily. “No, I didn’t. I told you, I’m coming back now.”

Norton first went to prison for stabbing two brothers in Hangberg. One of the men was zipped inside a body bag and presumed dead, bleeding from two wounds in the neck, four in the back, and two in the chest, before a paramedic resuscitated him, Norton said. Norton has been jailed at least six times since then. Shortly after he began mugging people he embarked on a prolific career as a cat burglar, breaking into plush homes in the Hout Bay valley. (With its predominantly white and wealthy core, coloured harbour settlement, and expanding black township, Hout Bay is often invoked as a microcosm of South Africa.) Norton learned to deactivate alarms and scale fortified fences by trawling the internet — “I had to work out the right questions to ask Google” — and quickly gained a reputation for his abilities. His photograph appeared on Neighbourhood Watch websites. Skilled robbers from Imizamo Yethu, the township across the valley, invited him to work with them; their ranks included former Owambo soldiers, trained in the elite 32 Battalion during the Angolan border war. Though he claims never to have been caught red-handed, or apprehended with stolen items, Norton was convicted of housebreaking several times. “Other guys piemped me,” he said.

After robbing houses he usually calls accomplices to collect his haul, then treks back to Hangberg via concealed mountain trails. “I walk alone through the bush,” he told me. “I’m not afraid to be there at night. I don’t know any other person that knows the mountain like I do.” Some nights he climbs a low ridge above the harbour to scope new housebreaking opportunities. I accompanied him one evening recently, standing in a frigid wind with a clear view of the homes below. Norton, who’d been lethargic during most of our interviews, was animated and vigilant, darting his head and pointing whenever he spotted a police van or patrol car, though his voice remained flat and expressionless. I was struggling to see what he was showing me. “That’s Deep Blue Security,” he said, as a distant pair of headlights slid behind a row of gum trees. When the car emerged at the end of the block I could barely make out the light on its roof.

Norton began telling me a story. Three years ago, he said, he and a friend had broken into a rooftop bar in the harbour, intending to steal alcohol. The friend had shimmied onto the balcony first, instructing Norton to wait downstairs. There was a Congolese guard inside, asleep on a bench; when Norton’s friend opened the fridge, the guard woke up. Norton had grown uneasy, suspecting that his friend might be trying to cut him out of the deal, and decided to climb up to investigate. “The guard was pulling out his baton when I got there. I picked up a wine bottle and shouted at him to turn around. I broke five bottles on his forehead. My friend started hitting him too.”

Leaving the guard in a pool of blood, the men fled the harbour. “People were chasing us. We jumped walls and ran through gardens to get away,” said Norton, tracing a route through the neighbourhood beneath us. “We came up right here and went home.”

I shifted my weight while he was talking, inadvertently snapping a twig. “If you were working with me I’d tell you to be very careful now,” he said sharply. Flocks of guinea fowl roosted in the trees behind the first row of houses; sudden noises could set them shrieking, waking everybody up. Another animal to be wary of was the porcupine. “They attack you if you go near them. They’ve attacked me many times. You must stand still, and shine a light on them. Then they go away.”

Norton returned to prison in September, less than a month after our conversation at Fish on the Rocks. (When I’d asked him, that day, if he thought he’d be locked up again, he said: “Maybe. I don’t know where the wind is going to blow me.”) While Norton was in Pollsmoor, where he is a member of the 26s, his girlfriend, without informing him, sold their small wendy house for R5,000. Norton also learned that his motorbike had been stripped, with its battery stolen. He received news of both misfortunes on a cellphone, smuggled inside up the rectum of a frans (non-gangster). (“He must put it in his bum in plastic. If you don’t do it for me I force you.”) When Norton got out, several weeks later, he had nowhere to live and no form of transport. He had also changed phone numbers, and for a while I was unable to get hold of him.

He briefly moved in with one of his sisters, an overburdened but supportive single mother of four boys. I met her at her wooden bungalow one evening in November, waiting for Norton to finish work. He’d started assisting the low-wage tradesman again; I would soon find out why. When I knocked on the front door a chained pit bull lurched from its kennel, chasing me backwards. Norton’s sister yelled at the pit bull and invited me inside, watched shyly by two of her sons. I felt foolish for running from the dog and surprised by the domesticity of Norton’s former abode. (He’d gone back to live with his aunt, his sister explained.) The kitchen was cramped but well appointed, with an electric stove and extractor hob, piles of schoolwork on the table, and a calendar on the wall. One of the boys, aged ten or so, served me tea. It was difficult to picture Norton in that bright-lit place.

“I won’t allow him to stay here with his girlfriend,” Norton’s sister said, bouncing a toddler on her knee. “That woman is crazy. She sold their home for drug money. I don’t want her inside this house.”

The girlfriend had gone to live with her grandmother but been kicked out for smoking tik. Homeless, she’d begged Norton’s aunt to take her in. “Our aunt can’t say no to anybody. So now Norton is there too,” Norton’s sister sighed. “I don’t know why he doesn’t end that relationship; I think he’s doing it for the kid.”

Living with his aunt again has made Norton more circumspect about breaking the law. He was clean one of the last times I saw him, after abstaining from tik in prison, and wanted to leave armed robbery behind. “I don’t want to start smoking again,” he told me. “It makes me do bad things. But I didn’t grow up like that. I’ve disappointed my family, especially my aunt. She’s getting old — she’s a pensioner already. I don’t want her to run around for me, to come visit me in prison every time.”

He had stood at the window late one night the previous week, he said, watching torchlight flicker in the bushes above the harbour. He could tell from the motions of the beams, sweeping in rapid arcs, that it was the police, searching for a suspect. “My girlfriend asked me what I was staring at. I said it was nothing. But it felt good; I didn’t have to worry. I knew that they weren’t looking for me.”

He broke into a car outside the Bay Harbour Market less than three weeks later.

In addition to the financial pressures of supporting six young mothers and an intermittent but voracious drug habit, Norton owes more than R12,000 in legal fees for an armed robbery case that took more than four years to conclude. Norton mentioned the case to me repeatedly during our interviews, emphasising the exact same details over a period exceeding 18 months. He and two accomplices had walked to the top of the Karbonkelberg one afternoon in 2010 to see what they could find at the old radar station — copper, machine parts, anything else of value. They’d smoked a tik pipe in the gutted building and, rushing hard on the stimulant, decided to march back down. On the way they’d passed a party of hikers. It was hot, and Norton was thirsty, so he’d asked for water. The hikers refused.

“They said they didn’t have any. But we saw each of them had two bottles on their bags. My friend asked me afterwards, ‘Do you think that’s right, just to say no to our faces?’ I said, ‘Maybe they don’t want us to touch the bottles with our mouths.’ We decided that these people were racist.”

The wind was blowing uphill. Norton took out his lighter and tried to set the fynbos alight, hoping the flames would reach the hikers. It didn’t work so he made a call and arranged to borrow a gun.

“We walked back up from Hangberg. We were looking all over. Then I saw one of them crossing a path that leads towards a cliff. There’s no other way you can get down from there. We approached and I took out the gun. ‘Lie down,’ I told them. ‘I’ll give you ten seconds. I want all your jewellery, cash, cellphones, and cameras.’”

One of the women was wearing an 18-carat gold chain. Norton took it from her. As usual, he also took a set of car keys. Back in the parking lot he found the woman’s ID document and realised that he had just mugged Debora Patta, the investigative journalist and lead presenter from e.tv’s 3rd Degree.

But there is a problem with this story. When I contacted Patta for further details she told me that she detested hiking, didn’t know where Karbonkelberg was, and had never been mugged. “The only place I have put on hiking boots is to climb Kilimanjaro and in war zones,” she wrote. “But people use my name in all sorts of things, including saying that I interviewed them — somehow they even start to believe it.”

I relayed this information to Norton, who was adamant that he’d told me the truth. “Maybe she’s lying,” he shrugged. “It was in all the newspapers.” (I couldn’t find a single reference to the alleged offence.) Patta had given me the number of Barbara Friedman, a former colleague of hers who’d once produced a short piece on mountain crime. I called Friedman: perhaps Norton had encountered a different television unit, or seen Friedman’s segment when it aired, and gotten confused. Friedman told me that she had interviewed a handful of rangers and park officials but had not visited Hout Bay, spoken to any victims, or been mugged.

“I think you’ve mixed this up, man,” I told Norton, standing on the ridge above the harbour. “Call my lawyer and ask him,” he said. So I did. Advocate Nigel Japhta grunted with amusement when I told him what I was looking for. “Debora Patta? Hmh! No, it was three Germans.” He sounded unsurprised at the extent to which the story had shifted, but also a little impressed.

It was more straightforward to fact-check crimes that Norton committed within Hangberg. The majority of his victims have, for obvious socio-economic reasons, been white, but he has been an equal opportunity aggressor. When his poaching stint ended he slashed at least five rubber ducks with a carpet knife, charging kingpins R800 each to scuttle their rivals’ boats. One night, he stole a superbike belonging to a wealthy abalone diver; with two friends riding shotgun he raced it down the M3 and over Ou Kaapse Weg to Ocean View, in Kommetjie, where he traded the bike for R800, a Samsung smartphone, 30 Mandrax tablets, and ten grams of tik. (His friends, who made the 35 kilometre journey without helmets, got reimbursed separately.) For years Norton loitered outside drug dens in Hangberg, relieving customers of their cash or narcotics at gunpoint. One of the merchants paid Norton to leave his customers alone; more recently, merchants affiliated with an ascendent local poaching syndicate, funded by the 28s gang, have placed hits on Norton, who has been shot at and stabbed several times. All these incidents, as well as Norton’s anecdotes about his father, soccer career, drug dealing, poaching experience, assault of the Congolese security guard, and gang involvement, although not the murder in Mitchells Plain, were independently confirmed by Hangberg residents.

There is no doubt that Norton has robbed multiple mountain users. Charge sheets attest to this, as does the testimony of Norton’s former merchant, who regularly accepted bicycles and other stolen goods from him in exchange for tik. But it is impossible to verify portions of Norton’s narrative: the mugging of the gay hiker and his friends, or the young man whose wife Norton threatened to shoot, or the couple below Chapman’s Peak. On at least one occasion he seems to have told an elaborate lie to me, and perhaps to himself. I can best interpret this as a marker of Norton’s temperament. It is likely that he will return to the mountains, which have no fences and will continue attracting easy targets, when his money runs out, or if he starts smoking tik again, despite his intentions to stay clean and stop upsetting his aunt. “The mountain is for everyone,” he told me. “But there’s a lot of people who don’t know what’s happening here. That’s why you can do your stuff. You can do whatever you want; you can get away quickly. It’s easy.”

One overcast afternoon in October I took a walk up the Karbonkelberg. I carried a small canister of pepper spray and a stout wooden stick. More than 50 mugging incidents, involving more than 80 victims, have been recorded in the area between Hangberg and Sandy Bay since October 2008, the most anywhere on the peninsula, according to Table Mountain Watch. (Other hotspots include Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Rhodes’ Memorial, and Vlakenberg, above Constantia; during the same period, more than 2,000 people were murdered in Nyanga, Cape Town’s most violent township.) I kept watch for movement in the bushes ahead of me, feeling self-conscious and agitated. After a few minutes I saw a trail cut away from the gravel road and decided to see where it went. The vegetation closed in over my head and I could soon see no further than half a metre ahead of me. A used pink condom and torn sachet of Drink-O-Pop lay discarded on the sand. I was sweating, preparing to stumble into an outlaw’s hideout or a group of poachers returning from the sea, but then I emerged at the top, near a cliff with precipitous views of the Atlantic. A cross-breed dog pricked its ears at me and withdrew behind some rocks. After some hesitation I followed it, almost disturbing the two young hikers cuddling on the ledge. I turned without them noticing me and made my way back towards the bay.

This is a chapter in an upcoming book of essays edited by Sean Christie titled Table Mountain – An Unnatural History.