14 June 2024 | 02:26 AM

Battle for control of the doors and the ‘drugs’

Key Takeaways

Igor “the new Russian” Russol emerged from the door of his Bree Street brothel, swiftly preceded and followed by four men in black suits and sunglasses, who darted from the entrance and fanned out across the street.

He did not look sideways as he sauntered to a nearby coffee shop. In contrast, his bodyguards were brisk and alert, walking in front, behind, in the street and on the opposite sidewalk. In the coffee shop Russol seated himself close to a corner, his back to the walls. The bodyguards sat inside as well as outside.

His interview with the Mail & Guardian last month was his second in two weeks. On both occasions he had dark things to say about the city’s underworld kingpins.

“The main reason I start fighting now is because of Yuri,” he said. “These people who kill him do big mistake. I want these people to know life come full circle.”

Russol followed his childhood friend, Yuri “the Russian” Ulianitski, from Russia to Cape Town in 2001. Ulianitski established himself as a strip-club owner with Sea Point businessman Mark Lifman and was shot and killed in his car in Milnerton in 2007.

According to Russol, his friend had become too powerful and a threat to others in the underworld: “I’m still waiting, for the time is coming when we find who killed Yuri.” Everybody knew who did it, he said, “but we not got strong proof”.

Drive-by shooting
He said the same people were behind the March 2011 assassination of Cape Town security boss Cyril Beeka, who was also killed in a drive-by shooting.

“Beeka was a real strong man. When he was in Cape Town everything was nice and under control, because people respected him and maybe they were a little scared.”

Beeka established a nightclub security company in the 1990s called Pro Access, gaining a reputation for extortion, violence and drug-pushing — charges he and his lieutenants denied. Beeka was too powerful, much more than Ulianitski, Russol said. “Not one people stay on top forever.”

In another restaurant, across town, a towering, muscle-bound brute of a man seated himself on a couch with an incredulous smile. Former bouncer Andre Naude also made sure his back was to the wall, in a position affording him a clear view of the establishment’s entrance.

He was accompanied by one of his managers, the stocky Richard van Zyl, formerly of Beeka’s Pro Access.

With Lifman, Naude moved quickly to benefit from Beeka’s death, filling the gap with a new security company.

“It is because of people that have got the same mentality as Igor and think: ‘You know what, I’m going to kill Andre Naude and [Pro Access head] Jacques Cronje and then I will have access to the clubs,'” he said of his security precautions.

“I don’t know how long Igor’s been in this country, but it’s not cowboys and crooks anymore. It’s not a scenario of now you kill me and then you take my company.”

Although Beeka handed Pro Access to Cronje, his manager, when he moved to Johannesburg in the 1990s, he continued to dominate the company, even if he was not involved on paper. The company’s only serious competition had come from Naude’s Professional Protection Services.

The lines were not clearly drawn, but essentially Beeka dominated the city centre nightlife, whereas Naude’s influence — bolstered by Colin and Jerome Booysen, allegedly of the Belhar Sexy Boys gang — was based in the suburbs.

In at least one instance violence erupted when both companies believed they had the contract to provide security to a Green Point club. Bouncers from both sides arrived one night and the situation escalated quickly, leading to the closure of an entire road.

“That was a good night, wasn’t it? We all bled nicely,” Naude chuckled, addressing Van Zyl, a former opponent. Immediately after Beeka’s demise, however, a consolidation process began.

Sit down
“A couple of days after Cyril’s death I was contacted by Jacques [Cronje], asking me whether it wouldn’t be possible for the two of us to sit down,” said Naude.

What followed was the almost total amalgamation of nightclub security in the Western Cape. Cronje and his team, “Booysen’s guys, the Nigerians, Congolese, Moroccans and other smaller groups of bouncers all joined Naude to form Specialised Protection Services, launched in November last year.

Bankrolled by Lifman and supported again by the Booysen brothers, Naude also employed Moroccan kickboxer Houssain Ait Taleb, who came to light in the 1990s as Beeka’s allegedly violent associate.

The nature of Beeka’s reign over the city depends on who gives the account. A presidential investigation task unit report in 1997 accused Beeka and his staff of being “soldiers” for the Italian Mafia and their alleged “banker”, Vito Palazzolo, who had moved to South Africa.

When Beeka, Cronje and others were arrested on murder charges — of which they were ultimately acquitted — police claimed in court that the suspects had been linked to 400 cases, including 10 of attempted murder, 262 reported assaults, 14 of drug possession, a complaint of intimidation, two kidnappings and a reported rape.

The company would allegedly send “the Moroccans” — Taleb and his thugs — to cause havoc in clubs, after which the owners were offered security services. If they refused, the Moroccans were sent in again.

“It is difficult to prosecute the leaders of this operation as the public fears them and are hesitant to co-operate to act as witnesses, or to lay charges,” the police’s Johan Smit testified at the time.

Beeka denied all of this and Palazzolo has consistently denied ever having any criminal connections.

Defending Beeka, one of his closest associates told the M&G that in the 1990s “Cape Flats gangs were moving into the city and robbing and stabbing the patrons.

“They were also targeting the well-off people’s children and the well-off people themselves. Cyril had the ability to deal with these people. You needed to fight fire with fire, but this doesn’t mean he was some sort of underworld figure.”

One club owner told how, when Cronje met him to offer “protection services”, he asked what would happen if his club did not sign up. “It won’t be good,” the owner claimed he was told, taking this as a threat. Cronje insisted this was “a lie”.

When he founded Specialised Protection Services Naude immediately moved to deflect such perceptions. Following media reports in January, he said: “I have tried to get an understanding as to what is a gangster and what is the underworld. I don’t know if the underworld is all of these pipes under the ground? Gangsters? Probably the guys shooting each other in Manenberg.”

‘A good person’
He denied that the Belhar Sexy Boys existed and said Jerome Booysen was “my friend and a good person”.

“It’s not a situation any more where club owners get extorted and intimidated and are told ‘you must use my service’,” he said, after inviting journalists to an interview last month.

He presented a “code of conduct” to be followed by his bouncers and said they were now undergoing regular training. In a Cape Times interview this week, Taleb, who is helping to train Specialised Protection Services’ bouncers, also claimed that intimidation was no longer used to extort money from club owners.

Lifman had imported bouncer uniforms from China and the company had about 350 doormen working at 146 clubs, roughly 60% of the province’s nightlife, said Naude.

Press reports this week revealed that the company was operating without the necessary private security provider’s licence and hence illegally, but Naude told the Weekend Argus that he was applying for a licence.

No choice

All the same, some club owners said they were still given no choice but to use Specialised Protection Services. They described how they paid a fee simply so that “there will be no problems”. The company’s doormen cost extra. But one club owner said he was content with the situation. “Even if there is no choice, in several years I’ve come to understand this [amalgamation of club security] is the best and safest way.”

A pub manager said Van Zyl had politely offered his business card, saying: “Call me when you need me.” In the following three weeks patrons had not been roughed up, as the owners had expected.

Naude was adamant that he would fire any of his managers or employees found guilty of intimidating club owners or patrons.

Despite such assurances, when an M&G photographer tried to photograph a company vehicle outside a Green Point club, a man shouted: “Don’t take a picture of my car or I’ll put a bullet in your head. I’ll put you in hospital.” He looked exactly like Naude’s manager, Richard van Zyl, but claimed to be Van Zyl’s “twin brother”, Mark.

Contacted after the incident, Naude promised to take the matter up with Van Zyl. He called back offering a face-to-face apology from his manager.

Western Cape community safety MEC Dan Plato said he had received similar complaints about Specialised Protection Services and had asked provincial police commissioner Lieutenant General Arno Lamoer to investigate. Plato said Lamoer had agreed to do so but that he also wanted a “specialised gang and drug unit” to be established.

Internationally linked
The emergence of international fugitives and an internationally linked underworld presented a major danger to the province, Plato said. “It is everywhere,” he said, suggesting that Cape Town’s nightclubs were linked to both Cape Flats gangs and syndicates in Eastern Europe, Europe, the Balkans, North America and elsewhere.

This apparent overlapping of protection rackets, nightclub security and organised crime appears to have been repeated in other South African cities.

In Johannesburg, violence, bouncer-related hits and the drug business surged under the Elite Security Group, which had close links with the international Hell’s Angels but broke away over competition for territory. As one security source put it, “whoever controls the door controls the drugs”. Among Elite’s founders was Mikey Schultz, Brett Kebble’s self-confessed murderer.

In 2007 the company’s reign started to crumble as dozens of its members were arrested on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking, murder and intimidation.

Little is known about the links among those running club security in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

In Cape Town it has emerged from a court dispute that the building that housed Russol’s brothel — “It’s not a brothel, it’s a normal massage parlour and escort agency” he claims is owned by a trust that includes Palazzolo’s former lawyer, Cyril Prisman, and his associate, Percy Choritz, as trustees.

Prisman, Choritz and Russol were adamant that Palazzolo had nothing to do with the building or the business. Prisman and Choritz also claimed in court that they had no idea Russol ran a brothel from their building, despite claims to the contrary by Russol’s lawyer.

Russol’s business was evicted from the building last month.

As for club security, “the new Russian” said he always used his own bouncers at his clubs and had no interest in expanding that side of his business. “I had an agreement with Cyril Beeka: what’s mine is mine.”

Russol sneered contemptuously when asked if Specialised Protection Services had approached him: “What? Who’s going to come give me security? I straight away tell them ‘fuck off’!” — Additional research by Sally Evans

Cape Town: Know your underworld figures

Cyril Beeka
He rose to prominence in the 1990s as a security boss in Cape Town, where his company, Pro Access, controlled nightclub security. There were allegations of protection rackets, drug dealing and more. He was rumoured to have been an informer for apartheid, ANC and democratic South African intelligence structures and. In 2007 Beeka accompanied Moe Shaik, later the South African Secret Service head, to the ANC’s Polokwane conference.

After being cleared of murder charges in the late 1990s, he moved to Johannesburg, where he joined courier company RAM, but he was said to have kept a close watch on Pro Access.

In March last year assailants riding a motorbike shot and killed Beeka as he left alleged gang leader Jerome Booysen’s Cape Town home. Serbian fugitive Dobrosav Gavric, who was driving Beeka’s car, was also shot and seriously injured. The murder remains unsolved.

Mark Lifman
Lifman, from Sea Point in Cape Town, is widely respected as a shrewd businessperson. “Any business he opens will make money,” said Russian immigrant and brothel owner Igor Russol.

Underworld sources say that, after owning a taxi company and gambling businesses in Sea Point, Lifman became a property developer, working with Jerome Booysen. He also opened strip clubs in the city, working with Russol’s childhood friend, Yuri Ulianitski.

He allegedly joined Ulianitski at a restaurant hours before the Russian was killed.

Early in his career Lifman was involved in horse racing, but the Jockey Club banned him for intimidating jockeys. In 2009 he was acquitted of having sex with underage boys in the city.

Now he imports clothes from China, selling them at stores and shopping malls in Cape Town.

Lifman helped found and fund Specialised Protection Services, which now dominates nightclub security in Cape Town. He has said he was in Hong Kong on the day Beeka was killed.

Asked for comment more recently, Lifman told the Mail & Guardian: ‘Do me a favour. Refrain from calling this number again.”

Andre Naude
A former bouncer, Naude says that he now makes money in construction, “building banks in Johannesburg”. He took over Pro Access’s rival, Professional Protection Services, in 2003 and the two companies merged this year.

Naude counts as close friends Lifman and Jerome “Donkey” and Colin “Scarface” Booysen, the alleged leaders of the Belhar Sexy Boys gang.

Jerome and Colin Booysen
Jerome worked for the City of Cape Town for 20 years as a building inspector. Police investigators have claimed in court that he leads the Sexy Boys gang, but he has denied any involvement with it. He and Lifman made money buying houses sold in execution and selling or renting them.

At Beeka’s request, Jerome was helping Gavric with building plans for a business the latter was planning in Parow. Jerome was the last person Beeka and Gavric visited before the shooting in March last year.

Jerome’s brother, Colin, is also understood to be a senior member of the Sexy Boys. He referred all questions to Naude and Lifman.

The Booysen brothers were understood to have been central to Professional Protection Services and are now key to the amalgamated security operation. But Jerome said: “We just helped [Naude]. Help is a different thing to being involved.”

Jerome would not say how they helped Naude’s companies.

Yuri Ulianitski
A strip-club owner influential in the Cape Town underworld, “the Russian” worked closely with Lifman. Driving away from a Milnerton restaurant after his birthday dinner in May 2007, allegedly minutes after Lifman left, Ulianitski and his daughter were shot and killed in their car. His wife, Irina, was wounded in the shooting. The murder remains unsolved.

Vito Palazzolo
An Italian businessperson, he was arrested in Switzerland in 1984 for his alleged involvement in laundering money for a Mafia-linked drug-trafficking ring known as the “Pizza Connection”. On parole, he fled to South Africa in 1986 and is believed to have struck up cosy relationships with senior members of both the National Party and the ANC.

Palazzolo has avoided several Italian extradition requests over the years and has since been convicted, in absentia, by Italian courts for “Mafia association”.

Local police claimed he worked closely with Beeka’s company, Pro Access. But Palazzolo has consistently denied having any political influence or involvement in criminal activity.

Palazzolo’s former lawyer, Cyril Prisman, emerged last month as a trustee of a trust that owned a building housing a Cape Town brothel. Prisman denied knowing that the business was a brothel and said Palazzolo was not involved. — Craig McKune

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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