Johannesburg – When 16 people were shot dead at a South African tavern, few thought the investigation would lead to the kingdom of Lesotho, where a war between rival music gangs has claimed scores of lives.
South African police launched a manhunt this week for five suspects over the July 10 shooting, which saw assailants with high-calibre weapons descend on a Soweto bar and open fire on patrons seemingly at random.
More than 100 cartridges were found at the scene of a crime that shocked the nation.
Police identified one of the main suspects as Sarel Lehlanya Sello, a Lesotho man described as a “well-known” figure to law enforcement agencies in the Johannesburg area.
Sello is reported to be a leader of “Terene”, a Lesotho gang rooted in “famo” music, a local form of hip-hop that has been tied to a wave of violence.
In images released by authorities, Sello can be seen sporting a beanie emblazoned with the word “Terene”, which means “train” in the Sotho language, a reference to the great migrations of workers to South African mines in the 1970s.
A traditional yellow and black shepherd’s blanket – the gang’s colours – is wrapped around his shoulders.
More than 15% of mountainous Lesotho’s 2.2 million people live in South Africa.
The country is landlocked within its larger neighbour and economically dependent on it.
Detectives are tight-lipped on what could have triggered the shooting and have urged those with information to come forward.
Meanwhile the suspects, wanted on 16 counts of murder and seven of attempted murder, are thought to be on the run “in a neighbouring country”, according to authorities.
In Maseru, Lesotho’s capital, it is difficult to loosen tongues on a gang war that several local sources say has killed about 100 people over the past 15 years.
The “famo” music scene has become almost clandestine, with shows now taking place under heavy police presence.
“It went out of control”, famo singer Morena Leraba, told AFP about deadly rivalries, comparing the violence to the gang wars that marked the history of American rap in the 1990s.
The famo hails from the chants that black Lesotho labourers sang on the long journey to South Africa’s diamond and gold mines about a century ago.
“Today, we would call it rap,” said Rataibane Ramainoane, the founder of local radio station MoAfrika FM.
Early famo performers would sing of the tiring voyage to South Africa, the lonely evenings in the “shebeens” – clandestine bars during apartheid – and the harshness of everyday life.
Musical instruments were gradually introduced, with the accordion emerging as the emblem of a genre now considered as “the soul of the country”.
“Famo is part of everyday (life). You hear it everywhere on the streets, in the taxi ranks,” said Leraba.
As the music’s popularity grew, white South African producers started to market records and by the end of apartheid, some artists were enjoying success selling thousands of copies.
With time, lyrics became more confrontational, as singers threw jabs at each other.
What started as a war of words, evolved into street violence.
“Some were jealous of those who sold better than them and literally started eliminating them,” said Ramainoane.
Radio stations accused of favouring one group or another with more airtime, began receiving threats.
“It’s God’s miracle that I’m still alive,” said Ramainoane.
After a spate of killings last year, Lesotho’s police minister tried to ban the wearing of traditional blankets associated with the gangs – some of which are suspected of being involved in illegal gold mining in South Africa.
Yet, despite a bad reputation some gangs enjoy cosy relationships with the political world.
Nkaku Kabi, the head of Lesotho’s leading All Basotho Convention party, recently congratulated Terene members for recruiting many supporters, ahead of general elections next month.
Speaking from Europe where he is on tour, singer Leraba said he now spends little time back home, wanting to distance himself from a cycle of “endless revenge”.
“Little brothers would join… the movement and sing and kill,” he said.