Peter Conway – Hells Angel, spy, mercenary, drug smuggler
In the surreal, opaque world where rogues, dealers and mercenaries move, the legacy of few characters is as embellished and as enigmatic as Peter Conway's.
Soldier, spy, drug manufacturer and Hells Angel, Conway died this week at the age of 52, bringing to an end a life, full and fractious.
When tales are told and stories spun about the heady days when bouncers ran Joburg's clubs like lawless tyrants and crystal meth was rearing its ugly head at raves, it is Conway who plays a leading role. He was the president of the Hells Angels, purported to be a spy for the apartheid government and an agent for the Scorpions, as well as a member of the failed 'Wonga Coup' attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Conway left in his wake far more enemies who wanted him dead than friends who celebrated his life.
The rollicking story of Conway's journey is told in an autobiography published this year entitled Thy Will be Done. It is a tell-all that reads more like fiction than fact and many who knew Conway say that is because it is indeed more fiction than fact. It was published from his home in the UK where he had been living for the past few years, having left South Africa when the "venality and cynicism became too much".
In the book, Conway details his escapades from intelligence officer, to infantryman to brothel keeper and drug smuggler. He tells stories about his dodgy dealings with Brett Kebble and Glenn Agliotti, to how he was recruited into the Scorpions by Marion Sparg and his involvement with Simon Mann and Mark Thatcher. It is rich and colourful, so detailed that it is difficult to doubt its veracity.
Conway had a long, intertwined relationship with law enforcement. This was at its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was the president of the Nomads chapter of the Hells Angels. He was one of the 'Filthy Few', the HA hit squad. Conway and his crew, including Rob Reynolds and Michael 'Jethro' Hall, were allegedly the first real manufacturers of crystal methamphetamine in the country and dominated control of drugs in nightclubs. In Killing Kebble, Mikey Schultz recalled this arrangement: "They had the okes in the clubs that were moving the stuff. We were getting five hundred rand a night from Conway to make sure the other okes didn't move the stock, plus we were earning a shift, plus we had free reign over whatever we wanted, which was quite cool. So we were out jolling and having a big fucking jol."
At the time when the book was published, I spent months trying to track down Conway to get right of reply from him and when I finally did, he sent me threatening, ominous text messages.
At one point, the arrangement between Schultz and Conway turned sour and resulted in what is described as "one of the worst beat downs in clubs" around that time. "It was at a whore house called Papillon on William Nicol. Mikey and his crew tramped him beyond tramped and the swimming pool changed to burgundy it was so bad," one investigator told me about the incident.
Conway was arrested or wanted for arrest multiple times. There was the time he and an associate shot up an upmarket Italian restaurant in Clifton and killed a clutch of gang members because they were "in the wrong place at the wrong time". In 2002, US law enforcement uncovered an international drug smuggling ring involving Conway and other South African Hells Angels. The amphetamine "South African Brown", was hidden in stuffed toys and was being speed mailed to Flagstaff in Arizona, from where it was distributed to other US states. He was also bust in 2005 for selling ecstasy tablets and in 2009 he was arrested in Meyerton on drug dealing charges. He emigrated to the UK before he could do any substantial jail time.
When his book dropped this year, he angered a lot of people, most notably those in the army and the members of Executive Outcomes, the controversial private military company.
A close friend turned foe of Conway told me this week that I would struggle to find many people who were saddened by his death. He apparently died in his sleep but there was still speculation about who may have tried to kill him. Conway's 'literary agent' Peter Morrell confirmed his death – he says he passed away on Saturday.
While Conway's family does not want to fuel any speculation about what may have led to his death, Morrell says his health and general condition deteriorated since his book was released.
"He was pathological in terms of his stories," says Conway's ex-friend. "He pissed off a lot of people in the military, claiming to be an undercover agent for the apartheid government. He had a very, very big mouth that got him into a lot of trouble. But he was a genius, he was on the Mensa scale, but the problem was it's all bullshit, he had nothing to do with the coup. I don't know why he lied. There were also rumours that he was CIA trained and he infiltrated the Hells Angels for them. The US and the UK were looking for him but behind the scenes he was reporting back to them."
Peter Conway is a perfect example of how one of the most dangerous players in organised crime managed to manipulate the system, entrench himself within law enforcement and straddle the murky gray area between good and evil. He worked for anyone who gave him protection in order to stay out of jail.
In his book he tells the most astonishing story of how he was arrested for the Cape Town restaurant shooting, which turned out to be a botched crime intelligence operation, and how he then struck a deal to have all charges dropped against him. The tale involves former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi making a remarkably corrupt offer which leads to a meeting with Mark Thatcher and Brett Kebble at a Stellenbosch wine farm. It is the most mind-blowing level of police complicity in criminal activity which even Conway said he found 'disgusting'.
If Conway's story has any semblance of truth to it, it is a reminder of the close proximity between gangsters, cops, businessmen and politicians in this country. Conway was able to avoid conviction and any substantial jail time despite being one of the most prolific law breakers in the country. This was because he had the protection of those who should have put him behind bars.
This is as relevant in South Africa today as it was during his heyday when he ran the clubs of Joburg. His life and death should serve as a warning of how the law can be manipulated for nefarious reasons and how the right connections can buy you protection and power.