The Thug

The thug told me he always worked nights.

He and his crew would drive from Soweto up to Johannesburg’s northern suburbs 20 miles away, where the rich lived behind walls topped with broken glass and concertina wire. They’d stake out their target. Sometimes they were after a luxury car. Sometimes it was the contents of somebody’s safe.

Home invasions could be messy, but there was a lot of money to be made. They’d strike just as the sky began to lighten, as the servants were turning off alarms and getting the paper. “We’d find the main bedroom and ask them, ‘Where’s our money?’”

He said he always urged nonviolence, at least at first. If the householder resisted, he’d appeal to the guy’s sense of reason, to his desire to see another day. But if he still wouldn’t budge, “It’s bad, it’s bad, when you are not talking. Then I will go outside and let the others deal with you. But when you open the safe it’s cool.”

Now 32, he says he’s retired. He told me he never killed anybody. I want to believe him.

~ ~ ~

I met the thug in 2009, through his cousin Khaya, a 28-year-old door-to-door salesman who peddled Chinese-made insoles and caller-ID machines. Like just about everyone else in Soweto, Khaya had to hustle for a living—the unemployment rate was around 40 percent. While South Africa has come a long way since the end of white rule in 1994, half the country still lives below the poverty line, and the shantytowns are growing with a biotic intensity. Khaya had plenty of competition from other guys selling the same stuff, and it was hard. “That’s business,” he said with a shrug.

His cousin, the thug, was a very different sort of hustler. Due to the nature of his work, I won’t name him. Instead I’ll call him Bongani, a common Zulu name that means “give thanks.” Bongani lives with a few members of his extended family in a modest red brick house in a quiet Soweto neighbourhood. He was cleaning his room when we arrived, R&B blasting from a boom box. He is short and muscular, a fireplug in a Manchester United jersey, with an old scar running from his left temple to below his eye.

He paged through a photo album. In one photo, taken in the early 1990s, he wears a shirt and tie and holds a gigantic, Paleolithic cell phone, a gadget no regular Soweto kid could have afforded back then. Another image is of his first crew. Three guys, all with high-top fade haircuts like old-school New York rappers, sprawl across a car hood, glowering at the camera. “This person there, he has already passed away,” he said pointing to one kid.

Bongani got into the game in the late 1980s, during the last years of apartheid. He was in his early teens, and some older guys in the neighbourhood recruited him into their crew. Soon he had that giant cell phone and he was missing a lot of school.

Not that anyone cared, because Soweto was in open revolt. The white government had declared a state of emergency. Armored cars patrolled the streets, shooting down protestors. Anti-apartheid activists were trying to make Soweto “ungovernable,” and they were succeeding. People quit paying the rent on their government houses. Kids quit school. “Liberation before education,” as the sloganeers put it.

He joined the crew out of economic necessity, he told me. Neither of his parents had jobs. He was the eldest child; if no one else could provide, he would. He bought nice clothes for himself, but most of the money went to support the small universe of relatives who had come to depend on him. It was an underworld version of the southern African concept of ubuntu, which means, “We exist for each other.”

He’s proud of this self-sufficiency. “When you must ask of neighbors,” he explained, “they are always whispering at the back of you.”

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa—Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police—both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

~ ~ ~

If you’re feeling cynical, you might say Bongani was just ahead of his time. Or maybe that he didn’t set his sights high enough. After apartheid ended, Johannesburg was on track to become the murder capital of the world. The papers were full of Wild West-style shootouts and cinematic hijackings. Men dressed as cops robbed buses full of tourists while gangs drove trucks through storefronts, loading their precious cargo out into idling vans like well-armed movers.

South Africa’s new government went on a renaming binge, banishing a slew of Afrikaans names from the nation’s official lexicon. Boer generals were swapped out for liberation heroes, white names for black. Jan Smuts airport became Oliver Tambo, Pretoria became Tshwane. Transvaal province, home to Johannesburg and Soweto, was now called Gauteng.

License plates were changed to read “G.P.,” for Gauteng Province. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles rapper Coolio, who hit big with “Gangsta’s Paradise” then faded from view, was all over the airwaves in South Africa. The “G.P.” on those license plates came to stand for “Gangster’s Paradise.” Men on the street sold T-shirts bearing the slogan along with a picture of the license plate.

One of the country’s biggest current celebrities is an ex-con named Kenny Kunene, a mix of Robin Hood, Al Capone, and Donald Trump. Since getting out of prison in 2003, Kunene, a former car thief and ivory trader, has transformed himself into a mining and nightclub magnate. He gives inspirational talks at schools (‘When we were criminals we couldn’t enjoy our cars; we couldn’t drive them in the daylight,” he reportedly said), but he also brags about eating sushi from the midriffs of models. No one’s quite sure how he made so much money so quickly or if that money is legit. Kunene says he wants to be a role model for South Africa’s poor youth, and he probably is. At last count, his Facebook page had almost 30,000 “likes.”

~ ~ ~

We got in my car, and Bongani pointed out the local landmarks. The mechanic’s shop where stolen cars were dismembered. The liquor store where his gangster friends hung out. The storefront where they made moonshine. A heavyset man wearing a ratty Christmas sweater emerged from the building and shuffled down the sidewalk. “I went to school with that man,” said Bongani. They’re the same age, but the man in the sweater looked 15 years older. “The drinkers don’t live long because of the chemicals,” he said. “If you drink cheap alcohol you’ll have a cheap life.”

At a backyard restaurant, its grills set up in an old shipping container, we bought bunny chow: a half-loaf of white bread stuffed with a hamburger patty, baloney, cheese, mayo, barbecue sauce, and fries.

We walked to a bridge overlooking a squatter camp named Chicken Farm, a settlement of hammered-together tin and plastic. Bongani grew up near here. The Klipspruit River runs through the camp; people do their washing in the water. It’s filthy, and when the rains come, the camp floods. The garbage floats in doorways.

The traffic roared past our backs. Honking minibus taxis, the chatter of school kids, the occasional screech of a drag racer peeling out: the ambient sounds of the township.

From our vantage point we could see Kliptown, where in the 1950s activists wrote the Freedom Charter, a precursor to modern South Africa’s famously progressive constitution. Kliptown is also the site of Soweto’s first luxury hotel, the kind of place where the ruling African National Congress holds meetings and banquets. “Instead of building homes for these people,” Bongani spat, “government builds a five-star hotel.”

Billboards on the roadside bragged about the millions of homes the ANC had built for poor South Africans since 1994. Millions more, though, were still waiting for their own matchbook houses. Of course, there’s no way even a perfect government could have met the pent-up expectations of its constituents, to speedily right the wrongs of a system built to serve the needs of a minority. But Johannesburg was completely encircled by places like Chicken Farm.

~ ~ ~

As Bongani tells it, life was hardest during apartheid’s final years. After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, everybody knew that change was coming. The white regime, however, made a last-ditch attempt to show the world that blacks weren’t fit to run the country by fomenting violence in the townships between traditional Zulu workers and the ANC’s political cadres. These were the Township Wars, which engulfed Soweto and other urban townships in the early 1990s. Aided by the white security forces, members of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party fought their enemies from the ANC in the streets with clubs, knives, and guns. “Sellouts” were necklaced—set upon by a mob, immobilized by an auto tire, then set alight. In the ANC’s view, common criminals were little better than collaborators, so Bongani was a target, too.

He tried to explain his side of the story. Seen through the right lens, his crimes were just as political as, say, attacking a police truck. “These things, with thugs stealing cars, it was part and parcel of the struggle. We were blacks fighting for survival.”

He looked at the floor as he talked. “Our elders didn’t understand.”

~ ~ ~

Wondering how those elders felt about today’s South Africa, I paid a visit one day to Motsumi Makhene, the principal of Central Johannesburg College, a technical school that occupies an old whites-only, English-style school on a rocky rise above the city’s downtown grid. Makhene is a member of the “Class of ’76,” as it’s called, the generation of activists who came of age after the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which began the sustained revolt that ultimately brought down apartheid. For his generation, which braved police beatings and economic hardship in the name of freedom, the struggle was a unifying force. Younger South Africans, he noted, don’t have that bond. He rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard as he talked, contemplating the present and the future. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Liberation was followed by a headlong rush for profit. The new economy may be good at minting black millionaires, he said, but it’s left ordinary South Africans to fend for themselves. “We are modeling the art of the scavenger,” he told me, “with a message that says you must get rich immediately. It infects everything.”

~ ~ ~

As dusk came on, we dropped Bongani at his house. Nowadays, he rises at 4 a.m. to ride a minibus to the northern suburbs, where he works as a landscaper. “It’s not a bad job. But you know how much I earn there?” he asked with a snort. “2,970 rand for the month”—about a quarter of what he used to make in a week. For a bit of extra cash, he consults with younger car thieves. He shows them how to change the plates on a car or obscure its identification number, or he tells them which cops or judges can be bought.

He finally got out of the game after doing a few years in prison, along with two years in jail waiting for a trial (South Africa’s courts are terribly backlogged). It wasn’t legal troubles, however, that made him reconsider his line of work. One night, he said, an ancestor came to him in a dream and told him that he would die a violent death. The dream unsettled him. “I left because I saw that I could be dead anytime.”

~ ~ ~

The day after Bongani and I visited Chicken Farm, my friend Khaya and I drove to Avalon cemetery, where hundreds of thousands of Sowetans are buried. The cemetery is out on the edge of the township and stretches for miles across the veld. Avalon is expected to reach its capacity soon. Even now, they’re burying two coffins per gravesite.

During the struggle, funerals here often became rallies, ending with riot police lobbing teargas into the massing crowds. Today, tourists sometimes come to see the grave of Hector Pieterson, the 12-year-old whose killing during the Soweto Uprising drew the world’s gaze. Many of the headstones bear the seal of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing; one has a hammer and sickle etched into it. Many plots, though, are just piles of dirt with a number and a date. They’re new and unfinished, or the families didn’t have the money to do more.

Soweto is a chaotic place, but Avalon is quiet. It was late afternoon and fever-hot under gauzy clouds. We walk among the plots, guided by a young security guard with a fat, round face. Fifty yards away, two men in blue coveralls sang as they dug a grave. The breeze carried the sound over to us.

I thought of something Bongani said. He was explaining why he didn’t like to use violence, even though some of his partners did. “Some people had more anger than me,” he said. “Me, I was so patient, humbled by doing bad things.”

He fixed me with his eyes. “I know that God will punish me.” I drove out of Soweto. The wind came ripping off the slag mountains separating Soweto from Johannesburg. These hills, flat-topped heaps of castoff dirt and rock, are the byproduct of the gold mines that made Johannesburg the richest city on the continent. In the waning light, even these mine dumps looked like bars of gold.

Chris Smith is a writer, photographer, and college journalism and geopolitics teacher in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Afar, Utne Reader, and California magazines, among others. He first visited South Africa in 1998 and returns as often as possible. Find more of his work at