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Jo'Burg Days: The Team Leader

...Jonas soon found that being a member of the gang was exciting and had many benefits. There was the money to be made from the copper wire from the stolen telephone cables; handbags nicked from careless woman shoppers yielded cash, credit cards and cellphones, or the careless driver at the traffic lights, busy on his cellphone was usually oblivious of the black arm grabbing a briefcase or laptop left conveniently on the passenger seat...

Barbara Durlacher’s well-told tale presents a sobering insight into life in present-day South Africa.

Jonas glanced at the sleeping bodies in the shadows and snuffed out the candle. Gathering up his schoolbooks he slipped out of the hut and went to sit on the street corner under the lamp, where he continued to study by the faint light. Working steadily, he managed to complete his arithmetic assignment, and although his hands were shaking with the cold, he read a few pages of his English book before giving up and returning to the hut. Crawling inside the smelly blankets he laid his head on the stained cushion next to his little sister and, breathing deeply, prayed for sleep while ignoring the itching bites from the bedbugs infesting the old mattress.

Woken by the shrilling of the alarm he shook his brother’s shoulder then scrambled out of the bed they all shared. He filled the old jam tin with water from the bucket under the table, and lit the primus for their hot drink. Looking into the bent saucepan, he found some cold pap and sliced it into three small pieces before adding half a banana and a smear of jam to the saucer.

Later, he joined his friends from the township on the dusty road to school. They arrived as the school-bell was ringing. After assembly, the children took their places in the bare classrooms and above the growling of their empty stomachs, tried to concentrate on the endless hours of repetitive teaching.

It took Jonas many years of dedicated struggle to gain the necessary marks to sit for his matriculation, but his marks were poor and he failed. Now he would not be able to enter technical college. His spirits fell as he realised that after all those years of study and deprivation he could not be trained as a plumber like his father.

‘Yo man,’ his mate Philemon had said as they walked to the spaza shop. ‘Waddya mean, you want to be a plumber? Tha’s jus a waste of time, my bru. Whyn’t you kom with us okes, we know how to get money – eezy hey, no need to work – you can get anything you want.... for free!’


Despite his misgivings, Jonas soon found that being a member of the gang was exciting and had many benefits. There was the money to be made from the copper wire from the stolen telephone cables; handbags nicked from careless woman shoppers yielded cash, credit cards and cellphones, or the careless driver at the traffic lights, busy on his cellphone was usually oblivious of the black arm grabbing a briefcase or laptop left conveniently on the passenger seat.

There were the hauls of electrical goods, clothing and garden furniture which arrived at the run-down house in one of Johannesburg’s older suburbs used by the gang as a hide-out. Dividing up the goods and finding suitable buyers taught Jonas valuable lessons about who human nature and greed, an invaluable skill where his freedom depended on knowing who he could trust and who would give him away. His negotiating skills improved, his ability to make a quick sale was legendary, and his fast footwork and knowledge of the area with its various escape routes saved him again and again when he made a getaway.

But as time passed he grew dissatisfied.

‘Want to work with my hands. Sick of being jus’ one person in a gang of thieves’ he thought, handing over a R50 note to the fat Mama on the pavement selling roasted sweet green mielies.

‘Eish,’ baba’ she exclaimed as she realised the value of the money she had in her hand, You’ve given me too mush, moratiwa!


‘No, tha’s orlrigh’ Mama,’ Jonas replied, ‘I’m rich today – you can hev it, is my present to you, you jus’ working to keep your family alive...’ and he walked rapidly away, embarrassed that his generosity had overcome his caution.

But as he munched the tasty mielies, his thoughts kept circling around the subject.

‘I also want to work in people’s gardens and grow things,’ looking at the beautifully kept gardens with their manicured lawns and skilfully trimmed trees and bushes.

‘White peoples swim in their nice pools and watch their golden fish in those small ponds anytime they want. I’m tired of being a crook, and a tsotsi. I want to work in a garden, wash the bosses’ car on Saturday, nice and clean for Sunday church. I want to live in my own place and have something better.’

‘Ag man,’ said Lizzie, his girlfriend. ‘Don’t you know about the labour exchange? You jus’ sommer sign up and they fin’ you a yob. You tell them you want to work an’ they give you a yob. They pay you end of the month.’

Jonas visited the labour exchange and before long he had a job working for a contract service looking after a large retirement complex.

‘Got a job Lizzie,’ he reported. ‘Starting Monday. Garden wek in a big place with many peoples. First three months is trial. Dunno what that means. Then they make me boss boy and team leader and pay me plenty money.’

Working hard, he soon picked up the necessary skills and before long the kindly white residents were telling his boss what a good man he was. He carefully followed instructions and did what he was told. He was sure that it would not be long before he was team leader with more money and everybody would listen to what he said.

Then one day, Elias arrived.

‘Where you come from, Elias?’ Jonas asked when they took a morning tea break.

‘I come from Harare. Things are bad there. No jobs, no money, everybody’s starving. I crawled under the wire at the border and made my way down to South Africa to find a job and earn money to send back to my family. It’s very important to look after them, they’ve nobody else.’

‘What wek you do in Zimbabwe?’

‘I worked as a bookkeeper in a small engineering business. But hyper-inflation forced me to leave. That country is falling apart, there’s no money, no food and no water. People are getting sick trying to survive.’

‘You speak English good. Maybe you go to a nice school. My English is not good, I failed my matric. My English is tsotsi-taal, it’s rubbish, and sometimes I don’t understand nicely.’

And with that, Jonas laughed ruefully and continued pruning the hedge.

Elias was a quiet man; he went about his work without drawing attention, and never made trouble with the other men. Within a short time, he’d caught the eye of the white boss who noticed how easily he interacted with his colleagues and that he was educated and had a flair for figures. A week later, he was made team leader.

Resentment burned in Jonas’ bosom. The team leader job was his – not the new man. He knew the garden job nicely they’d promised he would get it after three months! He’d been here six months and now they’d appointed another man as team leader. He would get more money, status, and an easy job.

He would kill him.

But sense prevailed and instead of committing murder, Jonas decided on another course. Quietly, without telling Lizzie he went back to his old life, stealing whatever he could from the houses he passed on his way home. A gate left open and he was in like a shadow. Before anyone noticed, he’d taken a couple of shovels or a wheelbarrow, a bicycle or a few shirts off the line. He never took anything that was too bulky to run with and only stole from the houses where there was no watchdog. Once, he watched a house for a week or two until he saw the owners leaving on holiday. Then he scaled the garden wall and dismantled the pool pump and cleaning equipment. He made good money that day.

After a few years, he looked around him and thought that even without matric he was successful. He and Lizzie had a nice RDP house and a small son; they watched television every night on the new big-screen he’d got from his thefts and they were fat from all the meat they ate.

Team leader was out. He was ready for the next step.
Politics.

That was where the really big profits were to be made and he was definitely the man for the job.

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