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Relapsed Gangster

Relapsed Gangster?

by Andy Davis, images Caroline Suzman / 21.01.2010

“Yizo Yizo Actor Arrested” screamed the newspaper headline on the cardboard poster stuck to a lampost on Louis Botha Avenue. Immediately I knew it was Israel Makoe. Call it intuitiion. A journalistic hunch. A gut feel sucker punch. And at the same time I hoped it was someone else.

A few years back I wrote a story about Israel and how the reformed gangster had turned his life around and was now living the dream as an acclaimed and successful actor. I spent a few days interviewing him and checking out the work of his Alexandra township theatre group, Ishoshovi, which aims to educate youngsters about the hazards of crime, HIV and the plethora of other social ills that poor South Africans inevitably have to deal with, as well as inspire them to dream big and work hard to make those dreams a reality. It was uplifting stuff.

When I read the newspaper reports I was in shock, because this is a guy whose film and TV credits include a major role in the groundbreaking Yizo Yizo TV series, a follow up lead in Gazlam, A cameo in the oscar winning flick Tsotsi in which he played Tsotsi’s father, he was Musa in last year’s critically acclaimed iZulu Lami, he was in an episode of The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and had just finished a role in a new international film production called The First Grader about a Kenyan ex-Mau Mau freedom fighter who goes back to school aged 84. His career was not so much blossoming as booming.

So how did he get caught in the possession of stolen goods after a high speed car chase. Allegedly, last Friday night, Israel and two accomplices, Sipho Mabena and Zain Patel stopped 3 people on Louis Botha Avenue posing as policemen. According to reports, they assaulted them, stole their cellphones and R500 in cash. But why would this successful actor and self-styled role model, with a solid career, throw all that away for R500 bucks and a few cellphones? Who knows. A very public tabloid trial is certain to follow in the weeks and months ahead. But maybe these extracts from our interview can shed some light on Israel’s personal history and the vexed circumstances that make it so easy to backslide into that underworld of crime and violence.

“I was born in Alexander. We used to stay in one room, maybe 20 people. In Alex there’s a culture of crime. We thought that by committing a crime you were against the whites, against apartheid. Some of us were leaders by speaking, some of us used to commit crimes. Beside the apartheid system, being born in a poor family you get involved in those activities, because you become a breadwinner at an early stage. Your mother depends on you. You become important in a big way. Maybe you come with those stolen goods in the house. They will shout, but then they will accept. It’s the life.

“I failed Standard Nine, actually. I thought I had to do something, I was getting old in school. And the pressure… you need money for books and uniforms, for lunch. My grandmother was the only one working in the family. So I started learning to get involved in crime. I started with housebreaking and theft. I first broke into a house in Lombardy, right alongside Alexandra. We take that advantage because Alex is surrounded by these expensive suburbs. We don’t even use money for transport, we just walk. Then we broke that house, four of us, I was the youngest. I was 12. But I was first arrested when I was 14. In ’88. I was sentenced to four lashes, because I was underage. Afterwards I thought, why must I stop? Let me go forward. Then I found myself doing everything. House breaking, theft, cars. I was a master in crime – from ’89 till I was arrested again in ’95.”

Tell me about it.

“I was arrested for three cars in Parkhurst. The car that we were driving at the scene of the crime was stolen in the same area. We used to go back with it to steal other cars and they found us there. We had already broken into two cars. They took us to Parkview Police Station, then Sun City [Diepkloof Prison]. I was found guilty for both cases. All in all it was eight years. I served four years and was released in ’99. It’s 2002 now and I’m still under the parole supervision.”
Were you ever involved in hijacking? I ask
“Yes I was, but I was never caught.”

Israel's theatre group Ishoshovi at work in Alex

Israel's theatre group Ishoshovi at work in Alex

So you had a gun?

“Not a gun, guns. I grew up with guns, drugs, stolen cars. It was do or die. If I die or go to prison it is one and the same, rather than to be poor. I wanted to live well. I used to take crime as my profession. I thought I didn’t have any other options in life. I failed at school, I’m from a poor family, my option is to steal.”

What about cash in transit?

“Heisting. Those are big shots. Those are big criminals in the locations. We used to regard them as role models because they used to have nice cars, fancy clothes. All the ladies are looking for them. Those who are doing heists, in the hierarchy of crime, they’re on top. If I had never quit crime I would be one of them, because I was never going to stick to just carjacking. The more you do the more you learn. When you are small you start by stealing hubcaps, then you get caught and they punish you. Then you graduate, you come back and you realise that was nothing. Then they catch you with a stolen car and you plan on the inside. The problems start inside. You meet bigger guys – and they don’t isolate you. We are all together: robbers, murderers, rapists. Everybody in one cell. And there’s discussions all the time, about life, about why we are here. We share ideas and you learn. It’s a tough life. There are a lot of horrible things happening in prison that you’re never shown. But it’s reality, those things are happening.”

Like what?

“When I was in prison in ’98 there was this guy, he grew up in prison, it’s those people who don’t want to go outside. He got two guys as his wives. As you know other guys are made wives in prison. Anyway he was supposed to be released so he stabbed one of his wives to death, and then took off his clothes and fucked him while he was dead. I mean that’s horrible. If you see something like that, you can see that these people don’t have hearts. They don’t even wish to be free. And then you’re in a situation, maybe you’ve got five years left to stay in prison, and you’re staying with that same person in one cell. And they’ll never put that person in isolation. They’ll leave him in that environment so he can terrorise other inmates. Why? I think that’s the way they want things to be in prison. It’s the management strategy. If you’re good in prison, you die very early. If you are busy with smuggling drugs, fucking those young boys, you become a favourite in prison. You become a role model, everyone fears you, even the management understands you better.”

“I was lucky, I know it. So I used to go back to prison to teach acting. I’m also busy every day with a youth group in Alexandra, teaching young people to act. To choose a brighter way that will lead them into a good future. On top of that I’m a self-employer, I’m selling burgers, beers – because if you depend on acting, it comes once a year and you have to do something to earn money every day.”

Ishoshovi doing their thing

Ishoshovi doing their thing

“My goal is to see the would-be stars making their dreams come true. I know they admire people who are on TV. I want to see Alexandra as a gun free township. It has been labelled as a university of crime, I want to change the whole system and turn Alexandra into a Hollywood. A place where heroes are born, where legends are found. I grew up believing that to get a car or to get a nice house you have to go and steal first. It is my challenge to achieve those things without stealing. I want to create opportunities for the disadvantaged children. The problem is with the majority. They are suffering poverty, with poverty comes crime and with crime a painful life. I’m talking from experience. They don’t have to experience the same. Each one, teach one. I am the light. I am the symbol of victory for them. Those older brothers are being selfish not to give us the information of what is happening in their lives. They’re just taking the pain that they’ve experienced further and further, so that everybody feels that pain. Madiba inspired me a lot. When I was in prison, I realised that it is not the end of the world. You can be someone better. I want to prove them wrong. They thought I was a thug. No, I committed a crime because the environment I’m living in is bad. It’s not because I enjoy crime. It’s just ignorants that think crime pays, until they experience being in prison or being underneath six feet, then you understand. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I realised that I was still healthy, fresh and physical. I realised that I am still young, I can do a lot of things. I can play soccer, I can sing, I can dance, I can do whatever I want to do. I’ve got freedom of speech, movement and spirit. I’ve got freedom of choice. I’m free. I’m the happiest man ever. Before, I’d never be here now. I know this time is TV time. I must be in the suburbs stealing because they are watching The Bold and the Beautiful. Now I’m in the world of dreams and talent. I feel I’ve got power, I can make things happen. I have to use it, because if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it.”

Rehabilitated drug addicts relapse all the time on their road to becoming fully functional and constructive members of our society. They battle with it daily. Perhaps it’s the same for rehabilitated gangsters. Your eyes once accustomed to spotting the half-gap always seek it out, and with the right mix of circumstance, you can slip back into it so easily. Like you never left. The fruit is there, hanging ripe on the tree. Despite everything you’ve worked so hard to create. It’s always there.

I just hope that Israel’s latest dance with the law spits him out relatively undamaged and with a renewed will to continue the good work he was doing in educating, inspiring and transforming his community. I trust him to return to the world of dreams and talent.

All images © and courtesy Caroline Suzman.

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  1. snapper says:

    for me the most interesting part isn’t covered – how he got out of the scene in the first place (even if it was only temporary)

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  2. Andy says:

    what’s the story snapper? Fill us in

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  3. Moose says:

    Be nice if you could get a follow up interview because this is fascinating stuff.

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  4. Chris says:

    Peaks and troughs, Israel. Respect for working your way out. We all fall. Get up again and continue to inspire and change lives. Remember that you are not the light, just reflecting a greater light.

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  5. Andy says:

    Yes Moose we’ll follow up on this one.

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  6. Pauly says:

    great historic interview, concise and scary insights into kids gangs and prisons; quality shots too. worthy of reprise and demands follow up

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  7. hbomb011 says:

    Relapse. Yes. The correlation between drug-induced highs and a post-crime buzz is very interesting. The thrill of doing something criminal and dangerous is potent and therefore alluring. The adrenaline gushes. Even if you’ve left that life behind, the temptation remains: ‘the fruit is there” because you know you can, “just one last time” or, to remember where you’ve come from. People create their own reasons. Interesting piece. Thank you.

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  8. bubba hotep says:

    ‘…they will shout but then they will accept’ – great stuff Andy!

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  9. Doctor L. says:

    This is dope. One of those things that genuinely set Mahala apart. More of this, please.

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  10. frankly says:

    what a lovely piece of conjecture … the assumptions that underly it are part of the reason why young black men wear orange overalls with GUILTY printed on the back as satorial commentary on the fact that three black men in car are never innocent until proven guilty while while old white ladies get away with murder

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  11. Nathan Zeno says:

    I’m intrigued, frankly.

    What are the assumptions? Where is the conjecture? I’m really asking.

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  12. Mo says:

    good piece

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  13. frankly says:

    the assumption is that it was him did the crime, the conjecture is about what led to his alleged relapse, but lovely was the operative word there…

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  14. Nathan Zeno says:

    I hear you on the “lovely”. I think the word “allegedly” clears up the assumption part. and the “Who knows?” is the closest I see to conjecture.

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  15. Ben Montrésor says:

    I had the great chance to meet Isreal last year and to take him in french La Réunion Island for the festival “I Love Jozi” as a supporting dancer and singer for Kwaito uprising artist Mgodoyi.
    From the first second, it was hard not to be impressed by the exceptional and unique charisma of the “personnage”. And it was such a funny and touching experience to be with him, in that ORT terminal, waiting for our plane, and see all the airport “slaves” coming and shaking hands, congratulating, the former gangster…
    To me, that simple moment encapsluated the man: a guy who comes from one of those deep shit tanks apartheid built as a system, who transcended it, and who finally became like one of those roses which only blossom on kak. Exceptional, beautiful, appealing “head”, with a “body” still covered with spikes.
    Israel is rough, tough as the ghetto where he was born and precisely the system which created and built those ghettos.
    Sadly, the latest episod of his life illustrates a phenomenon which doesn’t belong to SA only: the worse ghettos are “in the heads”, and, as shown by dozen of examples in the world, the socio-economical evolution of some ghetto-born individulas doesn’t necessarly reflect the general “healing” of the socio-economical class they were imposed.
    In a nutshell: Isreal’s story is a strong indicator, a confirmation.. Not of the phrase “once a gangster, always a gangster”, but of the depth of the social techtonic layers of the south african society where the country leaders needs to focus their policies in order to pretend to heal, repair, balance, the scars and injustice of the past…
    Thank you Andy
    Quite a good piece.

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  16. Andy says:

    frankly, i don’t think that’s fair. I never meant for this piece to rest on the assumption that he’s guilty and it’s important to point out that these are just allegations. but I was at pains to use terms like “allegedly” and “according to reports” and to ask the question “why would this successful actor and self-styled role model, with a solid career, throw all that away for R500 bucks and a few cellphones?” It’s exactly that, a question. Not an assumption.

    I think the piece is more about asking the complex questions and shedding light on the man’s history and the positive work he has done in his community – which has barely been reported on in the mainstream news, beyond the facile tabloid spin and dumbing down to make it a sound bite.

    And yes, we obviously plan to do a follow up interview. But really to break it all down to that old chestnut “the blackman is always a suspect” is to miss the point entirely.

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  17. frankly says:

    I dunno, maybe the comparison to addiction, which possibly paints any black man who has been on the wrong side of the law as a crimminal in hibernation, ready to “relapse” at any moment got my goat…I recall, and I may have the wrong greybeard, conservative newspaper editor, but I think it was Mathatha Tsedu who was arrested and beaten up at Eastgate mall after a car was stolen and he was happened to be a black man in the vicinity who was suspect just for being there…nowI just happened to be there at the mall at the time and I’m far more likely to steal a car, (or perhaps just for argument’s sake I’m one of those white guys that cleva gangs get to drive the stolen cars because they know how this shit goes down) than him, but he was arrested…so I’m just a little wary of how these things go down so while you ask what would make him relapse, and it is as I said, a lovely (if somewhat anthropological) piece, I have to say that it rests rather casually on a stereotype…and it’s the stereotype that is unfair, in my view.

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  18. Roger Young says:

    frankly, speaking as an addict AND a convicted criminal, I have to tell you the urges are the same. I could slip back into either or both at any time. I hope I don’t and I stay vigilant. I am, however, a heroin user and a thief. I haven’t done either for a long time but the chance of me going back for the rush of it is still there. The “a black man is always a suspect” is a not the topic here, what is relevant here is the issue that someone who has had to get away from some sort of habitual behaviour (regardless of the reason he/she got into it) is at risk of returning if they are triggered. And for some reason Israel was in a situation that POSSIBLY points to him having been triggered. And this, if true, is a very sad thing.

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  19. frankly says:

    all I am saying, we simply don’t know, he may have been set up, ths could be our finest officers of the law getting it wrong – that has happened before – and I think we might be projecting here. There is a story that we don’t have in full yet, and may never get in all its nuance..so this as it stands is trial – or dissection – by media. As you can craft that as sympathetically and as beautifully as it has been but the framework remains an attempt to understand something that maybe we just don’t get. and I am not saying we shouldn’t try, just adding my rat sniffer accent to the pity party, “and if that is true it is a very sad thing”, is a speculative statement that contains one truth – your emotional response to what appears to have happened.

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  20. Roger Young says:

    I think the tone of the piece definitely falls on the side of that it is something that maybe “we just don’t get”. I thought that was the point of the whole thing.

    Anyway. Let’s talk about the two speculative things you have said.

    A: “Pity party” is your speculation on how all the commentors on this forum feel. It’s a fairly cynical and broad swipe and not even beautifully put. Next time, try an “alleged” “pity party”

    B: “He may have been set up” is another convenient trope similar to “a black man is always a suspect”. Yes, he may have been set up, but what got him into a situation where being set up was a possibility or would have such dire results? You simply can never get all the nuance of that kind of thing, so making bald statements like the ones you seem prone to does not add to the attempt to understand what exactly happened. If we should try understand what happened lets try actually understand it and not throw a shit ton of assumptions that we have derived from TV journalism onto the fire.

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  21. Token says:

    I have no history of violence. Never grew up in the township or in the cities for that fact. But I recently moved to the city after finishing high school. I am now currently living in a township and have met a few men who were once part of the gang. What IU have picked up from them and I think if any of this is true is the reason why he “relapsed”.

    When you have quit you still some how want to hang out with the same people. You might be able to stand your ground with most, but there will always be that particular person you used to run around with who meanrt the world to you and still does. your “relapsing” in such a case might have alittle to do with the rush but that deep need of belonging.

    He created community work because he didn’t want to run away from his past but not everything (or rather everyone) in his past was pleased.

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  22. Kontlap says:

    U- Ma-Orange (Israel) is the man – very charismatic, strong individual, this man has the potential to do wonderous things and he knows it.

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  23. acmad says:

    Firstly, Andy great piece. Before I even begin commenting on the alleged and assuption of guilty. I want to ask and evenmore so pose something here… Ben Montresor commented “a guy who comes from one of those deep shit tanks apartheid built as a system, who transcended it, and who finally became like one of those roses which only blossom on kak. Exceptional, beautiful..” Firstly I think the disription of the township is backward, there are many great things in the townshi[p… and by the way some people still live in that deep shit tank..like me! And secondly why is it that some one who has made from the township is making an equally decent living as Isreal doesnt get as much praise as him? why do you have to be an exconvict turned good to be recognised as a township success? Is going to school and varsity and landing a job not enough..or do we all have to shoplift, spit, have maych sticks hanging from one side of our mouths and retell tails of that time we robbed and hijacked some white wanker?…okay now on the topic at hand usually when one becomes a reformed thug and continues to either live on hang out in the towmship, other guys see these reforms as burnt out, soft, gay, and stupid..and lets just assume Isreal took part in the crime, this could be true…you would do it too if some rough looking guy who is known as the man says to you “hayi wena usuyi bari, isnayi and there`s nothing you can tell me, mina ngisikhokho,”( Any who doesn`t understand, sorry this is SA and it 2010 you should know something by now)So it is a possibility that Isreal could have been pushed to the edge OR these guys could have just asked for lift from an old friend and along the way decided it was a cool idea to do what they did and take Isreal along for the ride as well. Only one person knows whether they are guilty or not and our speculation..maybe just maybe…doesnt even really matter to the one person in shit right now…

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  24. ono ono says:

    his the best among the rest,the devilish people who print wrong stories about him shall see nothing but the best of him.

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  25. Sjovo says:

    Did he commit crime this year? Where is he now?is he behind bars?

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  26. awelani says:

    He is the man. His exploits in inumber number are too good

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  27. lesedi says:

    the voice is very strong

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  28. Taki Teekay says:

    i respect this guy, i had chilled with him in many occusions and he is doing good in life

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  29. thato mohaka says:

    his a gr8t guy and living a good sober life, media will always write stories just to sell papers.

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  30. nhlanhla says:

    He iz the man amoungst all.

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  31. vuyo says:

    big to Israel Makoe(tupac) of Mzantsi Afrika

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  32. Anonymous says:

    Truly inspired..

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  33. Zain Patel says:

    As an artist I apologize to the whole of S. A myself and Israel come along way and been to prison, jail is not even fit for a dog to the youth out there stay focus don’t make the same mistake we made always pray and never give up God is great crime don’t pay.

    Jail humbled me God changed me Football made me trust me do the right thing I cried my pillow wet every day in Sun City we not super Stars but role models who made mistakes and learnt the hard way trust me crime don’t pay and God s real please stay away from crime I learnt the hard way we both good role models but made bad choices

    Ma se kind crime don’t pay follow your dreams never forget God, always pray life outside is good all the criminals are behind bars stay outside awe Zain Patel hope this inspires you please do good I pray for all our youth been a gangster don’t pay trust me I m sorry for what I did please study hard and always pray I m here to inspire before I retire

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