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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.