Kliptown blues

3976813773_955a6d976a_o(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I took this photo while hanging out in a so-called “informal settlement” on the edge of Kliptown. People called the area Chicken Farm, supposedly because it had been part of a white-owned farm decades ago, before apartheid’s enforced racial sorting.

My guide that day was a friend of a friend, a “former thug” (as he was described to me) with a deep scar down the left side of his face. He grew up nearby, and remembered buying bread and sweets at the now-derelict shops. He got into the gangster game in his early teens, he told me, to provide for his family. By his last year in high school, he and his crew were stealing six or seven cars a week, mostly from whites in the northern suburbs, and delivering them to Nigerian middlemen who smuggled them out of the country. Later, his gang graduated to commercial truck hijackings and to home invasions. He insisted that he always urged nonviolence–at least at first. “‘Where’s our money?’” he’d ask the homeowner. “‘When you open the safe, it’s cool. We’ll leave you, and we’ll be gone. But it’s bad when you are not talking.’”

The thug did a few stints in prison, then got out of the game following a premonition that he was going to die violently. Nowadays he rises at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a landscaper in the northern suburbs, which pays less in a month than he used to earn in a week. To make ends meet, he still “consults” with younger car thieves on weekends.