“Death row is not a nice place. It is cold and brings fear to the human heart. The four and a half months I sat in Pretoria’s death cells was the loneliest time of my life.
“That was when I learned to pray. I prayed to be given a chance to live and to make up for my mistakes. My prayers were answered. ‘Somebody up there loves me…’ I was saved from the rope and jailed for 18 years hard labour. Death row is not a nice place…”
These are the moving words of Mr George Mpalweni, better known as “Bra Kortboy van Kofifi — Sophiatown.”
He is a short man with a head that is beginning to grey. For a man his age, he walks very straight with his head held up high. His eyes are hard and sharp like those of a man who has seen much in life.
For a long time I have wanted to write a story about Bra Kortboy, one of the leaders of the feared ‘Americans’ gang. Now here he was in my office — in the flesh and blood — all five feet and no inches of him. It was the same Bra Kortboy, the man who ruled Kofifi back in the early 1950s.
I shook hands with the hand that once carried knives and guns. But now his hand felt warm and soft — more like that of a lover of people than a killer of men.
“Okay,” said Bra Kortboy. “I will tell you something about my life. But it will only be a taste. The rest is for my book that I want to write before my time is up.”
THE STREETS OF KOFIFI
“My father was a blacksmith and my mother was an ordinary housewife. Like many people in Kofifi, my parents had a very big fear of God and belonged to the Methodist Church. They sent me to a Methodist school hoping that I would become a respectable somebody.”
But it was not to be.
Like a river that has lost its way, Kortboy soon decided that school was not for him. School was for ‘moegoes’. He wanted action, not education. He found it on the rough and dirty streets of Kofifi where life was fast and as cheap as chewing gum.
“That was the beginning of a new life for me. I became streetwise at an early age and learned to take care of myself. I could beat anyone with my fists, tall or short. I was never bothered by my height. The taller they came, the faster they fell.
“Soon the word spread around the township that I was fast with ‘a-seven’, as we called a knife. I was 13 when my knife first drew blood. A man died.”
Father Trevor Huddleston, the brave enemy of apartheid, sent the young Kortboy to Diepkloof Reformatory. Father Huddleston was a priest at St Cyprian’s Mission in Sophiatown.
“I knew Father Huddleston well. He used to visit our homes in the township. We all respected him and greeted him whenever we came across him on the streets.
“Diepkloof Reformatory was a hard place. It was a school for little criminals. Alan Paton, who wrote the book called ‘Cry The Beloved Country,’ was the principal. He was strict, but kind to the boys in his own special way.
“We were taught many things at the reformatory but it was still a prison. The place taught me to be strong and to fend for myself.”
Bra Kortboy came out of the reformatory. But he was not cured from the sickness of the streets. The knife was back in his pocket again — and he didn’t think twice before he used it.
GOING TO WAR
“The Second World War started when I was sixteen and I was one of the people who joined the Army to fight this Hitler everyone was talking about. I did not care about why there was a war. I just wanted some action.
“But there was no real action for me at the army. I thought I was going to be given a gun and sent to fight, but all I got was a spear to guard the gates at the Boksburg Camp. I never touched a gun until the war was over.
“I was fired from the army in early 1945 for getting into a fight with another soldier. We had an argument and I stabbed him while he slept. So I said goodbye to the army and their spears and went back home to Kofifi.
“At this time the Berliners and the Gestapo were ruling the place. They were the leading gangs. The Berliners were the worst. Each and everyone carried a gun. These gangs fought against each other. They also made life hell for the people in Kofifi.”
“I got together with some of my friends and we started stealing from the shops in town and from the railways. That is how the gang called the Americans was born.”
“STREET WITH NO NAME”
“We used to wear sharp and expensive American clothes like the ones we saw in the movies. One of our favourite movies was called “Street with no Name.” It was about a gangster called Alec Styles who loved to eat apples and give orders to his boys.
“We liked American Jazz music and big American cars. One of our gang, who had only one arm, owned a big, white Cadillac. We drove around with nice-time women. I must say, they loved us a lot. We could jive the “jitterbug” and do the Tsaba-Tsaba. We were known in all the shebeens and dance-halls.
“We moved around with women like Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klaasens. Kippie Moeketsi and his friends in the Merry Blackbirds and the Harlem Swingsters were our friends. We liked their music and often forced them to play until the sun came up in the morning.
“We were all ‘bright boys’ and we always had lots of ching (money). But we were the only gang that never stole from poor people. We only stole from the rich in town. We used to sell the things at very low prices in Sophiatown. People used to give us orders. Maybe somebody would come to me and say, ‘Bra Kortboy, kan jy vir my ‘n two tone florsheim raatoo kry?’
“I would go to town and steal the shoe from a shop and sell it a low price. Business was business.”
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
“We also had a lot of friends who were in high places. We knew almost all the writers of Drum magazine. I knew Oliver Tambo very well as I lived four streets away from his home. Sometimes we ate our breakfast together and talked about politics.
“Tambo was a very intelligent young man. His greatest love was law and the ANC. Sometimes we went to their meetings and they always told us we were welcome to come back.
“After some time, the cops came down hard on us and some of us were arrested. Boy-boy, a fellow American, was shot dead by the railway police who surprised us while we were doing a job.
“But the police had a hard time. It was not easy to catch an American. We were real pros, not just chancers.
“In 1952 I was arrested and charged with murder. I told the judge that I was framed by some people. He did not believe me and he sentenced me to death. I was taken to the prison in Pretoria where I waited for the hangman.”
LEARNING TO PRAY
“We were given bibles and were often visited by priests who prayed for us. I knew I was not going to die because I did not kill that person. I trusted that God was going to help me.
“I still remember the afternoon I was called to the office. After four and a half months in the death cells, my prayers were answered. They told me that I was not going to hang. They gave me a long time in jail instead. I thanked the Lord for saving me. I did not mind about the years. I was just happy to get a second chance in life.
“In 1953 I started my stretch at Leeuwkop prison. Then I was moved to Barberton. I was never given a bad time in prison. I was known in all the prisons and gangs like the Big Five and the “28” never gave me problems. I did not join them. You see, Kortboy was now a good boy.
“After exactly 13 years in prison, they told me that I was going to be released a week later — on 11 January 1965. I spent that last week thinking about all the dear people that I had been missing, like my wife, children and friends. I told myself that I would make up for all the years that my kids spent without a father by giving them the best education.
“The day came and I was welcomed by my family and my friends. I went to live in Meadowlands because Kofifi was no more. They knocked it down and moved all the people while I was in prison.”
LIVING WITH THE PAST
Now the name “Kortboy” belongs to the past. Today you will no longer find a gun or a knife in his hand. Instead you will find a “bobbejan” spanner. Mr George Mpalweni is now a plumber, a trade he learned while he was in prison.
For a long time after he left prison, Bra George worked for a washing machine company, fitting washing machines into laundrettes. Now he no longer has a steady job. He does odd jobs, when he can find the work. But it is a struggle — often he does not have enough money to catch a taxi into town.
But the old man is getting by. He is one of the Kofifi family and they still look after each other. They even have their own burial society — and Bra George loves going to the meetings in Orlando every few weeks. He likes to relax with his old friends and talk about the past — in real ‘Kofifi taal of course, that beautiful mixture of Afrikaans, English and words of the street.
But it is the children that Bra George now loves best of all. Like most grandfathers, he can spend many hours watching them play. And not a day goes by when the children do not ask the old man to tell them stories about his gangster days.
He talks to the children, but often he does not feel proud. His heart fills with shame when he thinks of all the bad things he has done.
“I tell the children that education is the only key to life,” says Bra George. “I tell the youngsters to keep away from the gangsters and that only ‘moegoes’ carry a knife. I tell them that they must not end up like me, with a past that is dark.”
These are the words of a man who has seen the worst in life — a man who gave his soul to the devil and later saved it to tell the tale.
Death row — a place where people wait till they are hung blacksmith — person who makes things with iron, like shoes for horses, gates and ploughs respected — liked and trusted favourite — the thing you like best intelligent — clever laundrette — place with machines to wash clothes tale — story