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Sharing a beer with a hot potato

He sat there with a cigarette hanging from one of the gaps in his teeth. He had a glass in his hand and his little son on his knee. It was Kruger day – and Shumi Ntutu was at home.

We sat with him in his little tin shack in Orlando East. He shared his cigarettes and beer with us. And he shared the story of his life.

When he answered our questions he was polite and caring.

“Have I answered your question okay, gents?” he asked again and again.

But after just a few minutes, we knew that Shumi was more than polite and caring. There is something very special about him.

Just look at his eyes – those young, dancing eyes. People with such eyes never grow old. In some ways, they never die.

“You know, a childs name is so important,” he says. “My father named my first son. He called him Sibonda – this means “boss” in English. And do you know where is now? He is sitting 12 years for murder. That is why I thought carefully before I named my little son. Lulamile means “Patience”. A child will always live by his name.”

Maybe Shumi is right. Little Lulamile sat patiently in his arms.

He only cried when anybody tried to take him away from his father. The little boy loves his father very much. And maybe he too wanted to hear the story of his father’s life.

When his father looked sad, little Lulamile also looked sad. And when his father smiled and laughed, little Lulamile did the same. Both didn’t care that they had no teeth. Lulamile is still waiting for his. And Shumi has lost most of his forever. “l’m sure it was the water on the Island,” says Shumi. “Drink a glass of that water and your teeth fall out.”

And Shumi had a good few glasses of water on the Island. He was there for 15 long years.


Shumi Ntutu was born in Prospect Township on the 27th March 1935. But Shumi and his family did not stay there for very long. The Ntutu family moved to Orlando. And Shumi has lived there ever since.

Shumi started school very late in life. ”As you can see, I am not the tallest guy in the world,” says Shumi. ” Every time I went to schooI, they asked me to put my hand over my head – and to touch my ear on the other side. I only started school when I was 12 years old.”

Shumi had a full life at school. First he learned how to fight. “As I have said, my father was not so good with names”, says Shumi. “My full name is Given Shumi Ntutu. So every time we read the word ‘give’ or ‘given’ in class , the other kids turned around and laughed at me. And just think how many times you find these words on a page in a book. Well that’s how many fights I had.”

Then Shumi learned how to love. “I loved the girls a lot,” says Shumi licking the beer from his lips. “But I must say that I was a bit shy of the girls from rich families. I came from a poor family and I didn’t know what to say to those rich girls. They wore good clothes and brought nice food from home. And they always bought Popla Pop from the shops. We poor kids just ate the soup they gave us at school. We drank the soup from mugs we carried on our belts – just like the scouts do.”

When Shumi wasn’t chasing the girls, he played a bit of sport. He played volleyball, chess and drafts. “I liked the safer sports”, says Shumi. “I did some boxing for a while but I soon got tired of being a punch bag. I even played some rug­by. But that game taught me that I am a bit of a coward.”

And when Shumi wasn’t fighting for his name, or loving the girls, or hiding away from the rugby games, you found him at the piano. The young Shumi Ntutu loved music ­even more than girls.

“When I was still at primary school, I joined the school choir,” says Shumi. “We sang songs like ‘Tom, Tom the piper’s son, stole a pig and away he ran’. I still don’t know why he stole that pig!

“When I was a bit older, I went to live with my big brother Douglas. One day Douglas came home with a huge Berlin piano. It just squeezed through the door. It cost him 200 pounds and it took him many months to pay. But he didn’t care. He and his friends loved to play boogie woogie music.”

Shumi’s brother didn’t want Shumi to play the piano.

“No dice, ” he would always say. “I want you to work hard at school.”

But Shumi loved that Berlin piano much more than his school books. “I dodged school and played the piano when Douglas was at work,” says Shumi. “When Douglas found out, he locked his piano. But that didn’t stop me. I soon learned how to open the piano with a piece of wire.”

One day, when Shumi was still in standard three, his teacher said: “The girls of today are the mothers of tomorrow.” For the first time Shumi listened to his teacher. He got a girl pregnant. And his school days were suddenly over.


“I never saw my first child,” says Shumi softly.

“The girl’s parents quickly took her away to Bloemfontein and I never saw her again. I often think about her and the child.”

But back then, Shumi was young and he had a life ahead of him. It was the beginning of the 1950’s and there was much happening. Jazz was in full swing. Thousands of people were joining the political struggle. And the townships were full of a new kind of men -the gangsters. Shumi tried it all.

He played the sax for the Cuban Swingsters and Miriam Makeba. Later he played the trumpet for the Blue Serenades and the trombone for the Blue Flames. And when he wasn’t too busy, he wrote songs for the late, great Spokes Mashiane.

When times were hard, he became a gangster. He wore a leather jacket and cowboy boots – just like his hero in the movies, Roy Rogers. He bought a gun and robbed fahfi runners and coal merchants. But, he will tell you, he never shot anybody. When he robbed somebody, he first fired the gun into the ground and then into the air. That was always enough.

And believe it or not, he even got a job here and there. He will proudly tell you about his first job. It was at the OK Bazaars. He got two pounds a week to sweep the floors and to watch out for thieves. “I always turned my head when I saw people stealing,” says Shumi. “I believed that if a person got a chance, they must take it. After all, I took every chance I got.”

One day Shumi saw two white kids stealing some toys. Shumi turned his head – he let everyone take their chance, black or white. But because his head was turned, he didn’t see that his boss was watching. Before Shumi could turn around, he was fired. The boss didn’t believe in giving chances!

But it was politics that changed Shumi’s life. Shumi joined the ANC early in the 50’s -like thousands of people all over the country.

Shumi remembers the first time that politics touched his heart.

“Two guys, Gideon Nxumalo and Stanley Nkosi, worked for SABC radio. Then one day, out of the blue, these guys gave this political speech over the radio.

They spoke about the pass laws and the future of our children. Their speech touched where it hurts.

“Some guy called Makgene impimpi’d on Stanley and Gideon. Do you know the township saying: “Jy’t my Makgene! -(you have betrayed me.) Well, that’s where it comes from.”

In between all the action in the life of the young Shumi Ntutu, he met a woman who later became his wife – 10 years later. “I didn’t want to push things,” says Shumi.

Her name was Nomsa and he met her when he played at a concert at the DOCC hall. She sent a friend to tell Shumi she liked him. “She liked my music,” says Shumi with a (naughty) twinkle in his eye.

And then times changed in sunny South Africa. Thousands of people were arrested. Sixty nine were shot dead in Sharpeville. And the ANC and PAC were banned. The swinging fifties were over.


Many young men began to leave the country. They left to fight for a better life.

”I remember my father coming to see me,” says Shumi. “He asked me to keep some people for three or four days. I did not question my father. Then he said to me : ‘You have a licence and you will be getting a car.’ They gave me a Volkswagen and I began to drive people. At first I only drove part of the way. And after a while, I drove all the way.

“Then my luck ran out and they caught me – cowboy style. They followed me around for a long time but they couldn’t catch me. Then this guy asked me for a lift. He carried a small cardboard box. A present for a friend, he said. Before we got very far, we drove into a roadblock. They were waiting for me. And they really got me – with a bomb in a box.”

On the 3rd March 1964, a judge sent Shumi Ntutu to jail for 15 years for sabotage. Shumi remembers the tears of his wife. And he remembers the sadness of leaving his two children.

“I thought about my children growing up without a father,” says Shumi quietly. “I knew they would grow up and know me only by name. But I never lost hope. I was still alive – and that’s what mattered.”

And so Shumi went to Robben Island for a full 15 years. They did not let him out even one minute early.

Like all the husbands and fathers on the Island, he worried about his family struggling back at home. And he too had a heavy heart when he spoke to his wife though a piece of glass – on the few times she came all the way to visit for just half an hour.

But for Shumi and the others, words are not good enough. Only they know the secret pain of the dark hours. Only they know of the love they have for each other. Only they know what there is to know.

Soon after Shumi got to the Island, he asked for his saxophone. He waited and waited. It came 13 years after he got there. And when it came, he taught his friends how to play music. He still remembered how. That’s one thing nobody can ever take away from him.


When Shumi came home, the pain was not over. He buried his dear Nomsa two years later. And for three years he could not find a job.

“Nobody wanted to give me work,” says Shumi. “When they found out where I came from they thought I was a hot potato.”

After many closed doors, Shumi found a job. He is a storeman at Pick ‘n Pay in Brixton, Johannesburg. “They gave me a job when nobody else would,” says Shumi.

Now Shumi is married again. He married a young, pretty woman called Elizabeth . Lulamile is their first child together.

Shumi does not play music very much anymore. He keeps his old trumpet in a box underneath a pile of napkins. He plays with his old friends once in a while. But that is all. “I now want to feed and clothe my family,” says Shumi. “I don’t have much time for music.”

It was now early evening and the sun was setting over the dusty streets of Orlando East. Little Lulamile was fast asleep in his father’s arms. “Have I answered all your questions okay?” he asked once again.

Yes you have, Shumi. Thank you very much.


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