Sophiatown, Kofifi, Casbah. The place had many names. But names didn’t matter. In Sophiatown only living mattered.
People really lived then. Life was hard. Life was fast. Life was cheap. But one thing for sure, life was never boring.
Everything happened there. Sophiatown was the home of jazz.
It was the home of politics. And it was the home of the gangs -gangs that were big and dangerous.
Gangs like ‘The Berliners’, ‘The Americans’, ‘The Gestapo’ and ‘The Vultures’ ruled the streets. They fought on the streets. And they died on the streets.
One gang leader lived to tell his story. His name is Don Mattera. He was the leader of ‘The Vultures’.
SON OF ‘THE DON’
The rain did not come for many months in 1935. Then one Thursday in December, the rain suddenly came. On the same day, Don Mattera was born.
Don was born in one of the oldest townships in Johannesburg.
The township was called Western Native Township. Sophiatown was across the road.
At first, Don lived with his mother in Western Native Township. His father did not live with them. He lived in Sophiatown. Don’s father was a tough guy. He was the boss of the Sophiatown streets. People called him ‘The Don’.
“Those days were rough,” says Don. “The Great Depression had just finished. Jobs paid nothing. People had to find ways to live. My father was a gambler and a thief. But he only stole from rich people.
Poor people always came to him for help. He never turned them away.
” My father was a great fighter. He had a kick like three mules. But he never kicked a man when he was down. I never forgot that. I also have never kicked a man when he was down.”
Then the Second World War started. Life got harder for the people. They had no food. They didn’t even have firewood. Don’s mother could not feed him. She asked his father to take him. Don’s father came and took him back to Sophiatown. Don was five years old.
Don was very happy in Sophiatown. His father had many brothers. Don loved them all. But Don loved one person most of all. That person was his grandmother. She was a kind old lady.
Don’s father wanted his son to get an education. He sent him to a school in Natal. “The school was a Catholic school,” says Don.
“At school I ate Catholic, I drank Catholic and I slept Catholic. The school was not a place for devils. And I became a devil.”
Don had a fight on his first day at school. “This guy stole my money and my food,” says Don. “I smashed the guy. I had many fights. Soon all the kids at school were scared of me.”
In 1945, Don’s grandmother died. He was very upset. He wanted to go home. He left the school and caught a train back to Sophiatown. Then son of ‘The Don’ was going home.
THE ‘ZINGA SPECIAL’
The kids in Sophiatown were tough. They gave Don a hard time. They called Don the ‘Holy of Holies’ because he came from a Catholic school.
One day a kid called Kenneth ‘The Eagle’ Lewis called Don ‘Umfundisi’. The fight was rough. But Don knew how to fight. He smashed ‘The Eagle’. After the fight they became good friends. People called them ‘The Eagle and The Hawk’.
” That fight started a lot of other fights,” says Don. ” The weak kids came to me for help. I gave them help. We started a gang to fight the bullies. We gave the bullies a hard time. We called ourselves ‘The Vultures'”.
” ‘The Vultures’ grew bigger and bigger. Sophiatown had many gangs,” says Don. We fought them street by street. If I beat the leader of a gang, the whole gang joined us. I never lost a fight. They called me ‘Zinga’.
Don had a special way of punching. He had a punch called the ‘Zinga Special’. He broke many jaws with the ‘Zinga Special’. Ward Four at Coronationville hospital was called ‘Zinga’s Ward’.
Soon ‘The Vultures’ had 500 members. They were all still youngsters. They did not use knives or guns. They fought with their fists. But even the big gangs were scared of them. And Don was the leader. The ‘Holy of Holies’ was home. He was learning the law of the street.
‘FIVE FEET TALL AND NO INCHES’
‘The Vultures’ did not fight with knives or guns. But other gangs did. A gang called ‘The Berliners’ carried guns. They got guns from the soldiers who came back from the war.
‘The Berliners’ ruled the top end of Sophiatown. They robbed and stole from the people of Sophiatown. They attacked the rich and the poor. Everybody was scared of them.
Another gang was called the ‘Young Berliners’. People also called them ‘The Gestapo’. Some of the gang members came from a boxing club. On weekends they fought in the streets. On Mondays they went back to the club. The people in the township hated them.
A group of thieves also lived in Sophiatown. These guys liked American things. They wore expensive American clothes. They watched American movies. They spoke like Americans. They called themselves ‘The Americans’.
The women liked these young and handsome men. All the pretty women in the township joined them. The other gangs got jealous.
George ‘Kort Boy’ Mbalweni was the leader of ‘The Americans’. He was five feet tall and no inches. He knew how to use a knife.
‘The Americans’ also carried guns. But they were not like ‘The Gestapo’ and ‘The Berliners’. They did not rob the poor.
The big gangs began to fight each other. The gangsters used guns, knives and choppers. “Many people died before peace came again,” says Don. ” Each gang had their own clothes. They had their own way of talking. They had their own way of walking. But they all had the same way of killing.”
” ‘The Vultures’ respected ‘The Americans’, ” says Don. “We spoke American, we walked American, we danced American and we drank American milkshakes. We also started stealing. We only stole from the rich. We ran into shops. We grabbed the till and ran out again. Soon the shops paid us not to rob them. We called this protection money.”
Other gangs started in Sophiatown -gangs like ‘The Black Raiders’, ‘The Kango Kids’, ‘The Wibsey Kids’ and ‘The Black Devils’. ‘The Vultures’ fought all these gangs. The gangs fought with knives, choppers and swords. The ‘Zinga Special’ was not good enough anymore. Don now carried a gun.
‘OLD MAN PETERSEN’
“Things began to change, ” says Don. “The guys in ‘The Vultures’ got rough. When ‘The Vultures’ started, we only fought bullies. But now we were bullies ourselves. A new gang started in Sophiatown.
They were called ‘The Headquarters’. They were young and brave. We had to smash them. We caught them in the street. Two of their guys died.”
The police arrested Don. They charged him with murder. Don saw many things in jail. He saw men sleeping with men. One guy asked Don to be his wife. ” He called me a lekker cherry,” says Don. “So I stabbed him with a spike. But I also met good guys in jail. I met an old man called Isaac Petersen. He told me to leave the gangster world. He told me I was wasting my life.”
Don waited in jail for the court case. He waited for nine months. Then he went to court. The judge let him free. Don felt happy. But he was not happy for long. ‘The Headquarters’ were after him.
‘The Headquarters’ caught Don. They stabbed him badly. Don went to hospital. ‘The Headquarters’ were still not happy. They sent their guys to the hospital. They tried to kill Don. But Don was lucky. Some nurses saw th guys. They screamed and the gangsters left in a hurry.
The hospital was quiet. Don lay in bed alone. He began to think about many things. He thought about the gangs. He thought about the fighting and the killing. He thought about old man Petersen in jail.
Don looked at the world from the hospital window. He watched the people. He watched the birds. He saw trees and flowers. Everywhere he looked, he saw life. Now Don also wanted to live. He didn’t want to die in a street gutter. The man with the ‘Zinga Special’ wanted a new life.
A MAN OF PEACE
Don’s new life did not last long. “The streets soon called me back,” says Don. “I could not leave the gang. The street was in my blood.”
Then Don found himself a new girlfriend. She was a nurse. She was a member of the ANC. She gave Don books to read. She told him to leave the gang. Don liked the woman. But he didn’t leave the gang. He took his gang to look after the women at meetings.
At this time, the government told people to move out of Sophiatown. The government wanted the people to move to places like Meadowlands and Orlando. The people didn’t want to move. They fought to stay in Sophiatown. Don started to think about politics.
” ‘The Vultures’ did not like the way I was thinking” says Don. “They said I was carrying books instead of a knife. Some of the guys wanted to get me. They got me after I left church one Sunday. Their guns blasted. The bullets burned heavy in my bones.”
So Don went back to hospital. He was lucky he was still alive. After he left hospital the street called him back once again.
Then in 1957 Dan’s first child was born. He called the boy ‘Sonnyboy’. He paid lobola for the baby’s mother the same year. Her name was Martha. Now Don really wanted to leave the gang.
More and more people left Sophiatown. Then Don and his family also had to move. The gangs began to break up in Sophiatown. The gangs started again in places like Diepkloof and Meadowlands.
Don slowly left the world of gangs. He worked more and more in politics. He started writing poetry. His poems are good. They are good because he understands suffering. He understands the street.
Now Don lives in Eldorado Park. He is a journalist at The Star newspaper. He works a lot with kids. He organizes soccer matches. He gives the children parties. Don doesn’t want the kids to join gangs.
” But gangs will always start when people are poor and hungry,” says Don. ” People will kill each other when they have no houses, no lights in the street and no chance in life. I now believe people must work together to change things. Working together is the only way to stop gangs and crime.”
Now the man with the ‘Zinga Special’ is a man of peace. He is a gentle man with no hate. The streets will never get him back.