Fighting back without hate

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In 1975 everything was going well for a singer called Thandie Klaasen. She was climbing up the ladder quickly. She was making it.

Then suddenly her whole world fell apart. Some people threw petrol over her face – and lit a match.

Thandie Klaasen’s beautiful face was gone. She now had only terrible pain and a broken life. But she fought back. She started at the bottom of the ladder again.
Learn and Teach spoke to the brave Thandie Klaasen. She told us a bit about her life:

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005OUT OF TUNE
“When I first began to sing, I sang out of tune,” says Thandie. “I first sang in the school choir at St Cyprians in Sophiatown. I grew up in the old Sophiatown.

“A girl with a beautiful voice sang with us in the choir. She always stood next to me. When she sang, all eyes were on her.

“I wanted all the eyes to look at me. So I always sang louder – and more out of tune.”

The young Thandie thought about her problem. And then one day she began to ask herself some questions. Why must I try to sing like the girl with the beautiful voice? Why must I try to copy her voice? And Thandie soon had the answer. “I have my own voice,” she told herself. “Let me use my own voice!”

So Thandie Klaasen began to use her own voice. And the eyes began to look at her. She joined her first group when she was 18 years old. The group was called the ‘Gay Gay ties’.

“One day the group got a job in Durban,” says Thandie. “The leader of the group told me to go home and ask my parents if I could go to Durban. But I was scared to ask my parents. And I really wanted to go to Durban.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005“So I went to Durban – without asking my parents. We came back three weeks later. And my father wanted to kill me. I was in real trouble.

“Then I got an idea. I gave my father all the money I made in Durban,­ every penny. My father said something to himself. And he put the sjambok away.”

And on that day, Thandie Klaasen made up her mind. She was going to sing. And her father did not stop her.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005KING KONG
“Then King Kong happened,” says Thandie. “I got a small part in the show. We left for London on the 2nd February 1962. In London I shared a room with Abigail Kubheka. She was a good friend.

“The show was going well in London. Then the lead singer Peggy Pango got sick. I don’t think she was really sick. I think she was actinq. She thought the show was finished without her. But she was wrong. At the last minute they gave me Peggy’s part. That was my big chance and I was ready. King Kong was my big break.”

And so the show went on. Thandie was good and there were no problems. The show went to many places in Europe. “Before we came back we went to Rome,” says Thandie. “And we had a lovely holiday.”

In Rome I found a wishing fountain­ you throw coins into the fountain and make a wish. I wished for happiness for my family. And I wished for my singing to go far. I felt good at that wishing fountain in Rome.

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“When I came back to South Africa, I heard about a Mr Paljas in Cape Town. He wanted actors for his new play. So I went to Cape Town and Mr Paljas gave me the job. I was the only woman in the play. It was fun.”

Then Thandie got another big break. She got a job to sing in Japan. “I really wanted to go to Japan,” says Thandie. “I was already married with two little children. My husband said I must go. I then told my best friend about the job. And she told me to come for supper that night. She promised to make my best meal ­ roast beef and dumplings.

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Thandie in hospital

“When I went to her place, I saw two boys at the gate. I greeted them and passed. I saw her sitting with her baby in the kitchen. Then I heard somebody behind me. And suddenly my face was on fire.

“She hired those two boys to throw petrol over me and set me alight. They were only 18 years old. She gave them R10 and a bottle of whisky for the job.

“I hurt when I think about that time. I don’t know why she did what she did. We had no arguments. Maybe she just didn’t want me to go to Japan.

“I stayed in hospital for over a year. Oh God, that was a terrible time. I don’t like to remember what happened to me. My husband left me. And most of my good friends forgot about me.

“But some people did not forget about me. My family helped me. The nurses and doctors were very nice. And a few old friends like Queeneth Ndaba stood by me. They gave a concert to pay for one of my skin operations.

“And of course, my fans were always there. They didn’t forget about me. They came to visit me. And they sent me letters. I got letters from far away places like Mozambique. And I always had flowers in my room.”

Thandie Klaasen had plenty of time to think in hospital. In the long nights,
she thought about her life. She thought about the girl with the beautiful voice in the school choir. She thought about her angry father with his sjambok. And she thought about the wishing fountain in Rome.

“I thought about those two boys for a long time,” says Thandie. “And after a while, I felt no hate. My face was burnt – but I still had my voice.

“And I also thought about my children. I knew they needed a mother – and I was their mother. I knew I had to fight back.”

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005THE FIGHT BACK
And so after a long, painful time, Thandie Klaasen got out of her hospital bed. She went back into the world with a different face. And she went straight back to the stage.

She got a job in a play called the Black Mikado. “My daughter Lorraine was also in the play,” says Thandie. “I remember that play with sadness. Some of the other actors gave me a hard time. When they turned their backs to the people, they laughed at me. They mocked my face. They mocked me in front of my daughter.”

Thandie suffered very much. But she did not leave the stage. In 1981 she went to sing in Lesotho. She met Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they gave a concert in Lesotho.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Thandie now sings mostly at night­ clubs. And her voice is beautiful ­ when she sings, all eyes look at her.

Thandie Klaasen is slowly climbing up the ladder again. But it’s not easy. “I sometimes have no work for a while,” says Thandie quietly.

Thandie Klaasen gets stronger every day. “You know, I often see those two boys who burnt my face,” says Thandie. “I don’t hate them. Hate makes you weak. Now when people hurt me, they only make me stronger!”.


Dancing for freedom

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

The man’s body twists and jives like a snake. Sweat shines on his face. He holds his clenched fist high in the air. His shoes go c1ickety clack all through the dance. And he sings – in time to the tapping of his shoes.

Then the tap dancer stops. He sits down. The workers shout” Amandla”, Someone gets up to make a speech. And the workers’ meeting goes on.

The man’s name is Baazner Moloi. He is a song and dance man. And he sings and dances for the workers in his trade union.

Baazner also works in a big factory every day. So he knows about the lives and daily struggles of workers.

He knows they need more rights. He knows workers want more freedom. And he knows that after work each day workers need something else. They need a chance to keep their souls alive.

“We need to laugh and be happy,” says Baazner. “Song and dance helps us to forget our troubles for a while. But it also makes us brave. It brings us together and makes us strong.”

So at the meetings of his union Baazner dances. He dances so the workers can laugh and be happy together. And he dances so they will be strong when they stand up and fight for their rights.

Baazner’s union is called the Chemical and Industrial Workers Union. Today it is fighting for a better life for the workers of this country. Baazner is one of the worker leaders in this union.

So Baazner Moloi is many things. He is a factory worker. He is a fighter. He is a worker leader. And he is just an ordinary guy who loves to sing and dance. This is his story.

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Nearly 40 years ago, Baazner Moloi was born in Moroka township. People called the place “Emasakeni”. It was a good name for the place. People lived in shacks made of tin and old sacks.

Baazner does not remember Emasakeni. But the young boy’s eyes saw the suffering of the people. And they did not forget.

Baazner’s father was poor. But he loved his son very much. He didn’t want Baazner to live in a place where babies died like flies. So he took the boy to his grandmother’s place. She lived in a place people still call Kofifi – the peoples’ name for Sophiatown.

People were poor in Sophiatown. But it wasn’t as bad as Emasakeni. And the place was always alive with music, song and dance. Some people say South African jazz was born in Kofifi.

Baazner was still too young to remember Sophiatown. But his ears heard the song and music of the people. And they did not forget. The sound of Kofifi stayed in his blood.

Then Baazner’s father got a job in Germiston. So he moved everyone ­ his wife, his kids and the old granny. They moved to a house in the old location near Germiston. That’s where Baazner began to sing and dance. And that’s where he began to fight for his rights.


Baazner’s mother was a very strict Christian. She sent the boy to Sunday school. The teachers noticed two things about Baazner. He was very naughty. And he loved to sing. He had the best voice’ in the singing class.

Baazner remembers his first big fight at primary school. The boy knew his parents were poor. And he didn’t know why his father had to pay for the teacher’s wages. So one day he marched into the headmaster’s office and said, “Give me back my school fees.”

Baazner didn’t get the money. And he didn’t stay long at that school. From then on he spent very little time in the classrooms. One day Baazner’s father even sent the blackjacks to find the boy and take him to school.

But Baazner did not listen. He only had ears for the music he loved. At night he went to the township dance halls with his many friends. Together they crept around in the dark outside the halls. They looked in through the windows.

Inside big and famous bands made music for the people – bands like the Inkspots and the Bogart Brothers, And inside the people jumped and jived to the great old sounds – the sounds that made them feel alive.

Outside the small boys sang and danced. They jived like the people in­ side. And nobody jived like Baazner – inside or outside.

Baazner and his friends had another great love – the movies. They loved the American movies about tap dancers best of all. So they put the caps of beer bottles under their shoes. When they danced they made their own c1ickety clack music. And nobody could clickety clack like Baazner Moloi.


The people of old Germiston Location were poor. They called the place “Dukathole – a lost sheep”. But they liked their home. The white factories were nearby. Bus fares were not much. And the place was a little like Sophiatown – it had some life in it.

But the whites wanted their town to be white – pure white. So the government moved the people of Dukathole to a new township called Katlehong.

Soon after that Baazner’s father gave up trying to educate his son. He said: “OK, don’t go to school. Go and find a job.” That’s when Baazner decided to go back to school.

His father sent him to a boarding school in Standerton. Baazner hated it. But one thing kept him there ­ the school had a band. They played jazz and called themselves the “Soul Souvenirs” .

The band soon heard about the new boy. “They heard I was from the Reef,” says Baazner. “And they saw I was a top jiver. So they asked me to dance at their shows.

“We travelled to all the towns around Standerton. Before the show we put up posters. The posters told people to “Come and see the Soul Souvenirs and Baazner Moloi – the Ace Monkey Jiver from the Reef.”

The people crowded into the shows and Baazner became famous – in those small towns. They were good days for a song and dance man like Baazner Moloi.

So the young Baazner didn’t fight much. He only gave the teachers a headache every now and then. But after he finished standard eight things changed. It was time to go home, to find work – and to begin fighting again.

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Baazner and his friends – for them overtime was jive time


Baazner found many jobs after school. But he didn’t stay long in most of them. “I hated bosses. I hated the way they swore at us. I hated the low wages they paid us,” says Baazner. “And in life, I believe in one thing. If someone treats me badly, then I fight back.”

Baazners first job was In a fruit and vegetable shop. He wasn’t in the job for long before he asked for more money. “What?” screamed the owner. “All day you eat my bananas. You eat my tomatoes. want more money. Sukal”

So Baazner went looking for other jobs – mostly in the big metal and chemical factories on the East Rand.

His best friend was a guy with a nice name – Goodman. The two friends always looked for jobs together. Baazner and Goodman didn’t know about trade unions in those days. But if they didn’t like a factory then the two friends stood together. They fought for their rights.

And after work each day they tried to forget their troubles. So they filled their souls with booze. And they jived – late into the night.

“Many shebeens had dancing competitions,” says Baazner. “The winner always got free beers. So I became a boozer. I couldn’t help it.”

One day a boss told Goodman and Baazner to work overtime. The friends didn’t like this. For them overtime was jive time. So they got the other workers together and said “if we all stand together and say no together, then the bosses cannot make us work overtime.”

The workers agreed. They said,” We are brothers in this together.” But one worker was not a brother. His name was Sam. He told the bosses about the plans of Goodman and Baazner.

The next day Baazner told his brothers to watch him. He walked up to Sam’s desk. He jumped over it. And he gave Sam a loud klap. “Sam screamed so loud,” says Baazner. “A supervisor came running to help him. So I klapped the supervisor too.”

Baazner and Goodman didn’t stay long in that job. Baazner found that his style of fighting didn’t help so much. He didn’t win many fights. And most times he just got fired. He had no power behind him when he fought the bosses.

Then something happened that changed Baazner’s life. He got a job at a big glass factory. And at this factory he found two things – a trade union and a friend called Ronald Mofokeng.


Ronald Mofokeng was a fighter of a different kind. He was a worker leader in the trade union at Plate Glass. And he knew a few tricks about making workers strong in their struggle.

Ronald saw that Baazner was a fighter too. But he knew that all fighters need some training. So he spoke to Baazner for many long hours.

Ronald explained the meaning of the word “organize”. He told Baazner that fighters must work hard. He said worker leaders must call many meetings of workers. They must explain how workers can use trade unions to fight their problems.

And above all he told Baazner to listen to the voice of the workers. He told Baazner to fight the way the workers told him to fight. If worker leaders do this, said Ronald, then they will have power behind them – the power of the workers.

Baazner heard these words. And he understood them well. “The union fitted me like a glove,” says Baazner. “It showed me the way to fight for the rights of workers – and win.”

After three months the workers elected Baazner to be a shopsteward – a worker leader in the factory. This time the fighter didn’t get fired. He had the workers behind him. He still works in the same factory today.

“Every day workers crowd into my office to talk about their problems,” says Baazner. “And the bosses can’t do much about it. So they just call my office ‘Soweto’.”


“The union took up a lot of time,” says Baazner. “After work we had many meetings with workers. Many times we worked until 3 o’clock in the morning.”

“I didn’t do much dancing for a while. But then I saw that workers were beginning to make plays. And some workers came together in choirs ­ to sing worker songs.

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Baazner knew that workers were doing these things to keep their souls alive. So he said “Now – its time to dance”. He went out and bought a pair of tap dancing shoes. He began to dance again. And his shoes began to make the old clickety clack music again. Sometimes in the shebeens but mostly at his union meetings.

And when Baazner dances in the meetings he also sings. But he doesn’t use funny songs that mean nothing to workers. He sings about the problems of workers. He sings words that make the workers brave. And he sings about something else, something special – a little bit of freedom.


Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005One night 23 years ago, the black musicians of Johannesburg had a big party. They all met at Dorkay House in Eloff Street to say good bye to the members of King Kong – the famous stage show about life in Sophiatown. King Kong was going to London.

The night was long and wild. Ntemi Piliso was the leader of the band. And the famous Sol Klaaste was also there – playing the piano like never before. Everyone sang, drank and danced until the sun came up.

In the morning the whole party drove to the airport. They all sang Nkosi Sikelela and waved good-bye to the members of King Kong. King Kong was off to London in an aeroplane full of babalas and sore heads.

Jonas on the day he left for England

Jonas on the day he left for England

Some of the men and women from King Kong never came home. When the show in London ended many of them stayed overseas. They wanted to study music or to make records.

One of these people was a young man called Jonas Gwangwa – the trombone player in the King Kong show. After the show he went to America. He studied at famous music schools in New York. He played jazz with big time American jazz men. He made many records and lots of money.

Jonas Gwangwa became famous – a homeboy who made good. He lived in America for 15 years. And those years were not wasted. He met a lot of people, he played a lot of music and he learned a lot. Jonas was doing well – but he was not really happy.

He began to feel alone – like a man floating at sea, cut off from his people.

Jonas in England

Jonas in England

But Jonas couldn’t come home. He couldn’t come home because of his politics. He spent a lot of time in America fighting apartheid. He knew the government in South Africa was not his best friend.

So he did the next best thing. He flew to Gaborone in Botswana to be close by. And that’s where he lives and works today – still making the music that people love so much.

Learn and Teach went to Gaborone to talk to Jonas Gwangwa. We wanted to ask him some questions – like why does a man leave an easy life in America for a not so easy life in Botswana?

He spoke in a quiet way. And his words were full of deep feeling for his country, his people, their history and their music.

“Life in the U.S.A, was good,” says Jonas. “I played trombone with some of the best jazz musicians in the world. I also made a lot of music with South Africans like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.

“One time I made a record with Miriam and Harry Belafonte – the great American blues singer. Most of the songs were in Zulu. So I had to teach Harry the words.

“It was great”, says Jonas. “Every time I went to Harry’s place he was sleeping. But I didn’t mind. He was paying me 15 dollars an hour. So I let him sleep. But soon he learnt some Zulu and we made the record. I learned a lot from that man.”

He learned a lot in America. But he never forgot his first lessons – the lessons he learned in the dusty streets of Sophiatown.

He remembered his days at Madibane High. He thought of his family and hard times. Jonas’ father was not so rich – like most black people in Sophiatown. The family could only pay for his sister to go to music lessons. So Jonas had to wait for a long time before he could play the music that was in his blood.

“I grabbed the first chance I got,” says Jonas. “From Madibane I went to St. Peters College in Rosettenville. Father Huddleston was the priest there. He got some old instruments and told us to play.

“I went to the first meeting. wanted to play the clarinet. But I didn’t know the name of the damn thing. So I asked for the first instrument I could think of – a trombone! I was shocked to see how big it was. But I was too shy to say anything. So that’s how I came to play the trombone.”

The boys at St. Peters started their own band and . called it the “Huddleston Jazz Band”. That’s where Jonas met people like Gwigwi Mrebi and Hugh Masekela – also great South African musicians.

Then Jonas joined the famous’ Union of South African Artists. This was a group of musicians who met on the top floor of Dorkay House in Eloff Street. Some of our best musicians played music there – people like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Sol Klaaste, Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand.

And Jonas never forgot the band called the Jazz Epistles. He played in this band with men like Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand. He also remembered playing in big bands like the Jazz Maniacs. And Jonas remembered the last night in Johannesburg when Ntemi Piliso played all night and everyone got sore heads.

“I knew then that I didn’t make it on my own,” says Jonas. “I needed the help of my friends at home ­ people like Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Davashe, Ntemi Piliso and so many others.”

Jonas also believes that people can’t make music out of thin air. “Music comes from the history of people and from the places they live in,” says Jonas. He believes music comes from the way people suffer and from the way they fight to stay alive.

And in the U.S.A. Jonas was six thousand miles away from his people – the people that helped him make his music. So he had no choice. He had to be nearer home.

Today Jonas still makes music. He plays. with a young group of musicians in Gaborone. They call their band Shakawe — the name of a small village in the north of Botswana. He also works with a group called “Amandla” – musicians from South Africa who sing about their fight for freedom.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Jonas will never forget the old days and h is old friends. He is very sad that he did not meet his friend Kippie Moeketsi before he died.

His biggest wish is for Ntemi Piliso to come to Botswana. He dreams about drinking a cold beer and sharing memories with his old friend.

And one day Jonas Gwangwa hopes to come home to meet everyone else. Until then he waits with his best friend – the trombone. And until then, he will carry on making music about his people and for his people.

“CISCO THE GREAT”: The gangster who went straight

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005The Russians, The Berliners, The Msomis, The Spoilers, The Americans …. even brave men got scared when they heard these names. These were the names of the gangs that ruled the townships of Johannesburg in the 1950’s.

And some of the meanest gangsters came from Alexandra Township. Chanki ‘Zorro’ Mahangwe, Shad rack ‘Bra Max’ Mathews, Alec ‘Msomi’ Dube – these were only some of the men who gave Alex the name ‘Slag­ paal’ – the place of slaughter. I n those days, in the words of an old Drum writer, “mothers feared for their daughters and fathers feared for their wages.”

Today most of these gangsters are dead. Some died the same way they lived – by the bullet or the knife. Others died at the end of a hangman’s rope. But one gangster lived through it all. His name. Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo. He is an old man now and his gangster days are over.

“I am not afraid to tell you the story of my life,” says Cisco. “But I tell you I am not proud of those days. My eyes bleed when I think of the story.”


Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo doesn’t know the year he was born. “When I first saw the sun I knew I was here in Alex,” says Cisco. “I don’t know what year it was. All I know is I found my parents here when I came out.”

Cisco was like so many children in the township. He didn’t like school. His parents didn’t have money. And he was bored in the ghetto.

“We used to march around the town­ ship” says Cisco. “One guy had a big drum.The rest of us played our penny­ whistles. We all wore coloured skirts­ just like the guys from Scotland. In this way we made an extra penny or two.”

The young Cisco loved music. His parents sent him to church. At church the only thing he learned was how to sing. Soon the young boy was going to all the dances. He was also a great dancer.

Cisco has a drink in an Alex shebeen.

Cisco has a drink in an Alex shebeen.

“I was a champion of the jitterbug style,” says Cisco. “Once I even won a prize with that great doll Dolly Rathebe. I also knew the great guys of music – like Zulu Boy Cele and Zakes Nkosi. Those guys played the hottest music in town. Sometimes I sang for them when they played at weddings.”

But while Cisco danced to the music of Zulu Boy Cele, the people were suffering. Wages were low and jobs were scarce. People couldn’t find houses. And when they did find houses, rents were high.

The people had to live. So many people turned to crime. And soon Cisco was ready to join them. Or as Cisco said, “In life the boys had no dough. They had to get into this.”

Shad rack 'Max' Mathews Msomi leader now dead.

Shad rack ‘Max’ Mathews Msomi leader now dead.


“I stayed in Alex but I moved with the boys from Sophiatown,” says Cisco. “We called ourselves the Young Americans. The gangs in Alex were the Spoilers and the Msomis. They were a bad bunch. I did not keep their company!”

The Spoilers and the Msomi’s ruled Alexandra in the 1950’s. A group of young boys started the Spoilers. They stole from people’s pockets. They went to parties in the township. And they always gave the women a hard time – and their boyfriends could do nothing but watch.

Soon the Spoilers were stealing from shops. Some shopkeepers paid the Spoilers to keep away. They paid “protection money”.

Some of the shopkeepers got a bit angry. A tough butcher called Shad rack Mathews decided to fight

the Spoilers. He went to see the door­ keeper at the Plaza bioscope. He was a strong man called Alec Dube. Together they started a gang called the Msomis.

The Msomis fought the Spoilers. But thats not all. Soon the Msomis were also robbing shops and stealing wages from the people.

The Msomis had an office on the corner of Selbourne Avenue and 12th Avenue. The gang had its own judge. Nobody could stand up to the Msomis – and live.


“The Msomi guys were bad news,” says Cisco. “They robbed and killed their own people. All of Alex hated them. But we were not like that. We were thieves and fighters. And we only stole from the rich and from the shops in town. Then we sold the goods to the people at a lower price. But we never killed our people.”

“The boys from Sophiatown always came to fetch me in a boat,” says Cisco. (They called the big old cars ‘boats’) “From Alex we moved into town and did our jobs.”

Then Cisco and the young Americans decided to do a big job. “We had worked a plan with a white guy who worked in a bank,” says Cisco. “The job went well – no problems. Then when we had the dough in our hands,

the white man called his friends. They wanted all the dough for themselves. They followed us in a big, black Buick. I thought this guy was going too far. So I pulled out my gun and shot him. The guy died.”


Paulus Tefo got 15 years for murder. In the meantime the war between the Msomis and the Spoilers got hotter. Many gangsters died in these wars. And many were arrested. And some like Shad rack ‘Bra Max’ Mathews were hanged.

Cisco spent 12 years in jail. Then they let him out for good behaviour. “I did a long stretch inside,” says Cisco. “I had a long time to think. When I came out most of the old guys were dead or in jail. I decided to go straight. I even got a job – but I must say, its the on Iy job I ever had!”


Today Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo is an old man. He is very poor. He lives in an old shack in his sister’s backyard.

The 'Mayor' and the kids of Alex.

The ‘Mayor’ and the kids of Alex.

Cisco broke his leg last month. So now he walks all bent over on crutches. His face is full of deep lines. And his body is full of old wounds. “You see, look at this stab wound on my wrist here,” the old man will say.

But in his old age, Cisco has begun a new life. He now cares about the people around him. He wants to help them.

“Right now I’m trying to help my people get better houses”, says Cisco. “And I go and pay for peoples permits when they are at work. I also help them when they have got problems. That is why they call me the Mayor of Alex.”

And its true. Whenever he walks in the street people shout, “Heyta Cisco!

How’s the Mayor?” Sometimes people call him to sing for the kids at a birthday party. He gets a little money this way.

So now Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo sings for the children of Alex. He tells them stories about the old days. But he tells the kids he is not proud of the stories. He tells them gangs are not the best way to fight for better houses and higher wages. He tells the people they can only get a better life if they work with each other· and not against each other. •

Sophiatown speaks

Untitled0-25Last year I went to see a play called ‘Sophiatown’. Everyone was talking about it. The play was about how people lived in Sophiatown – and how they were forced to leave their homes. But it wasn’t all sad. There was lots of singing and dancing too.

During the interval, while I was having a cool drink, I saw a book called, ‘Sophiatown Speaks’. I picked it up and looked at it. I saw the book was written by the same people who were doing the play – the Junction Avenue Theatre Group.

I think the photographs first caught my eye – gangsters in great big American cars, wearing very fancy clothes, people dancing, children playing. And the sad, sad pictures of people being moved out of their homes.

I started reading the stories about the people of ‘Kofifi’. My friends were pulling on my arm, telling me the play was starting. Someone was asking me for money – the bookshop owner!

I didn’t have money for the book then. So I went back to see the rest of the play. But I went back to the bookshop the very next day to buy ‘Sophiatown Speaks’. I wanted to finish reading it.

A backyard in 'Kofifi'

A backyard in ‘Kofifi’


When I finished the book, I went to find the people who put it together. I spoke to Pippa Stein of the Junction Avenue Theatre Group.


“The Junction Avenue Theatre Group does plays about Johannesburg,” Pippa told me. “We do plays about the ‘hidden’ history – the history that you don’t read in history books at school.

“We felt that moving people out of Sophiatown was a very important time in the history of Johannesburg. If people had stayed in Sophiatown, Jo’burg would be a very different city today.”


“But Sophiatown was more than just a place – it was a time. It was a time when people lived together, when people owned their houses and lived close to town.

“It was also the time of the Defiance Campaign. It was a time of the gangsters and the priests. It was the time of black writers like Can Themba and Henry Nxumalo.



“When we were working on the play, we knew that we must get everything right – the clothes, the language, everything. We knew people who lived in Sophiatown would come and see the play. So we could not make mistakes.

“The only way to get things right was to talk to people who lived in “Kofifi1. We spoke to all sorts of different people. We asked Jane Dakile, a teacher from Sophiatown to come. We spoke to Don Mattera and Kort Boy. They were both gangsters in “Kofifi’ time.

“We spoke to people who worked for Drum magazine at that time. We spoke to Father Huddleston who was the priest there. And we spoke to people who knew ‘Kofifi’ and the people who lived there.”


“These people really helped us. When they left us, we saw that they had given us more than just help with the play. Their stories about Sophiatown were living history. So we wrote their stories down, just as they told them to us. And that is how the book, “Sophiatown Speaks’ was born.”

That is what “Sophiatown Speaks’ is – a piece of living history, The people who wrote down the stories tried to make the English easy. But the English is more difficult than Learn and Teach.