“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.”

THE YOUNG CISCO

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.

THE YOUNG AMERICANS

“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 BANK JOB

“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.”

A LONG TIME TO THINK

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!”

THE MAYOR OF ALEX

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. •

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“Guga mzimba sala ntliziyo”

(The body is old, but the heart is still young)

img12William “King Force” Silgee is 74 years old. He lives in a small house in Dube, Soweto. He lives a quiet life with his wife Irene. But life was not always quiet for “King Force”. In the 1940’s, the townships jumped and jived to his music. He was the leader of the Jazz Maniacs after “Zulu Boy” Cele died.

The Jazz Maniacs were a big band. Sixteen people played in the band. The people in the townships loved the Jazz Maniacs. The Jazz Maniacs played music that touched the hearts of the people.

Last month, “King Force” and his saxophone came alive again. He played in Gaborone, Botswana. He played with Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and lots of other musicians.

“I really enjoyed myself” says “King Force”. “Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand and the other guys were young when the Jazz Maniacs played. But they have learnt a lot. Now they are better than we were. They are better because they live in America. Many bands play in America. So the competition is tough. Musicians need competition.”

“King Force” says people like Masekela, Gwangwa and Dollar Brand still play South African music. “They live overseas but they still play our kind of music. South African music is in their hearts. They keep it there”.

“King Force” has played music for most of his life. He was born in Vrededorp in 1918. When “King Force” was still a baby, his family moved to City and Suburban. They lived in a small house in Anderson Street. In those days black people still lived in Johannesburg.

His father was a preacher. His mother was a teacher. His mother and father loved music. They both sang in the church choir. They sent “King Force” to piano lessons when he was 10 years old.

“My parents told me to go to piano lessons,” says “King Force”. “I did not enjoy piano lessons. But today I’m glad I went to lessons. These lessons taught me a lot about music.”

“King Force” went to the Albert Street School. When he was twelve years old, his father died. His mother had no money for the rent. The family moved to Doorn­fontein. His mother did piece-work. She washed clothes for white people in Yeoville and Kensington.

The Silgee family had little money. But “King Force” did not leave school. He helped his mother with the washing. “King Force” and his friends made carts out of old boxes. They fetched and delivered washing in these carts. Sometimes young “King Force” and his friends raced their carts. They raced down Harrow Road.

“King Force” finished standard 6 at Albert Street School. Then he went to Adams Training College in Natal. He stayed there for 3 years.

“King Force” finished standard 9. Then he came back to Doornfontein. Johannes­burg was alive with music at that time. Piano players and jazz bands played allover the place. The saxophone was popular.

“King Force” got a job. He was a clerk in a warehouse. The work was boring. He began to learn the saxophone. He soon played the saxophone very well.

"King Force" (left) playing in Port Elizabeth in 1956

“King Force” (left) playing in Port Elizabeth in 1956

One day in 1935 the municipality came in trucks to Doornfontein. They moved the people to Orlando. “King Force” and his family went to live in Orlando.

There were many halls in Orlando. The people went to the halls for concerts and dances. “King Force” loved the music and dancing at the halls.

“My favourite band was the Jazz Maniacs,” says” King Force”. “They played hot music. “Zulu Boy” Cele was the leader then. When they rested at concerts, I some­ times jumped on the stage and played the saxophone. The band soon knew me well. In 1936 the band asked me to join them.”

In 1939 “King Force” married his first wife. The band got more popular. In the Second World War, the band played for soldiers. Young Wilson Silgee became “King of the Forces”. People began to call him “King Force”.

In 1944 “Zulu Boy” Cele died. The Jazz Maniacs asked “King Force” to be the new leader. “King Force” was still a clerk in the day. At night he played music until 4 o’clock in the morning.

"King Force" (left) with 2 other members of the Jazz Maniacs

“King Force” (left) with 2 other members of the Jazz Maniacs

“We didn’t sleep much in those days” says “King Force”. “Life was fast, man. Sometimes we played two concerts on one night. Then we went to work the next day. We rushed all the time. But we were young then. We enjoyed life.”

The band traveled allover the country. People from allover South Africa loved them. In 1945 they went to Port Elizabeth. In Port Elizabeth “King Force” met a woman called Irene. When the band went home, Irene followed him. She lived in Johannesburg with her sister. A few years later “King Force” left his first wife. He married Irene and they moved to Dube.

In the 1950s, the people in the band started fighting with each other. The Jazz Maniacs split up. But “King Force” did not stop playing music. He started a smaller band. He called the band “King Force and his Forces”. They played mbaqanga music. People liked them. They sold many records. “King Force” made records until the late 1960s.

img16“King Force” does not play his saxophone much these days. He is getting old. His lungs are weak. But he does not forget. “1 often think about the old days” says “King Force”. “Sometimes I cry when I look at the photographs. I say to myself “Guga mzimba, sala ntliziyo” (The body is old, but the heart is still young.)”

In Gaborone last month the great old “King Force” was young again. And the people still loved him. They will always love him. They will never forget the man who played music that touched their hearts