Thursday, October 28, 2021

Zola- random conversation with an ex-convict

I wake up on yet another Wednesday morning and jump right into my daily midweek morning routine which includes my favourite exercising ritual; a yawn, a stretch, and a walk to the bathroom. Soon I’m on my daily route to the newsroom which happens to bypass Old Naledi Township.

For some reason I choose to drive through the township hoping to challenge the notorious perception that has come to define Old Naledi. To most outsiders, petty crime and shanty dwellings are the first things that spring to mind at the mention of Old Naledi. 

Zola (as some choose to call it) with a population of just over 19,000 as of 2011, is one of the most densely populated locations in the city. Being the oldest township and lying on the peripheral south side of the city, the township has until recently been devoid of a proper street grid and sanitation network among others.

The signs of the 2010,  P150 million, Old Naledi Infrastructure Upgrading Project facelift are hard to miss; tarred roads that branch into all directions of the township, street lights, and manholes on every corner. It was one of the largest infrastructure projects ever carried out by the city council. 

Surprisingly for midweek, there are dozens of residents on the streets and inside the fenceless compounds seemingly doing nothing. There is absolutely no sense of urgency. It is 9am and some seem to be already indulging in alcoholic beverage. I pass on my left an almost disserted Gaborone City Council Old Naledi Market and a couple of minutes later (still on my left) what looks like a community recreational park. ‘Another welcome development,’ I think to myself. 

I make my first stop at the main Kgotla where I am greeted by a young man clad in a new set of blue overalls, a pair of white Adidas Grand Prix plimsolls, and a Dickies bucket hat.

He chews on a match stick as he directs me towards the administration block. My efforts to meet with the chief prove futile as he is said to be still presiding over a dispute. As I make my way out of the court clerk’s office I run into the young man again and we strike what turns out to be a very interesting conversation.

I would soon learn from him that he is serving extramural (community service) to finish off a lengthy jail term. Meshack Thuo* (32) says he is finishing off his five year prison sentence at the Old Naledi kgotla where he helps around with various chores that include cleaning the yard.

“I was sentenced to five years, nine months back in 2009 and was released from prison in March last year (2015) to serve the remaining 11 months helping out here,” he says. And the name of the crime; you guessed it-Robbery. It is one of the most common forms of crime Old Naledi is notorious for. Even motorists commuting along the two main roads that bypass the township have been victims of smash and grab at traffic lights. A motorist was reported to have been fatally stabbed while stopping at one of the traffic lights in recent years. They also visit nearby shopping malls to carry out their crimes on unsuspecting victims.

“We used to attack motorists in parking lots,” Thuo explains. “One of us would go to the driver’s side as a decoy to distract them with a conversation. The rest would snatch their valuables from the passenger seat and run off.” His biggest heist got him P25, 000 which he spent on booze, girls, and fancy clothes.  

Thuo explains the crime that got him the sentence he is currently serving. He and friends had been drinking at one of the many shebeens around the township when they spotted the would-be victim whipping out his fat wallet to buy some drinks for him and a lady friend. They waited for the perfect moment. After some time the victim and his lady friend decided it was time to call it a night.

“We followed them into the darkness and waited until there was no one else on sight before we pounced,” he says. They hit him on the head with a brick before snatching off his wallet and disappearing into the night. “We discovered he had about P4, 500 cash in his wallet.” 

Unfortunately for the two, the lady friend knew Thuo’s friend and they were soon arrested and convicted for armed robbery. The 32 year old Bokamoso Secondary School Form 2 dropout was no stranger to jail. He was only 17 years old when he committed murder and was convicted three years later. “I didn’t mean to kill him,” he is quick to point out. The victim had been Thuo’s partner in crime for some time. “Because he was older he would always cheat me out of my fair share of the loot,” Thuo says. “After cashing in on a ‘job’ we would go drinking where he would be the one taking care of the bill after which he would go home with the rest of the money while I got nothing.” The scars of his face tell a life story of violence. And even when he speaks of his victim there is not the slightest sign of emotion. Life goes on. “One day I just could not take the cheating anymore,” he explains.

“We wound up fighting and I stabbed him.” He was sentenced to eight years for the murder and did five. It was barely a year, in 2005, when he was sent bank for robbery. With not even a Junior Certificate (JC), Thuo decided he could not continue the life of crime anymore and enrolled for a plumbing course while serving his second prison term. Now he does piece jobs on weekends to make ends meet. “I plan to search for a full time job or open my own business when I finish here.” He finishes his extramural at the end of February, 2016. Thuo’s is a typical story for some of the youngsters growing up in Zola. Life is a constant struggle in the low income community.

A socio-economic survey that preceded the Old Naledi Infrastructure Upgrading Project described the township as the hub for low income workers of Gaborone. Naledi Station Commander, King Tshebo, shares the same sentiment. “A lot of our people here play a crucial role as the city’s workforce predominantly doing manual work,” Tshebo says. The enthusiasm with which he speaks of the township defies the bad reputation and perceived burden that comes with his area of jurisdiction. “Naledi is more like a village. The people here are not rich or well off so they strive to make a living anyway and anyhow they can.” Unfortunately, Tshebo says, some turn to illegal shebeens in the absence of legitimate job opportunities. And then there are those he calls ‘bad elements’ who resort to crime and give the township a bad name. He says most of the crime committed by the residents is done outside the township. The station commander says perceptions about high levels of crime within Old Naledi are exaggerated. “Off course one or two incidents of crime are one too many but generally the residents here are a loving and caring community.” He blames most of the petty crime on alcohol consumption and many illegal shebeens. “We have managed to close down a significant number of shebeens but people will always find ways sell illegally.” Tshebo leads me into ‘one of their holding rooms where they have kept all sorts of alcoholic beverages. There are dozens of crates and fridges full of alcohol waiting to be taken to the magistrate court as exhibit. “We usually get instructions to take the alcohol to the city dumping cite in Gamodubu to be destroyed.” The station commander is also worried about the recurring cases of repeat offenders. He wonders if the prison terms they serve are rehabilitative enough. But with the likes of Thuo taking academic courses in prison he remains hopeful. 

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