Leaving behind a life of crime for hard work
He learnt to juggle and made it his source of income
HIS name is Kgutlang (“come back”), but he calls himself Snake. I immediately thought of all the worst reasons why he might have earned that alias. “Why Snake?” He explained it was a nickname he got at school, because of his penchant for collecting reptiles.
Interestingly, just as kids at prohibitively expensive, posh private schools get nicknamed after their interests; so was he at his township school. At first he was reluctant to chat and displayed a general air of apprehensive disinterest. “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t trust anybody.” “Why is that?” I asked. “I got put into prison for three months. A woman lied to the police; she said I tried to pull her window down,” he responded. “Did you?” I asked. “No, I’m not a thief – I’m a juggler,” he said proudly.
He then told me a complicated story which seemed to involve mistaken identity, lying, unsympathetic policemen, lost paperwork and three months in Randburg prison.
Just as I thought I’d like to hear the woman’s story, he said: “Worst of all, she told the police I tried to take her car keys. Why? How could I take them when I don’t know how to drive?”
By then, in the interests of being able to hear him above the traffic, I persuaded him to get into my car.
Initially he sat uncomfortably on the side of the passenger seat with the door open; seemingly prepared for a quick getaway. I ignored this and carried on chatting to him as if we were old mates. To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t take long and he pulled the door shut and got comfortable.
“When did you start juggling?” I asked.
“In 2007, after I had been a bad person…” “Bad person?” “Yes. When I was 18, we used to rob people in the street at night when they came home from work.
“How did you get into that?” “Friends. Wrong Friends. I got caught and was sentenced to 15 years. Seven years in jail and 8 years suspended. In the end I did 3 years and 6 months in jail.” (It might be apposite to note here – Oscar Pistorius got 5 years for murder…)
“Were you scared when you went in?”
“When you go in you must show aggression. If the others see you, just look surprised you are there, they leave you alone. Also I was in Modderbee prison, Benoni, which is near my location Daveyton, so I knew a few people from outside. It wasn’t too bad…” as an afterthought he added, “but the food wasn’t good because they steamed it.”
“What would you do on a daily basis in jail? How did you pass the time?”
“When I got into prison I went to school again. I left school in Grade 8. In jail I did N3. I’m short one subject – because I had no textbook.” “Then, when you left jail?” “When I left jail I knew it was going to be difficult. But I found my little brother could do this juggling. He learnt it from a guy who had been in the circus. On the basic juggling I took a month. In the beginning it was difficult because I am left-handed and the other guys were right handed so it was difficult to catch their skills. My brother gave me a break- through when he told me I have to watch the middle ball.
“I can also do stilt walking and unicycling, and I can juggle clubs. But I can’t afford those things.”
“How long have you worked this intersection?”
“Since 2011. You know, some people are good; they give you a hundred bucks. It costs me R70 a day transport to get from Daveyton. On a bad day I am lucky to make enough to pay for my transport. I don’t watch the others – I focus myself. I am pleased if they do well. I like the feeling of being in front of people. I don’t worry. Also it took me out of crime. I do get tired.”
“What do you do with any extra money you make?”
“I buy stuff for the house. My mom is not working. I look after her. She lives in a tworoom shack with my nephew and I look after my aunt’s shack nearby. I try save money, but I don’t have a bank account. My mom was poor. I’m the one making something for her. I am buying her food. Now she gets piece jobs. We get on well. I have a girlfriend. No kids.”
“What do you do if you need the toilet?”
“We go to Pick n Pay – they know we are also their customers. Sometimes, if we have money, all us guys (at the lights) join hands and buy some food…”
“What do you do about other meals?”
“My mom cooks me my own stew. I don’t eat meat. I am a Rasta.”
Coincidently, I just happened to have The Best of Bob Marley in my CD player. I pushed play… As the hypnotic, thumping reggae beat of Buffalo Soldier filled my car, he looked at me aghast. Then he shot his hand out in a fist-pump and nodded approvingly. From that moment on he was a different person. He even smiled. It was fascinating.
“This is a good song; but my best is Three Little Birds.”
I didn’t recall the track, but later listened and idly wondered if it was the optimistic sentiment of the refrain, that particularly resonated with him… “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, Cause every little thing, is gonna be alright…’
“Tell me more about the snakes.”
“I have love for animals because the animals show me this thing is not only in me; they also have love for me. I groom other animals like tortoises, hamsters and birds… It’s what I like from when I grew up. I like snakes.”
“Can you tell which ones are poisonous?” He nodded and explained how he extracts venom from them by putting straws on their fangs.
“What do you do on weekends?”
“On a Sunday I hunt. Jack- als, bosvark, porcupines… a few of us train greyhounds, and then compete to see whose dog is the best hunter. I love my dog.” (Who would have thought?).
“You sometimes come across as a bit unfriendly, are you?” (I was tempted to tell him I’d tried to run him over, but thought it wasn’t the right moment.)
“I am a very short-tempered person. I grew up with a lot of anger. My stepmother used to beat me all the time. She would hit me with a rope – for small things. My father didn’t stop her. He was a good guy, but he listened to her, not us – his children. He didn’t have a problem with her punishing me. My father didn’t want us to know where our real mother was. But I left. In 2002, I found her myself.”
He continued: “I also get angry because I can juggle for around an hour and 20 lines will pass, and I get nothing. Makes me cross.”
“Do you think it’s a racial thing – (the usual SA demon)?”
For the first time, he laughed: “No, of course not. It’s a money thing.”
THE JUGGLER: His name is Kutlang (‘come back’) but he calls himself Snake.