Author EA Bucchianeri said: “The vintage of history is forever repeating – same old vines, same old wines.”
But a man who once terrorised the community of Kliptown in Soweto and wreaked havoc on the streets of Joburg now seeks to change this notion and prove that man is indeed capable of change.
Ex-convict Martin Mahlamvu used International Restorative Justice Week to ask for clemency from those whose lives he destroyed.
His victims include a 19-year-old girl he gunned down while trying to shoot a rival gang member. He wishes he could find that girl.
He was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced for three attempted murders.
The 37-year-old was released four months ago after doing time for dealing in guns and drugs.
Now Mahlamvu has swopped his gun for a paintbrush and paints at the Becomo Arts Centre in the township.
“Some people are convinced that I haven’t changed. They are scared just to look at me. Even walking the streets carrying my paintings, they assume I’ve stolen them. It will take time, but I’m patient. iDanyane (prison) taught me that.”
As a child he stole peaches from his grandfather’s yard and later other pupils’ lunch boxes. These small beginnings taught him how to be sneaky.
“Tasting cheese for the very first time felt good. But I wanted more,” he said. He went from stealing sandwiches to shoplifting from spaza shops.
“It was the only way I could be like other kids. It was that or filling my tummy with pap and water every morning.”
Then, Mahlamvu’s reason for crime was poverty.
Soon he graduated to thieving in the suburbs such as Boksburg under the guidance of older criminals.
“It was the time of struggle comrades, but we were known as Comrade Totsi.”
Mahlamvu and his accomplices became hijackers: They drove fast cars, drank expensive whisky and attracted women.
He needed to sustain his luxurious lifestyle.
“I became interested in guns when I saw the gangster movie New Jack City. That’s when all hell broke loose,” he said.
He wanted to be the characters. Carry the same guns, possess the same power. Mahlamvu and members of his gang stole guns from a hostel, seriously injuring onlookers to get them.
“Whenever we arrived in the township, people rushed into their houses out of terror. That’s how bad we were.”
As a youngster, he adored rap artist Tupac Shakur and drew pictures of him and guns. He sports a bizarre hand grenade and gun tattoo that runs across his arm with his girlfriend’s name on it.
He was arrested when he and a friend stole a car in Mayfair.
The drunk owner of the car had left his keys in the ignition when he went to pay for his parking ticket. Back in Kliptown, hardly able to drive the car, they met the police who gave chase.
“I panicked,” Mahlamvu said and remembers how he drove into a wall, was shot in the foot and handcuffed.
His friend escaped. But he didn’t stay locked up for long – the docket disappeared.
Mahlamvu later peddled drugs from Pimville to Eldorado Park.
During this time he was in and out of prison. It was during one of his stays that he met Lesley Ann van Selm, the founder of Khulisa Social Solutions. She wanted to help.
But peer pressure and the criminal world still had more allure.
It was when his sister died that Mahlamvu fell apart. He was in prison at the time. “I stood in court and asked the judge to rather keep me in here. It was the end for me.”
Four years later he looks forward to starting a new life with his youngest son in Hammanskraal.
“I’ve come back to my community to right the wrongs I’ve done. Criminals never realise the impact their actions have on others. But I do now. I’ll start by saying I’m sorry. I don’t expect anyone to forgive me.”
This week, he hugged Jangu Zwelinzima Mdaka – an ex-rival gang member he shot at, but missed, over an altercation about a cigarette. “My brother, I am here today to say sorry. I hope you can forgive me and we can move forward and build our community,” said Mahlamvu.
A community meeting has been arranged for later this month where Mahlamvu will apologise and ask for forgiveness from the community he terrorised.
Still, he has met many obstacles along the way and there’ll be more. Recently, a youngster pointed a gun at him and said: “Your time is over.” -Saturday Star