Ninja looked at the ball in his hand. “By the time I came of age my father had taught me that the sky was the limit; I was a typical bookworm and I did my best to broaden my horizons by studying hard. I wanted to grow up a decent, trustworthy person who looked out for his fellow man. But that all changed on the day my father asked me to bail him out of jail. He was making money where he could back then, and he had taken a job with one of the local gangsters, running errands for him. The job had gone wrong and he had been arrested. You could say that was the start that ended with me here today, in prison.” Ninja looked out of the window, lost in memory.

“Go on …” said Johan.

“After my father called me from prison that day I went to the bank to draw the money to bail him out. As I stood in that queue I imagined the whole chain of events that played out and ended with my dad behind bars.

“The story he told me was that he had been paid to be the go-between for a gang in Mrova. He was sent to deliver money to another gang boss in Pretoria. The Mrova gang boss didn’t tell him much about the deal, he just thought it was another day of making easy money. He took a friend to help him with the delivery but they were caught with the money, R2 000 000 in counterfeit bills, at Witbank taxi rank.

“I never found out exactly who reported him. There were different stories about that, each bigger than the last. One was that a rival gang to the Mrova gang tipped off the police … that the police were in on it … and there was the version that my father told … that his partner went to buy peanuts and paid with a R200 note. The lady selling peanuts checked the money and thought something was off and called over the taxi marshals … It ended in the same place.

“The policeman who arrested him, I am told, took out another R200 note and burned it, there and then in front of him. He took the counterfeit R200 note and burned it too. The counterfeit R200 note burned red, but the real R200 note burned grey.

“The taxi marshals, vendors, passengers and taxi drivers all turned on my father’s partner and almost necklaced him with a burning tyre. Seeing that he wasn’t fireproof, my father decided to give up the brains behind the whole operation. After he was jailed he got bail – and at his trial he was let off because he had pointed the police to the big boss.

“But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to that queue waiting in the bank to get the bail money. I was nearing the front of the queue when four white guys came into the bank brandishing AK-47s. They were all wearing masks but I could tell they were white just from the way they walked and talked. They were being kak polite, using words like ‘Sir’ and ‘please’. I felt like telling them they should aim higher like their forefathers and try stealing countries and leave the banks to poor folk.

“As I stood up, about to say something, one of them grabbed me by the neck and dragged me into a bathroom. He stuffed a bunch of R200 notes stacks in my pockets and underwear. The guy told me they always did that on a job – it was their ‘signature’ to give money to some random guy – but if I cause any trouble, if they get caught they will tell the police that I was in on it, I was the look-out. We walked out of the bathroom and his mates were ready to leave so the lot of them got the hell out of there and so did I.”

Ninja placed his stress ball between his thighs and for the first time, took a sip, only one sip, from his water bottle.

“But to get back to that day. I had the money, although I got it in the most unexpected way and with a threat attached. But I had it. Enough to bail my father out and more. It was on my way to prison that I had the ‘bright’ idea.”

“What was the ‘bright idea’?” asked Johan.

“I had seen how easily those white guys had robbed the bank. There was big money to be had. After I bailed him out, my father got me into the business. We had big ideas. We got new recruits. Then we taught the recruits how to get past ‘The Man’: the man in uniform, the security guards and the police. We planned our first heist carefully. We used our brains … it took brains …

“The key to the plan was getting an inside man. It was not easy but we got a bank teller in on the job. Then we sent men in with AK-47s. They split up bank customers and tellers into small groups. While chaos ensued, the new recruits, led by the inside man, opened the safe. Then everyone got out of there.

“The first time worked. My father and the recruits split after we made about R8 million. I wanted more, but they all claimed they had had enough. I took my share and blew it. You won’t believe it, to look at me now, but I travelled around the globe, dined in fine places, saw the world.” Ninja stopped and looked hard at Johan.

Johan whistles. “Wow, that sounds amazing. I wish I could do that,” he said, thinking of his own dream of going to Australia.

Ninja looked up at Johan and smiled, then said, “Okay, my broer.”

They both laughed and Johan signalled Ninja to toss him the stress ball.

Johan rolled the stress ball in his hands. “So tell me, my broer, what brought you back home? Were you homesick? Or you came down with a bad case of the jungle fever?” He smiled.

Ninja looked at him, sighing. “Well bra, as my father used to say ‘all good things must come to an end’. After I came back I was kak broke. I had blown it all. I got back to find my father wearing the collar. He had turned into a preacher. Can you believe it? I couldn’t believe my eyes, but he said he had seen the error of his ways. He was a changed man. He even got me work doing odd jobs, fixing things in the church and the community.

“One of these jobs took me to a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg near Springs, called Tsakane. It was there that I met Bishop. Don’t ask me how he got that name, he was not a religious man, far from it. Bishop had a plan. When he heard about my past he thought he could use someone like me and there was big money … but I would need to go to Lesotho, to the Kopano mine, with him. Was I up to hard work?”

Ninja sat back in his seat, and took another sip of water. Johan waited patiently.

***

Tell us: Ninja makes a point of saying that this life of crime takes brains. Do you agree with him?