Hey, Jong! Tsotsis have become indigenous

Growing up in The Old Bricks, Harare township, you instinctively erected a pedestal for anyone who had been to Jubheki.

They didn't have to display ugly scars from knife fights on the mean streets of Alexandra or Sophiatown: it was enough for them to speak a smattering of Afrikaans, laced with such slang as: "Hey, Jong!"

These people commanded such awe we made way for them everywhere - the queue at the bioscope or at the shops.

They radiated an aura of menace. You almost felt the knife sticking into your side as they approached you, their berets or caps at a jaunty angle.

To this day, there is a suburb called Jubheki Lines. My family lived there after graduating from The Old Bricks in the late 1940s.

To this day, my indelible nightmare is of being raided by gun-toting, masked gangsters, in wide-brimmed hats, hissing into our ears: "Your money or your life!"

I have managed to submerge my utter disappointment that this episode, which I remembered from watching cowboy and gangster films at the Recreation Hall, did not once mature into reality.

It was not inconceivable, we believed, that the first people to occupy the houses had just returned from Johannesburg and had transplanted their reckless, bloody lifestyles to their new turf.

Mind you, there had been South Africans living among us since the so-called Pioneer Column landed in 1890. My research shows they took care of the wagons and the horses and oxen the invaders used.

Among them were the Fingos. A long-time friend of mine, Shelton Tutani, was one such descendant.

He was a singer and a popular resident of the township. He died in the 1990s and was buried in Marirangwe near Harare, where his people had farmed for years.

At school, one of my best friends was Malcolm Cele, whose family lived at The Cottages, a select part of the township. The Cottages, so I was told, were built especially for the South Africans who had come in with the Pioneer Column.

Malcolm was really big. I was small, but we were great friends. I have always thought of us as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Malcolm's mother was a great matron at the local clinic and is remembered for her warmth and kindness.

I have never kept in touch with Malcolm long enough for him to reveal to me the mysterious meaning of his nickname for me - Stick Matongwane - that's probably not the proper spelling, but that's the best I can do.

What saddens me today is that tsotsi, which is not Zimbabwean, has become almost indigenous.

The state of deprivation in which many people now live, occasioned by the incredible bungling of the economy by the government, has spawned so many tsotsis in society it's become almost respectable to be addressed as one.

Sociologists tell us that colonialism and apartheid alienated the people to such an extent that some of them felt they were aliens in their own motherland, interlopers who had to survive through their wits the deprivation wreaked on them by their "masters".

The same sense of alienation haunts many of us here.

What is pathetic is the real criminalisation of a large section of our society.

Then you have The Big Tsotsis.

In everyday parlance the tsotsi is a petty criminal, as depicted in the award-winning South African film of that name.

In Zimbabwe there is no pettiness about the big sharks who head the black markets in gold, diamonds, fuel, cars and foreign currency.

l Bill Saidi is deputy editor of The Standard in Zimbabwe.