It was a week after the botched ATM bombing. Franklin Benjamin awoke with the normal chemical hangover he had had every day for the last two months, even longer, he couldn’t remember. He normally slept until nine or ten, forced himself out of bed, sometimes only to relieve himself, other times to throw up the bile from an empty stomach. Cash was tight and alcohol, Tik and dagga were in charge. Food was way down the list of priorities.
Franklin splattered some water on his face and looked in the mirror and could barely focus his eyes on his reflection.
He was dark-skinned, underweight, around 1.7 metres tall, with a clean-shaven head. His most striking feature was a five-by-five-centimetre tattoo of a barcode on the side of his neck. On the inside of his arm he carried a twenty-centimetre scar, of the type typically caused by cuts from knife fights.
He forced his stare away from the mirror, opened the medicine cabinet and saw that there was only a box of aspirin left.
That will have to do for breakfast, he thought. He emptied the dirty toothbrush-holder glass, filled it with water, and swallowed down four tablets.
What did I do to end here? He murmured to himself. Am I just another statistic from a broken home where the father wasn’t around and left the mother with the snot-noses and the bills?
He thought of his mother whom he hadn’t seen in months, after she had moved away up the west coast to a small fishing village called Zandfontein. He realised that he should have set an example for his younger brother who saw him as a surrogate father-figure, one they had never had. He knew that strictly that wasn’t realistic, but at least he could have tried, surely it could’ve taken just a little bit of effort to clean up his own life?
Franklin Benjamin was born and grew up in Mitchells Plain, on the Cape Flats, a hotspot for gangster activities, but where, contrary to sensationalist, attention-grabbing headlines, the majority of residents made a decent living, not only trying to survive, but also with plans and ambitions for their and their families’ futures.
Except for his alcoholic father, who spent most of his time offshore on the fishing vessels, the family were regular churchgoers and, following the firm example of their mother, were actively involved in church activities.
Sarah, their mother, a seamstress, took on extra work in the evenings from home, baking cakes and koeksisters, a traditional sweet pastry, to sell to small supermarkets in the area. Despite not having much, and their father not providing, their small two-bedroom home was always full of love and with friends and family visiting all the time.
Franklin walked from the toilet to the kitchenette. His thoughts drifted back to the day their father returned from the ships, this time for the last time because he had been fired for drunkenness. He was in one of his raging moods and punched his wife in her face and stomach and only stopped when she fell on her knees. Franklin and Buti were hanging onto his legs.
‘Please stop, Daddy, we’ll behave, we’re sorry.’
He kicked the two boys away, like one did after stepping on a dog turd that stuck to a shoe sole.
Franklin lifted the electric kettle, felt it was empty, and filled it from the tap. From the sink, he lifted a dirty, chipped coffee mug, opened the kitchen cupboard, and removed a small tin of instant coffee. By that time, the water had boiled and he filled the mug. He took a sip.
By now Franklin’s destructive train of thought had accelerated. Damaged children, excuse to do anything when you’ve grown up.
That fateful day ended up to be the last time his father laid his hands on his family. When her husband turned away to take another swig from his bottle of cheap late-harvest wine, Sarah jumped on her feet, and shouted at the boys to follow her.
They ran to the house next door, which belonged to their pastor, and where he led them into his garden shed. The boys knew to keep quiet.
Sitting in the dark, hardly breathing, they heard their father’s swearing and the pastor’s raised voice. Then they heard the dull sound of something like a solid piece of wood not dissimilar to a baseball or cricket bat connecting, followed by two more blows. Silence fell.
Then, thank God, the pastor’s voice.
‘You all stay here until I come back, understand?’ he said.
‘Y … Yes,’ his mother said, her voice shaking.
The ensuing conversation over coffee and rusks in the kitchen in the pastor’s house centered on the statement that would be provided to the police that their father had left them permanently and that he hadn’t bothered to tell them where he was going. With their hands on a large worn-out leather-bound Bible, the pastor made the boys swear before God and his witness that they would never talk about the incident, ever.
Life went on much better without their father in the picture and upon reaching secondary school, it was clear that Franklin had a special gift for ball sports. Despite being slightly built, he played rugby, as was the norm in the schools in the Western Cape. Although a fast runner, he often suffered injuries, the most serious one dislocating his shoulder while trying to tackle a 100 kg prop forward.
He got discouraged, stopped playing rugby, and joined the older boys in the neighbourhood, kicking soccer balls on a dusty field with makeshift goalposts during the late afternoons. With his speed and an unbelievable dribble, coupled with being ambidextrous in his feet, the skinny but agile boy stood out among the rest.
One late afternoon, early February, summer, when the sunset in Cape Town occurred around eight pm, his uncle on his father’s side, Eldon, parked his car next to the soccer field. That time of the day was Eldon’s favourite, time to dream up new schemes and admire the view.
He saw Franklin dribbling a soccer ball, which seemed to be glued to his feet, from close to his own goal line through the entire field and finishing with a goal on the other side, leaving his opponents embarrassed.
When Franklin was walking off the field while getting a few back slaps from his teammates, he recognised Eldon who motioned him closer.
‘Evening, oom Eldon,’ he said, respectfully.
‘How are you, Franklin?’ Eldon replied.
Franklin recalled Eldon from Christmases some years ago when his father was still in the picture and Eldon, a bachelor, came around for dinner. He remembered, not without a feeling of discomfort, that Eldon always used to kiss him and Buti on the mouth with that terrible gook and smell of thickly applied spearmint-flavoured lip balm. What was odd, he never kissed his niece Mariaan on the lips but only hugged her. Their mother threatened them with severe punishment if he and Buti didn’t stick together when they went to the toilet.
‘My word, you have grown so much,’ Eldon said.
Franklin kept quiet.
‘And your soccer skills are something to admire. Say what,’ he said. ‘Have you ever considered taking this more seriously? I can see you have much talent.’
Franklin’s eyes lit up.
‘What I’m trying to say,’ Eldon said, and paused a beat to draw on his cigarette. ‘I’m rich and I can help you to get to the top.’
He pointed at his gold-coloured BMW M3. He smiled, two gold fillings showing prominently.
‘Do you know Willem van Veen, he now plays in the Greek professional football league?’
‘He’s on my books, I’m negotiating for him to play in the English football league, the best league in the world. It’s a long road … but I can help.’
‘I’ll do anything, oom Eldon, to be able to be a professional,’ Franklin said.
Eldon licked his lips and applied some lip balm. ‘I’ll do the same,’ he said.
Franklin stared at his coffee, willing it to cool before taking another sip, when his cellphone rang. It was his boss.
‘Why haven’t you answered your phone?’ Eldon said.
Franklin paused a few seconds. ‘I was busy, here and there, you know, life of a gangster. But I think I had swine flu or bird flu or something. I nearly died.’
‘Don’t get clever with me, asswipe, I’m looking for Errol and Roscoe and your pretty boy brother?’ Eldon said. ‘When did you last see them?’
Franklin felt his stomach contracting. The earlier lack of emotion in his voice was gone.
‘About a week ago, I guess. What happened?’
‘No, you tell me. You and they were supposed to do an ATM job for me. They phoned me with some bullshit excuse that you were sick, but I told them no excuses this time, the job must be done, and you better be there.’
‘Nobody told me about any job,’ Franklin said.
Eldon’s tone was cold. ‘Don’t lie to me.’ ‘I swear,’ Franklin said.
‘Thing is, everybody knows of the explosion that wiped out the 7-Eleven shopping centre, so I can only conclude the job was done. That money’s obviously gone. But I want my money from the previous job that you conveniently forgot to cough up.’
Franklin’s tone was now sounding urgent. ‘You’re not listening, Eldon. I wasn’t there. I have no idea what happened.’
‘I said, I want my money. And find them. You have twenty-four hours, then I’m coming for you.’
Franklin threw the rest of his coffee in the drain. He got into the shower and turned on the cold water. The water cleared his head slightly, but he still hit it against the shower wall a couple of times. He feared the worst. He knew the inherent dangers of bombing ATMs and how Buti looked up to him for being so brave. After all, this was a job few volunteered for. But Franklin didn’t mind doing the dirty work, planting the dynamite, he couldn’t care less for preserving his own life.
Franklin’s mother found out about the proposed deal with the devilish Eldon and tried to stop it. She thought they had got rid of the bad-seed family with the disappearance of her husband.
Sarah wanted Franklin to finish school and get a proper education. But playing professional soccer was Franklin’s dream. They came to an arrangement that Franklin would finish school, while Eldon got him into the soccer youth programme of Lusitano, one of the top professional premier league clubs in Cape Town, with affiliation to the club of the same name in the Portuguese football league. Eldon would act as his agent and collect ‘only’ fifty per cent of Franklin’s earnings.
Franklin’s progress was remarkable and, being motivated and bright, he also did well academically, and in grade nine got a bursary to attend the prestigious Christian Brothers’ Private School to finish matric. He played provincial amateur soccer from grade ten.
Until his left knee was destroyed.
He suffered the worst injury a soccer player could get. An ill-timed tackle. The specialist called that particular knee injury the Unhappy Triad. He was hit from the outside, his three knee structures destroyed – the anterior cruciate ligament, which is critical to knee stability, the medial collateral, as well as the cartilage, the third tear.
Franklin underwent a series of operations to try to rebuild his knee, but even the most skilled specialist knew that his dream of playing professional soccer was over.
During his grade eleven year, Eldon told Franklin that it’s time for payback and he dropped out of school.
‘You did not think that I did all of this for you for free,’ he said. ‘I have a lot of money invested in you. I want a return on my investment. As your agent, I planned to sell you to the biggest bidder in European football. Now you’ll have to work back the money I could have earned. Your mother also borrowed thousands to support your upscale lifestyle,’ he lied.
Franklin, with a sense of guilt upon hearing that his mother nearly bankrupted herself to support his dream, agreed to work for Eldon, who introduced him to a world of drugs, gunrunning, pimping, ‘protection’ and illegal gambling.
‘Welcome to the gangland of the Cape Flats,’ Eldon said.
In order to become a member of the 69 gang, he had to prove to Eldon that, before moving to guns and knives, he could handle himself in hand-to-hand fighting, not only giving but also proving himself to be able to take beatings. Part of his initiation comprised beating up a member of a rival gang with his bare hands. He started working out in the local boxing club, using steroids, and apart from building bulk, it changed his personality, made him more aggressive. Convincing himself that he was only following the genetic blueprint from his father, he acceded to the belief that he was susceptible to getting addicted, and alcohol and Tik stealthily started taking over his life.
After Franklin graduated, he got a free pass for his brother to join the gang. He refused but Buti said to him that he looked up to him as his older brother and that he just wanted to follow his example. Franklin reluctantly agreed, only to be able to keep an eye on him, and insisted that he become a driver and not go through the proper initiation rites until he was much older.
Franklin volunteered for the high-risk role of dynamite guy when Eldon branched out to ATM bombings. ATM bombings were relatively simple, especially the older-generation ATMs with their isolated locations. The biggest challenge was getting the dynamite sticks, but once he got a contact, which wasn’t too difficult, since South Africa was a mining country with dynamite being used all the time in the stopes deep underground, the rest was plain sailing. His gang had perfected their craft and were able to prepare and set up the explosion, wait for the dust to settle, and were out with the loot in less than fifteen minutes.