Back in the 1980s when I lived in Johannesburg, I was walking through the streets of Krugersdorp. I went past a bank where I saw tellers counting large wads of money in full view of the passing public. With some concern I stepped into the bank and asked to speak to the bank manager, and told him I thought this was a bank robbery waiting to happen. I have no idea if the bank manager did anything. Thinking back, if I’d had the chutzpah, I could have waltzed in with my finger pointing through a pocket, open a bag and say, “Load up!” and walked out. It would have been that easy.
At the time, Allan Heyl, his partners in crime, Neville, Mac (Lee McCall) and Andre Stander were beginning their careers as bank robbers.
The fundamental point Heyl makes in the book about robbing banks then is that it was so easy, it was like taking sweets from a baby. So why not make a career of it? Security in banks was almost non-existent. Cash was kept on counters and in drawers. There were no cell phones, no identity documents and television was in its infancy. Simple disguises and toy guns were sufficient cover for robbery.
Heyl started robbing banks with toy guns back in 1973. No one got hurt, the banks were insured and Heyl had an income. He blames his proclivity for robbery on a troubled past and an ongoing battle with depression, but it appears that the depression lifted with good heists and physical activity. Would his life have been different if he had been prescribed anti-depressants? He went to prison three times for robbing banks, so had ample opportunity to follow the straight and narrow. Yet he was drawn to the thrill of robbing banks time and again.
“The euphoria (of robbing a bank) soon wore off and the heavy darkness returned…I was unemployable…With some planning, I could do it again.” His depression was also not so great that he could not maintain relationships. First he had a girlfriend, Astrid,whom he helped set up a hair dressing salon in Randpark Ridge. She left him when he was imprisoned the second time. Later he met Charmaine in Bez Valley. Heyl’s constant reference to depression detracts from his story, as if readers should regard his depression as a mitigation for his actions.
After his first stint in prison, Heyl worked as a salesman, re-inventing his time behind bars as time working overseas on fruit farms. He met Neville, a larger than life kind of guy, who was a toy salesman and wore open shirts with gold chains dangling in his chest hair. Heyl was suspicious of this character, but Neville’s girlfriend, Cindy, won Heyl over. Neville always came home with stories of wonderful sales of toys to butcheries. When marriage was on the cards for Neville and Cindy a whoppingly expensive trip overseas was on the cards. Heyl met the real Neville, someone whose finances were short of his inflated tales. Neville had won over Heyl’s confidence, and found out about his robbing past. The pair thus launched a new career in robbing banks, ditching the sales routine.
There is more than a little humour as you find out how the guys stole cars, motorbikes, taped over numbers on car registration number plates, and played cat and mouse with the police. One realises there is little or no honour among thieves.
Heyl met Stander during his third stay in prison, Zonderwater (Sonnies). Stander was well educated and literate, reading Jane Austen and other such literary giants that made up the undergraduate studies of English majors at the time.
Behind the literary discussions lurked the real plan, to escape from prison, which of course they did. “There’s nothing I want to do more than rob lots and lots of banks again…if…I get the chance to escape, then I’ll escape,” Stander calmly told Heyl. Stander was a policeman who used to commit crimes during his lunch break, and then sometimes returned as the officer investigating the crime. On October 31 1983, Heyl was free. Stander drove Heyl in a white Ford Cortina XR6, accompanied by partner in crime, “Mac”.
Once out, they rented houses in the leafy and centrally located suburbs of Linmeyer and Houghton, robbed banks throughout the northern suburbs, stole cars, ate and drank at many restaurants.
Theirs was not an organised crime spree. When they needed money and the kicks that went with it they made some “withdrawals”. No bank in Johannesburg was safe from them.
Heyl says that their kind of crime could not happen in the contemporary world. There was a kind of cartoon-like quality to their robberies so brazenly carried out with disguises and toy guns. (They did use real guns later, having stolen them from a shop called “Potshot”) These days theft is institutionalised, written up in clauses, caveats and disclaimers allowing people to be systematically stripped of their assets by way of poor investments or internet fraud.
Is Heyl repentant? He says he is. His time in prison might have been dull at times; it was quite excellent in England, and all in all he was jailed for 27 years. His story is a compellingly quick and easy read, and from the point of view of having grown up and lived in Johannesburg at the time, a blast from the past.
This book review was compiled by Barbara Spaanderman.