“My name is José Maria Joao. I am from Angola. I was born on 19 march 1972. I came to cape town in 2000. I could not speak English. I was 15 years old when UNITA rebels captured me while I was walking home from the market where I was selling mangoes to support my family. I was forced to either join this rebel army or get killed on the spot. This was a reality I had been avoiding since I was big enough to walk to school on my own. I was a big child so being on the run has been with me since I was small.”
STORY: RUAN SCOTT
PHOTOGRAPHY: GRANT PAYNE
A recent three minute video clip ‘RUN JOSE’ produced by MC Duff films tells the story of Jose, a bouncer at a popular restaurant on Kloof Nek road in Cape Town, South Africa and it had the online community ablaze. Masterfully produced, the clip touches on Jose’s life and makes it pretty clear that Jose, a local celebrity of sort, has a deeper and darker story to tell. This is his story.
Jose was born to the youngest sibling of three. His two sisters were lucky enough to know their father. He had died in military action while Jose was still an infant. Growing up was tough. Going to school consisted of a 20 km walk through hell. Warfare, landmines, burning cars and bodies rotting like old trash into the Angolan soil were everyday sightings. “Every day I would return home after school to nothing. There was nothing to eat, nothing to do, no paper or pens to do homework with. My mother and sisters worked what jobs they could. Selling fruit at the market or chopping wood in the fields. When I was ten tears I decided that I wanted to make some money to help my family so I left school. I was just buying and selling fruit at the market. I did this for five years. Every day I saw the UNITA rebels creating chaos, hitting woman and looking for new recruits. That time I was still a small boy so they just pushed me out of the way.”
Growing up was not only a struggle but every day as Jose got older the fear that soon the rebels would take him grew stronger within. By age 12 he was living a life on the lookout. He was big for his age and if the rebels got hold of him then he was sure to go to war.
It happened during the second half of 1988 when he was 15 years old. Walking home from the market after another day of hustling, ducking and diving, he saw black smoke pluming into the air around the bend on the road up ahead. He was used to it though. It was probably a car or tyres set alight by rebels. However, he still proceeded with caution when suddenly rebel forces appeared on the border. Accustomed to running and intuitive to fleeing, he put his parcel of market goods down and quickly planned his escape. It was too late. Rebels had caught up with him from behind. There was no escape. He knew the protocol, surrender or die. He had seen it so many times before during his short time on this planet.
Jose accepted his fate. He was now a ‘child soldier’. The first and only thing they taught him in the rebel military was how to use an AK-47. “The bullets go here, you hold the gun like this and then shoot”, he was told. The day he entered the camp, that same night he was making ground with a group of new recruits. His youth was stolen in an instant and now he would steal life from others in an instant too. “The war changes your mind. It’s all kill, kill, kill. Blood everywhere. Blood all the time. When you see this everyday it changes your mind.”
For six long years Jose fought in the Angolan Civil War. A war that stretched for nearly 27 years and left a beautiful country and its people forever flawed. The war was a power struggle. After the colonisation by Portuguese settlers which induced a war between the people of the land, a civil war broke out between liberation movements – The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The one hated the other. And both made promises of a better life but only seemed to make things worse.
“We walked for days through the bush. Pushing people out of their villages and plundering what they had. It was how we survived. If they didn’t want to join UNITA or if they supported the opposition then the answer was simple, you kill them.”
Nights were spent in the bush between mosquitos and snakes, where the only other sounds were gunfire and bombs. Food came in the form of animals that got hunted or slaughtered from village camps. Off times were spent training, exercising, boxing and learning Jiu Jitsu. “Today I am trained in boxing and Jiu Jitsu. The war also teach me about survival and to keep going in tough times.”
“One battle against the opposition an MPLA soldier shot my friend. He was my best friend. I had known him from the market when we were small boys. The bullet cut his side open and his insides were hanging out. They kept shooting and I got hit above the ankle. I picked up my friend and carried him behind some thick bushes. I tore my uniform and tried to put his stomach inside him again. He tell me, no Jose. Go, I am dead now. Go and kill. I sat with him until his breathing stopped and just covered him with some leaves and bushes. After that I really went to war. You lose your mind and everything goes dark.” Jose carries on to explain that he managed to find the soldiers who killed his friend and put an end to their existence, in close range. “I do not know how many people died from my gunfire, but I am sorry about those who did and sorry to the families that are left without their children because of me.”
The longer Jose fought, the more he wanted to leave. “It came to me in a dream. I believe today it was a message from God. I was sleeping in our main camp on a mountain with a river below where we got fresh water to drink. In my dream I was thinking why? Why are we all killing each other? We are all people of the land of Angola.”
Jose woke up cold. He sat up and knew he had to leave. After six years in this civil war, he went from boy soldier to colonel. He had to run away.
Jose sat and planned his exit. Capture meant certain death. He would leave the base camp and head down to the river under the guise that he was filling his canteen with water. From there he would sneak around the foot of the mountain and head south as there was no point in heading up north into Africa. The instability in the north just meant more danger.
As Jose got up, another soldier woke up. Thoughts of abandoning his mission shot through Jose’s mind. Strong willed with freedom in his mind, Jose talked softly and told his companion that he needed to fill his water bottle. The other soldier urged him to take his gun for safety.
As Jose approached the river he was overcome with fear and excitement but he knew he had to stay calm and stay focussed. He knew he had to run. It was the thing he knew best.
Armed with two guns, a water bottle and cladded only in his uniform, Jose made his way through the thick Angolan bush. In the dead of night many dangers lurked behind bushes, trees and behind every rock and boulder. Snakes, poisonous plants, lions and landmines. Jose kept running. Running until he could no longer carry his own weight, only wetting his lips every so often to preserve his precious water supply.
“After the dream, when I started to run, I could still hear the song of the war in my head. BOOM! TATATATA! TATATATA BOOM! With every step forward it was like a friend in front of me said ‘come’, ‘come’. Calling me and telling me there is a better life waiting. This kept me going.”
Jose ran for 14 days with minimal sleep and barely any food, eating only what the bush provided in the form of edible roots and berries, before he stopped and planned again. He needed directions to the border between Angola and Namibia.
On the edge of the bush, close to a pathway, he stood scoping out the territory. In the distance he saw a group of woodcutters. He had to discard his regalia to avoid detection. He cut of the legs to his pants and sleeves of his shirt, turned them inside out and relinquished his weaponry. From here on forward he would be unarmed. “My skin was very dark. I was in the sun all day, every day for six years so I had become very dark. I didn’t look like the other people. I was afraid that this might give me away.”
He walked towards the woodcutters. Nerves building. Out of nowhere came what Jose considered an angel. “An old mama appeared and asked me why I was wondering so far off from the other workers.” Jose could do nothing other than confide in her. He needed help. He told her his story, how he is fleeing form the war in Angola and was heading south towards Namibia. This was the first time Jose had spoken to another human in two weeks. She heard his plight and told him to turn around and go back down the path towards the river. There he would get fresh water and must carry on with that path towards the border post. She handed him her water can and a piece of wire to carry it. She also urged him to stay in his disguise in case he ran into strangers that might raise the alarm. After all, he was still in Angola.
Jose did exactly as instructed and carried on stealthily. Walking for a day, he saw the border post on the horizon. He saw Angolan military vehicles, civilian vehicles and other trucks carrying goods in and out of Namibia and Angola.
Having no papers to state his identity or status, he knew crossing the border naked like that would result in detention. He sat in the distance for two days viewing the comings and goings at the border post, plotting his next move.
During those times border patrol was not what it is today and the only obstacle between these two countries was a dilapidated fence. Jose waited for the cover of night to execute his next move. After sunset he jumped the fence approximately 2 km from the border post and walked straight along the road that lead up to the border, while keeping a safe distance. By the position of the moon, a skill Jose picked up in the military, he could tell the time and the distance he had travelled. He walked for three hours after jumping the fence into Namibia and then cut towards the road and walked back form the Namibian side, towards the border post. Once there he would claim that he came from the Namibian side and was looking for a lift back towards town. A town he didn’t know as he had never been to Namibia.
By sunrise Jose was at the border post. His initial fears of loitering were quickly subdued as many other people were doing it, waiting, trying to organise a lift. Getting a ride to Windhoek seemed easy at first, considering what he had just been through, however this deemed itself far more difficult than he could of imagined. Money was the primary obstacle and Jose had none.
“After about three weeks on the border post begging and sleeping right there next to the road, I noticed large trucks coming from Angola. The people who could pay the drivers some money got lifts.” Jose needed a lift desperately. As a truck pulled up one night and picked up people, he inconspicuously stood closer. A few people got on. As the truck pulled away, Jose ran after it and jumped on the back. The other passengers looked at him flabbergasted but with the bouldering size of his body, dark skin and killer demeanour, he silenced the few passengers on board with a single hand gesture. “While I was running through the Angolan bush I promised never to be violent again. I knew that violence brings more violence and that I had done enough damage. Being unarmed, I used intimidation to get by. I don’t ever want to hurt anyone again.”
With no idea how far he was going to travel to Windhoek (their destination), fear of detection was what kept Jose awake.
“I would look through the cracks in the side of the truck to try and see what time it was and how far we were. One time we stopped to put petrol in and the other people in the back of the truck were sleeping. I knew the driver was going to check the back. I jumped out as the truck slowed down and stood around the petrol tanks, minding my own business as if I was there all day. Then when the driver pulled away I ran and jumped in the back. Some of the passengers were awake now but raised no alarm. We drove through the night and when the sun was out I could see the road and I starting planning again.”
As the road signs flashed by, Jose could make out that he was getting closer to Windhoek. “When we were 70 km from the city I waited for the truck to slow down and then I jumped, falling hard and rolling right there in the dust. I could walk the rest of the way.”
It was 1995 when Jose arrived in Windhoek. In the first few days he managed to get by with the help of strangers by begging at the shopping malls. His English was non-existent and few people spoke Portuguese. Communication was a problem. A kind-hearted stranger took it upon himself to help Jose with some clean clothes and food. This was the first time since running from Angola that Jose had put on clean clothes. He also told Jose in very broken Portuguese that he could apply for refugee status at the embassy in town.
Jose went back to his park bench that night, excited by the prospects of being legal and getting some help. He had been running for over two months by this time and could do with new wind in his sails.
In the following days Jose obtained asylum in Namibia as a refugee and was moved to an Angolan refugee camp. Here he spent 5 long hard years. Local farmers would collect refugees to work their fields and farms. Relieved by some stability, income and safety, Jose found himself to be content but he also felt sad. “I would see mothers with their children and I would wonder if my sister and mother were still alive. I had not seen them since the day the rebels captured me.”
For five long years Jose worked for a farmer. He chopped, packed and loaded wood onto big trucks that were destined for South Africa. He would regularly converse with the truckers about life in South Africa. They said there was work there and people got paid good money. He asked the drivers for lifts but nobody wanted to risk their jobs and the best he got was some advice on where to go. Jose dutifully carried on with his job, cutting and stacking wood on trucks that were going where he wanted to be.
Jose saved up all the money he could, until one day he acted. He knew what to do and how to do it. He was good at running, staying incognito and using this to his benefit. He waited for the sun to set and for the final whistle to blow, signalling the end of the working day. When the other workers headed home or back to the camp, he lingered around waiting for it to get darker. By this stage he knew the area and knew which way Windhoek was. He walked for most of the night along the side of the road, trying to hitchhike but to avail. By dusk the following morning he had reached the other side of Windhoek and stood below a road sign that read, “Cape Town 1500 km.”
Jose knew that traveling by day meant the possibility of getting apprehended by control officers or police and he didn’t want to risk his potential freedom. So he slept most of the day, not far from the road, waiting for night. No food and very little money, Jose carried out his trek towards South Africa by night. Hitchhiking meant money and he didn’t want to spend it all in one go. “I had lost count of the days and distance I travelled by foot but it was somewhere like 3 weeks or maybe 4, catching rides, bribes, intimidation and walking.” Always only traveling by night. He knew that with every step forward it was one step closer.
On his last ride with a group of guys in a very old and rusty car, Jose saw a sign that showed 70 km to the border. Again, Jose had experience with a situation like this and got the driver to pull over. He would walk the rest of the way.
He approached the border post carefully, always keeping a safe distance. He spent a few nights watching, observing and learning the comings and the goings of the people on post. Only this time it would prove itself a bit more difficult. Instead of a little fence bordering two countries, there was the vast expanse of the Orange River that washed ferociously past him, blocking his entry into the country. Hungry and tired, he felt like giving up but his perseverance had brought him this far so to carry on was his only option. To carry on and to run had worked best.
In his sight was what is known today as the Vioolsdrift border post. He couldn’t cross there for obvious reasons so he made his way down the Orange River, looking for a safe and easy way to cross out of sight from the border patrol. He came across a guy with a small rowing boat and tried to get the guy to help him cross the river, but the guy said it was dangerous and that he would do it for a fee. Jose had no money. So again Jose sat and looked over the river, imagining his freedom. One day the river seemed to be calmer than previous days. After staring at the river continuously for the past few days, Jose picked up on this instantly. He noticed some boulders protruding from the water and saw that if he mapped out his route carefully then he could jump across, hopping from boulder to boulder. He sat there the whole day staring and planning. When nightfall came he retraced the plan in his mind and jumped from rock to rock, into South Africa. From here the story played out very similarly to his trip through Namibia. Hiking, walking and running. Sleeping outdoors, hungry, cold and tired. Getting by on the goodwill of strangers, it took Jose another month of grovelling and hustling to get from the Orange River to Cape Town. Jose arrived in Cape Town in December 2000, where he made his way straight to the city.
“I could still speak no English when I came here but I heard a lot of Portuguese and saw many Angolans who ran away from the war just like I did. I spent my first few nights sleeping in the Company Gardens and quickly saw that Long Street was a very busy street and I could maybe make some money here. I remember sitting across the road from a very busy place where there were many motorbikes. I saw the car guards getting money for parking cars and I thought I could do this too.”
“I started parking cars outside this place on Long Street. Getting a R5 here or a R3 there, slowly picking up English. I did this for about a year or so. I quickly got to know the regulars and quickly got to know the boss of the place. I was there parking cars every day, all day. Sleeping where I could. One day, the owner said he can give me job in his bar in Green Point for clearing glasses of tables. Later I was, because I am so big and strong, the bouncer at the bar. I was cleaning glasses by day and then I was bouncer by night. One day this place close and I went to work in a garden in Hout Bay. The garden made me feel too much like Namibia again so I left when the job was done, after two months. I went back to Long Street. In-between all the jobs, finding a place to live, learning English and saving money for food and clothes, I also had to renew my visa papers every two years. I always had a steady Job here in Cape Town and bosses to help me, so getting a renewal has never been a problem.”
“I was not running or exercising much then but I could feel in my mind and in my legs that I wanted to run for strength again. So one guy, he take me to Lions Head and I run. I run up the mountain and back down again. Just for that feeling again. I started doing this every day. I still do this today.”
Jose has worked as a bouncer at many clubs and bars around town and is well known on the social scene as a big man with the heart of gold or the big man with the golden tooth.
“The people here they know me. I have lots of patience for the people. Me, I don’t drink. But all these peoples here who drink, you see I help them. I promised to never get violent again. Therefore, I train and do boxing. Anyone can come train with me. It’s a good way to clear the mind.”
“For me you see, all I want is peace. I want to help others the way I was helped on my travel here to South Africa. I help on Wednesdays at the church on Kloof Street where we give food to homeless people. I also want to start a house where I can help keep people from the street and maybe start a training gym. I must help the people and I must always keep running. Not running away but running to stay fit and to stay strong, to keep my mind healthy. I run to stay here at home.”
And as for the gold tooth – “I got it here in South Africa. When I was a boy selling fruit at the market there was a big man with a gold tooth just like this one. He was always buying lots of things and one day he bought some fruit from me and I told him that one day I too will have a gold tooth like him.”
Jose travelled approximately 2550 km from Angola to Cape Town over an extended period of time. Some parts he ran and some parts he walked. Other periods were spent in motorised transport. This does not include the distance he trekked within the war zone and the many detours he made to stay out of harm’s way. This is a true showcase of human spirit and endurance. For this, Jose Maria Joao is a hero.