Teen gangster’s journey from crime to choral music

At 19 Lethukuthula Thela was a feared gangster around Ermelo. But after his family was brutally attacked he turned his life around.

After spending three years allegedly robbing and terrorising the community, a reformed gangster has found solace and redemption in the most unlikely of places: a choral choir group. 

Lethukuthula Thela, 20, whose name loosely translates to ‘bring peace’, was part of the Lion Never Cry (LNC) gang who recruited him in Ermelo, Mpumalanga.

He says that he was recruited at the age of 17, in June 2015, after a tavern brawl impressed some of the gang members.

During his stint in the gang, he claims he vandalised property and robbed people around elok’shini (the township). 

“We would beat people in their houses and take whatever we wanted,’’ he said.

He claims that at 19 he was a feared gangster around Ermelo.

But things changed in November 2017 when his family was brutally attacked. “Three of my sisters were beaten with sjamboks, two brothers [were] stabbed, and my uncle. My grandmother was also butchered on her right knee during the attack. They almost cut her leg off with a machete.”

5 August 2018: Thela bowing his head in prayer at the St John’s Apostolic Church.

 “Gogo died because of me,” he says. “I realised that vandalising and hurting people was not good. I was no longer a human being. I decided to quit being a gangster.”

After rehabilitation, he began noticing that there was something inside him. “The only gift I have is music,” he says. “Then I decided to join a choir called Msukaligwa Choral Sound.”

“I love this music so much, it touched my soul,” he says. 

“The choir supported me and was excited that I intended to join them. They urged me to love myself and attend the choir. Then I decided to play in the church brass band. 

“People love me now. I am a comedian and I assist with choral music, that is what I am famous for now,” he says with a smile, adding: “I am able to communicate with people, I feel free and alive. Now respect comes first in my life.”

Some community members told New Frame they were pleased that Thela had decided to reform. 

His story has inspired other rival gang members to want to follow his lead. “Some gang members from the Black Cat tell me that they wish they could change like me,” he says proudly. 

5 August 2018: Thela (standing in the doorway) is seen with some of his colleagues who are in the church brass band as they prepare for Sunday service.

“I gathered a group of nyaope addicts and gang members to form a brass band choir. In March, at church they borrowed us the equipment but then took it back because we did not have money to rent the equipment,” he says. 

“My father used to give me R300 every month for toiletries and I would spend all of it renting the equipment. He got bitter and stopped giving me money in April.”

Thela, who is the father of a ten-month-old daughter, says: “I don’t even have R20 in my pocket [now] but stealing and robbing people is something I would never do again.”

He works part-time jobs painting houses, building roofs, and as a bricklayer. The only thing he wants now is to be a good father and a loyal brother. 

5 August 2018: Thela is seen singing church songs with other members of the congregation. “The only gift I have is music,” he says.
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