'The reason I am making this recording is to explain how we actually went about committing these robberies,’ says Allan Heyl, once South Africa's most wanted man. ‘There were rules: no shouting, no flashing guns, no planning and no designer violence. It was not Tarantino. In fact, the outstanding feature of all the robberies was that they went off so calmly that they were actually mundane. The object of the exercise was not to terrorise people but to basically get in and out as quickly as possible, because we were in the process of robbing three or four banks a day.’
Speaking on a cassette forwarded to me by an intermediary and recorded in the confines of the Krugersdorp maximum security prison, west of Johannesburg, Heyl wants to set the record straight after 20 years in jail. ‘I want to plot a course in between all the hype, rhetoric and hysteria which the media created, and lay to rest certain perceptions and assumptions that what it was all about was fast cars, fast women and fast booze.’
Now featured in Bronwen Hughes' new film Stander, Heyl (as played by David Patrick O'Hara), along with accomplices Andre Stander and Lee McCall, achieved mythical status by robbing some 20 banks between October 1983 and January 1984, hogging the front page of every newspaper in South Africa. ‘We were manna from heaven for the media,’ says Heyl. ‘We seemed to meet the country's desperate quest for entertainment and became tailor-made antiheroes.’
The gang's notoriety was exacerbated by Stander's previous role as head of Kempton Park CID in Johannesburg. ‘The fact that Andre was a former police captain suited the romantic notion of good-turned-bad against bad. And that's where sensationalism became hysteria as never before or since.’
The son of a major-general, Stander witnessed the bloodbath of Tembisa in 1976 (where riot police opened fire on hundreds of demonstrators) and expressed his disgust by turning to bank robbery. While still a prominent member of the police, his gang notched up an estimated 30 heists in the next three years.
‘I first met Andre in Zonderwater maximum security prison,’ says Heyl. ‘I was there for robbing five banks in Pretoria and he'd been found guilty of, I think, 15 charges of robbery. He approached me and said he'd been told about me and was delighted to be in prison to meet South Africa's most notorious.’
The two inmates were drawn together, not only by their intellect ‒ Heyl taught maths and Stander studied philosophy ‒ but also by a mutual respect for leftist revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigade. ‘Andre refused to speak Afrikaans,’ says Heyl. ‘He held the whole regime in contempt and thought banks were the very symbol of greed, duplicity and exploitation. I hated the South African system and, as we were both bank robbers and both set on a campaign of defiance, we were ideal company.’
Languishing in prison, the pair quite naturally plotted their escape. ‘We used to wind each other up. I'd say, “I'll get out first and come and get you first.” Then he'd say, “No you won't, I'll get you” ‒ and on and on until it became a bit of a joke. Then he did escape and he did come and get me.’
After Stander and fellow prisoner Lee McCall escaped from the physiotherapy unit at Zonderwater in August 1983, Heyl was thrown in the hole and interrogated. Stander, meanwhile, outwitted the police as only an ex-copper could ‒ driving through roadblocks after purloining both a police van and uniform. Having evaded capture, Stander and McCall then robbed the United building society of 13,000 rand (around £7,000), disguised themselves with tracksuits, gym bags and squash rackets and holed up in a Holiday Inn to watch the six o'clock news. Their next TV appearance would be on October 31, 1983, when Stander, true to his word, broke Heyl out of prison.
‘I was doing a test at the Olifantsfontein trade test centre,’ says Heyl, ‘and I heard Andre saying, “Come on, Allan, let's go!” I looked up and saw the five guards lying face down with Andre and McCall standing over them with their guns drawn. We ran out, jumped into the Cortina, and drove off with me in the back.’
After only three weeks of freedom for Heyl, Stander got up one morning, threw on his black wig and stick-on Freddy Mercury moustache and asked if Heyl was ready to go to work. ‘The first bank set the trend for non-violence, and was only remarkable because no one, apart from the tellers, knew we had robbed it: the security guard even opened the door for us.’
As 1984 dawned, the audacity of the gang knew no bounds. ‘The idea was to keep pushing it, keep topping ourselves, both with the number of banks in a day, and the daring. We were watching TV, and saw that a “nerve centre” had been set up to catch us. Andre turned to me and said, “I know that building ... and you know what's right below it?” He had a twinkle in his eye. And yes, we went and robbed the bank right underneath the nerve centre.’
Eventually, the three began to realise that their time and bewildering good fortune was running out. Stander had narrowly avoided capture three times in January 1984, and images from a bank's hidden video camera were published nationwide on January 25, provoking tip-offs from the numerous call girls who had frequented the gang's ‘safe house’ in Houghton. Five days later, as hundreds of police surrounded the house, McCall rushed out on to the balcony naked, only to be met by a hail of bullets and grenades. He was killed on the spot.
Stander had left South Africa days before the McCall shoot-out, but was shot dead in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on February 11 while evading arrest for a minor offence. Heyl left for Greece under an assumed name after McCall's death, but was eventually apprehended and deported back to South Africa.
‘I saw the report of Andre's death on the news,’ says Heyl. ‘It was very sad. I had seen him off at the airport and, as I turned, missed his last wave as he was going down the escalator. But I'll never forget Andre.’
After serving such a protracted term in one of the world's roughest prisons, Heyl is keen to offer advice. ‘I would just like to warn any youngster who might be encouraged by my or any other criminal's exploits,’ he whispers. ‘Be assured that if you are convicted for serious offences, you will go to prison with a very long sentence. You will enter prison a fresh-faced young man and one terrible day some 10 or 15 years later, you will see a stranger looking back at you in the mirror.
‘And then you will have to reconcile the sudden disillusionment with the stupidity of your youth, and you will have to find new strength and resolve to continue facing each seemingly endless day. No amount of clever reasoning with the authorities will help. You will simply have to do the time.’
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