The world loves a good Robin Hood story. Ever since that leotard-rocking Englishman took to Sherwood Forest with his bow and arrow, there have been countless iterations of the same trope. These are the noble bandits: criminals whose exploits aren’t about violence or material gain — they’re about the principle: righting the wrongs done against everyday people by corrupt power.
It’s a pretty attractive narrative, which is why it pops up time and time again across the world. These stories let us live out our secret outlaw fantasies completely guilt-free. Whether it’s because the culprits are giving to the poor, or just plain sticking it to the man, we can immerse ourselves in their stories without feeling the least bit bad about rooting for them.
But there’s also a pretty glaring problem with these true crime narratives: the stories are very rarely as clear-cut as folklore and film make them out to be. For example, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar built schools and houses for the poor in the favelas. And yes, we all remember him as a kindhearted Mother Theresa, but apparently he also did some crimes or something…
What I’m getting at, is that the realities of our Robin Hood heroes are often far less admirable than we might think. Today we’ll be diving deep into the sensationalized story of one such character, and trying to disentangle his glorified legacy from the gritty reality of his less-than-perfect life.
This is the story of Andre Stander, South Africa’s very own outlaw antihero. But was he really the anti-apartheid renegade that popular culture remembers him as, or is there a darker reality to the story which was left out of his legacy?
Spoiler alert: it’s number two…
A Robbery in Joburg
It’s 1979, in Johannesburg, South Africa. A bank teller’s hands shake as she reports a robbery to the a police officer. Just a short while before, a man walked up to her counter, calmly informed her that he had a gun, and demanded she fill up a bag with cash.
Not wanting to provoke the robber to violence, the teller did as she was told, then the man walked out the front door before anyone else realized what had happened. Once the gunman was out of sight, the teller told her colleagues what had happened, and they called the police. However, by the time the cops arrived, the robber was already long gone (or so everyone thought).
Among the officers who responded to the call was the head of Kempton Park CID, Detective Andre Stander. His subordinates filled the chief in on the details of this low-key heist, and afterwards he went on to interview the teller face-to-face. But little did any of them know that Detective Stander was already well aware of everything that went down there earlier that day.
In fact, he knew the ins and outs of the crime better than anyone. That’s because the guy on the CCTV footage with the black perm wig, dodgy fake mustache, and mirrored aviators was actually him. Unbeknownst to his colleagues on the force, their boss had been at the bank less than an hour prior, committing the very crime he had been called out to investigate!
No, I’m not describing the plot to my new cheesy heist movie, this very much happened. So how does one end up juggling contradictory careers in law enforcement and law breaking at the same time?
His Criminal Career
It began with the fact that Stander never particularly wanted to join the force in the first place. His father was Major General Frans Stander, a high-ranking figure in the country’s prison service, who pushed his son to enter into the family business from a young age. Stander the Younger eventually caved to the pressure, and enrolled at the Pretoria Police College, where it’s said he graduated top of his class.
With a father as powerful as his, it wasn’t long before Andre rose up the ranks of the force, becoming head of his own CID division while still in his twenties. But this wasn’t enough to satisfy him; despite all the success he’d achieved in such a short time, Stander was restless at not having chosen his own path in life.
His unhappiness was only compounded by the political climate of the time, which saw the police used as a tool to enforce apartheid, and crack down on dissidents who opposed the country’s openly racist regime. When you’re literally the sworn enemy of Nelson Mandela, you know you’re probably in the wrong line of work.
Andre’s unhappiness manifested in his personal life too. In the mid 70s, he went through a messy divorce, fathered a child who he never knew, then remarried and divorced the same woman again. By the later years of the decade, his life was in a rut — personally, professionally, and politically — so the malcontent copper decided it was time for some drastic action.
Now in his early 30s, Andre set his heart on a change of career…
His first outing as a bank robber was a little further from home than the one we witnessed a moment ago. One afternoon in 1977, while on his lunch break from work, he flew to the city of Durban, around 500km southeast of the capital. This was a simpler time when taking a handgun on an airplane was no big deal, so he managed to carry a revolver in his satchel the entire time.
After touching down, the soon-to-be crooked cop hired a car and drove to a bank. In the car park, he donned his signature look — best described as a white guy cosplaying as Lionel Richie — walked inside, and approached the cashier’s desk.
As in the robbery we kicked off with minutes ago, Stander discretely revealed his gun to the woman working at the desk, and handed over an empty bag. After she filled it with cash from the drawers, he swaggered out the door and hopped on a plane back home before the alarm was raised. Had metal detectors been in use back then, the man’s brass balls would have definitely set them off.
It was as clean a first crime as anyone could hope for — Andre even managed to return to Joburg before he was due back at his desk, meaning nobody so much as questioned where he was. He settled back into his role as CID chief for the rest of the afternoon, while a bag of stolen cash sat in the trunk of his car outside.
In that one lunch break, the newly-minted robber probably made more money than in a whole month of policing (not bad for a first crack at criminality).
A Prolific Career
But it was a drop in the ocean compared to how much he would accumulate over the next few years. It’s thought that Stander managed to hit almost 30 different banks between 1977 and 1980, racking up enough money to secure a pretty cushy early retirement, should he have chosen to give up his day job.
Despite the amount of crimes he committed during this time, we unfortunately don’t know so much about the ins and outs of each of these incognito raids. Theories differ on why the papers never ran particularly crazy with the stories at the time. Some believe it’s because Stander was white — a fair few shades lighter than the types of people that the establishment preferred to portray as the bad guys back then.
Or maybe it was just because the police were so damn embarrassed that this had all gone on right under their noses, so they were reluctant to release too many details in the end. And obviously, the political clout of Andre’s father might have also played a part too; he probably found it a little embarrassing that his beloved corrections department would be booking his own flesh and blood into the system, when Stander Jr was captured in 1980.
This little episode itself is pretty well-documented. We know that Stander used the money gained from robberies around South Africa to buy himself a nice new house, and open a souvenir shop with his best friend and business partner, Car van Deventer, who also worked in law enforcement. Van Deventer had no idea that the business he was running with his mate was actually a front for money laundering, but he was about to get a pretty clear hint.
The two were drinking together at a party in December 1979, when Stander decided to make his partner an all-new business proposal. He invited van Deventer to join him in his bank robberies, explaining that he had a car waiting at the airport with all of his gear. When his mate refused, Stander tried to play it all off as a bad joke.
What the cop-turned-robber didn’t know though, was that his business partner was also secretly a member of the Bureau of State Security (kind of like a South African KGB, which is as terrifying as it sounds). He informed the higher ups at BOSS command, who sent agents to stake out a stolen car now linked to Stander, which was abandoned at Jan Smuts Airport.
They first searched the car, finding a balaclava, revolver, fake license plates, satchel, and various other bank robber paraphernalia. However, it would be a while before the robber himself showed up to incriminate himself with all that juicy evidence, leaving the BOSS agents to sit and watch the car for several weeks.
After the Christmas and New Year holidays, the waiting game paid off: Stander returned to the vehicle to pick up his disguise. The agents simply watched as the CID captain collected his things, then boarded a plane for Durban. And instead of catching him on the other end, the BOSS agents calmly awaited his return.
Seems a bit negligent to let a known bank robber swan around with a revolver just for the sake of catching him in the act, but thankfully his next robbery was as non-violent as the rest. Stander arrived back at Jan Smuts less than 2 hours later with 4000 rand in his bag, and no reasonable explanation for how he acquired it. He was promptly arrested.
In total, it’s believed that the renegade copper managed to snatch just short of 100,000 South African rand across all of his crimes. That’s the equivalent of about 190,000 USD today. It might not be a mind-blowing amount compared to the other heists we’ve covered, but that’s the real genius of it: by keeping his operation small-scale, Stander mitigated the risk of his crimes.
He knew that busting open a vault or taking hostages would only invite unwanted attention, and drag out the time it took to make a getaway (and as we know, the man was often on his lunch break at the time — he still needed to grab a sausage roll and coke before clocking back in). Keeping a check on his greed meant that he could target the relatively small amounts in the teller drawers, and escape well within the average police response time.
And it’s not as if 100,000 rand was an insignificant amount of money; a white man in South Africa at the time could generally hope to make around 24,000 rand per year. So by sticking to this simple system, Stander managed to climb up the economic ladder pretty significantly, while evading capture for three years.
He probably could have continued for many more had he not accidentally ratted himself out to the feds.
Arrest and Trial
But alas, rat himself out to the feds he did, and the crime spree of this cop-turned-robber came to an anticlimactic end. When he was brought to court, Stander gave a bit of an insight into why he had decided to hop across the thin blue line. He asserted during his hearing that he was strongly opposed to apartheid, and disgusted with the police’s role in enforcing it.
According to this version of events, as Stander related to his family after his arrest, the definitive turning point in his disillusionment was the Soweto Student Uprising of 1976. On the 16th of June that year, students in the Soweto township (townships being the areas which South Africa’s black community were allocated under segregation) launched a protest against apartheid. This triggered subsequent demonstrations in the other townships to the north of Johannesburg.
On the 18th of June, students from the Alexandra and Tembisa townships organized a march to Roosevelt Stadium, where they planned to deliver a statement opposing the South African government’s segregation laws. As you’re probably already well aware though, the white supremacist regime didn’t take too kindly to this kind of thing. A police barricade stood in the way of the protesters, leading to a tense standoff. Stander claimed that he was one of the cops there that day, pointing his gun at unarmed civilians.
Witnesses reported that a few of the young people threw stones towards the police, and the officers responded very measuredly and responsibly by… opening fire into the crowd with live ammunition, killing over thirty young people and children. In their defense, I’m sure some of those pebbles thrown by teenagers really hurt.
During the inquest which followed, the officers claimed that they were acting to prevent looting and vandalism and — in the same year Andre Stander was being tried for robbery — they were cleared of all wrongdoing.
But curiously, Stander’s name was nowhere to be seen during that inquest, because although he claimed that he himself had been forced to open fire during the Tembisa Uprising, there actually wasn’t any proof that he was there at all. Unless someone had modified the official records to protect him, this was a total fabrication.
Was Stander just trying to style himself as some kind of virtuous outlaw, or was he really robbing banks to get back at a corrupt regime for turning him into a murderer? We could give him the benefit of the doubt, but really, there’s every chance he was just playing on a popular sentiment of the times to cover himself in prison.
Understandably, not everyone following the case bought his explanation — many thought he was just bored with life. After all, Stander had done his national service in Angola during the South African Border War. Returning to a pedestrian life in a cushy job might simply not have been thrilling enough for him after a taste of that kind of high-intensity existence.
But whatever the reason for starting, it had all come to an end now. On May 6th 1980, Andre Stander was sentenced to a total of 75 years for his crimes. Some of the sentences could be served simultaneously, meaning that the actual damage would only amount to 17 years behind bars.
Stripped of his badge, the now-infamous bandit was carted off to Zonderwater Maximum Security Prison, where he no doubt knew plenty of the inmates by name, seeing as he had sent them there.
Usually this is where we end the episode with a little moral lesson and a friendly goodbye, but sit tight: the tale of Andre Stander is actually just getting started, and things are about to get even more Hollywood than before…
Jailbreak and The Stander Gang
The second act of the Ballad of Andre Stander introduces a couple of new characters — his future partners in crime. Because, despite likely having plenty of enemies in prison, Stander quickly made some friends too.
His reputation as one of the most profitable and ballsy bank robbers in the country’s history preceded him, so he actually commanded quite a bit of respect on the inside. As a result, another bank robber named Allan Heyl became one of his closest buddies in Zonderwater.
Heyl wasn’t quite so prolific a robber, having only managed five capers in his career, but the two were well aware of each other’s exploits. Stander even played up to the ego of his younger counterpart by calling him “South Africa’s most notorious”.
They men bonded over trade secrets, and even reportedly a shared love of political philosophy. This meant a shared affinity for groups like Italy’s Red Brigade, and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang. For context, the former were responsible for the murder of Italian ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, so you can get a sense of the kind of extreme politics these convicts were into.
Both men reportedly felt an affinity for these left-wing terror revolutionaries. Heyl noted in an interview years later that Stander hated the country’s oppressive regime so much, he refused to even speak their official language, Afrikaans. As Heyl explained it:
“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.”
A Daring Escape
These new best buds would struggle to stick it to the man from inside a maximum security prison, however, so they started entertaining the idea of one day breaking out. It started off with jokes, each man claiming he’d be the one to make it out first, and promising to come back for the other, without any real notion of making it a reality.
On the 11th of August 1983, it was Stander who got the first chance to give it a shot, while attending a physiotherapy session with another inmate named Patrick McCall. The two incapacitated inmates were sat down in a clinic waiting room along with five other prisoners, waiting their turn to see physiotherapist Amelia Grobler.
Miraculously cured of all their aches and pains, Stander and McCall managed to overpower the guards and take their weapons, before making a break for it in the physiotherapist’s car. The other five inmates decided they’d rather not take the risk, and opted out of the great escape.
Stander and McCall sped off towards the northern townships, pulling off down some country roads to avoid the officers out searching the highways for them. Now, here’s where the noble bandit narrative starts to get pretty damn sketchy, because I don’t remember Robin Hood ever kidnapping a family to make a getaway (correct me if I’m wrong).
But that’s exactly what Stander and McCall did. They came across a farm owned by a man named Martin Riekert, who lived there with his son Henk. When the two farmers came out to meet the men pulling up on their property, Stander and McCall pulled their guns on them, and demanded Martin call the police.
That seems like a strange move for two men who should surely have wanted to stay as far away from the law as possible, but Stander knew what he was doing. Having spent years in the force, he understood that there was no way they could pass the inevitable police roadblocks without a suitable disguise. And what better disguise than a police van?
When the officer arrived at the farm, the two convicts took him hostage and forced him to switch clothes with Stander. After that, the fugitives ordered the farmer, his son, and the officer into the back of the van, and drove off towards the Tembisa township.
Apparently terrorizing three innocent people wasn’t enough, because the escapees then stopped to pick up 27-year old nurse Nakkie Fouche shortly after setting off from the farm. Now with four hostages loaded into the back, the two men continued past all of the police roadblocks set up to catch them, and made their way to safety.
Thankfully none of the captives were hurt in the ordeal. Stander and McCall eventually abandoned the van when they got far enough out of central Johannesburg, and the people trapped inside were able to break through the window which led to the driver’s seat.
A Second Escape and Second Spree
So Stander and McCall had managed to secure their freedom, but the two of them had no intention of just living a quiet life in hiding. Shortly after breaking out, the men stole 13,000 rand from a building society, raided a gun shop, and started plotting how to extricate their buddy Heyl from his imprisonment.
He was currently still stewing in Zonderwater, taking a fair bit of grief from the guards, who knew he and the escapees were good friends. Several months passed, with poor Heyl hoping every day that his mates would make good on their promise. Then, on October 31st, as he was attending a trade certification exam, he heard a familiar voice behind him: “Come on, Allan, let’s go!”
It was Stander. He and McCall had the guards face down on the floor, with assault rifles pointed at their backs. Apparently South African prison guards are pretty lax, as this was the second time in a year they’d been caught out like this — although if two Afrikaners with automatic weapons broke into my workplace, I’d probably just go with whatever they said as well.
Reunited, and it felt so good, the three men sped off in a getaway car, and made it to a safe house on the north end of town. This would be their base of operations in the months to come. You’re probably imagining some utilitarian shack today low in, but these digs were anything but; the gang used their combined riches to secure a luxury pad with a garage of fancy cars, and a fridge packed full with champagne.
Once the story of the second breakout went public, the media went crazy for the newly-formed Stander Gang. The narrative of the Robin Hood, anti-establishment outlaw had caught on like wildfire, and the three crooks would go on to become a staple in the daily news (and a real thorn in the authorities’ sides).
Part of the gang’s allure was the non-violent method of their robberies, which resumed shortly after Heyl was broken out of prison. The methodology mirrored Stander’s methods from before his arrest, being as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. In an audio recording sent to Guardian reporter Chris Sullivan in 2005, Heyl explained:
“There were rules: no shouting, no flashing guns, no planning and no designer violence. It was not Tarantino.[…] The object of the exercise was not to terrorize 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.”
Three of four a day. That’s how easy robbing South African banks in the 1980s apparently was. It’s a wonder anybody bothered working a normal job at all! With that kind of prolificness, it’s understandable that the media latched onto the story of these anti-establishment warriors.
The media sensation was further stoked by how unbelievably daring some of their heists were. For example, in early 1984 they saw on TV that a ‘nerve centre’ had been set up to track them — a base of operations for the task force who were chasing them, led by Brigadier Manie van Rensburg.
Taking a look at their map of potential targets, Stander saw the potential for an ultra-daring stunt: they would rob the bank on the bottom floor of the very same building where the police HQ was set up! And just like every time before, the gang walked into the bank, and walked out minutes later with a bag full of cash.
Somehow the Stander Gang never fell prey to their own bravado, and managed to hit over 20 banks in total. That’s not to say they never came close to disaster: on one occasion Stander had to flee a restaurant because another patron recognized him. On another he was forced to slip past a police checkpoint by posing as a morning jogger. But every time they came close to capture, the three men managed to slip the net.
It was the sort of crime spree that really deserved a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, all in all netting a total of over 500,000 rand (five times as much as Stander had managed alone, and in a tenth of the time). This would be worth not far off 1 million USD in today’s money.
And after years behind bars, the three men were damn well going to enjoy spending it. This meant an expensive lifestyle of escorts and alcohol, making their humble hideout look like one of the more explicit and decadent rap videos of the 1990s.
The Gang Splits Up
But all good things must come to an end. For the Stander Gang, it proved to be their love of female company that would be their undoing. After pictures of their current appearances were released to the papers on January 25th 1984 — courtesy of a hidden camera in one of the banks — several of the working women who had paid visits to the hideout reported its occupants to the police.
Heyl panicked when he saw himself in the papers, and started practicing a German accent in preparation for his getaway. Stander had more practical matters in mind, so on the 27th, Stander went overseas on business, trying to secure them an avenue of escape. By this point there was a growing sense of dread at the hideout, which not even a whole refrigerator of champagne could cure.
Heyl decided to leave, while McCall simply refused to follow, thinking himself safer at the hideout than on the streets. It was a fatal decision: three days later the police surrounded the safe house with hundreds of officers. The gang’s most trigger-happy member, and the only remaining occupant, was woken up at 5AM to the sound of the cops shouting down a megaphone, and reached for his gun.
He rushed out onto the balcony, firing wildly before retreating back inside. Dozens of police officers responded in kind, and McCall was gunned down in a storm of bullets and stun grenades. Some versions report that he killed himself in a closet, while others state he went down fighting. Whatever the case, police entered to find him lying dead.
With one of his comrades shot to pieces and the other thousands of miles away, Heyl made his way to Greece, and would spend the next year hopping around Europe, trying to evade capture while rocking that German accent he had spent so long perfecting. In 1985, he was tracked down in the UK trying to reclaim his loot from a previous theft, and served nine years in Britain on a firearm and robbery conviction.
After that, he was extradited to South Africa to serve out the remainder of his sentence. In 2005, he was eventually paroled, and now he makes his living as a motivational speaker (a different kind of robbery altogether, and only slightly less unethical).
All of this sounds like perfect Hollywood fodder: the shootout, the escape, the international manhunt. And we’ve not even covered the main event yet — whatever happened to Andre Stander, the leader of the gang?
A Fitting End
Like I said, he was away on business when the noose started closing, and the particular business he was tending to was very befitting of his new Scarface-style life. The gang leader was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida when his buddy was gunned down back in Joburg.
He had come stateside to negotiate the sale of a yacht, christened the Lilly Rose, which the gang had purchased to facilitate their great escape. The whole thing had tragically come tumbling down not long before the three men planned to leave South Africa for good, having almost saved up enough cash for a very comfortable life on the lam.
The plan was to sail the boat to Florida, packed with all their ill-gotten gains, where Stander’s buyer would meet them and take the getaway vehicle off their hands. South Africa’s Robin Hood would have to make a new plan now though, since an international warrant had been issued for his arrest, and his yacht had been seized by the police back home.
The ex-cop decided to create a false identity: he was now an Australian author named Peter Harris, and had the fake passport to prove it. Apparently the people of Florida struggle to tell foreign accents apart, because this ruse worked like a charm. Even when he was arrested in February 1984 for driving an unregistered car with a fake license, the police still accepted that Stander was in fact the fictitious Peter Harris, and let him go.
After being released, he tracked down the impound lot where his unregistered Ford Mustang was being held, and hopped the fence to retrieve it. After smashing through the gates, he took the car back to the dealer who sold it to him in the first place, asking for a fresh paint job.
By this point, the dealer knew who his customer was. See, the police had interviewed the yacht crew hired by McCall and Heyl back in Johannesburg, who told them that their new employers wanted to sail to Florida.
That’s how the pictures of these South African fugitives found their way into the Fort Lauderdale papers, and in front of the keen eye of Mr Tony Tomosello, the man who had sold Stander the car. Playing it cool, Tomosello agreed to have the Mustang repainted, then called his lawyer to find out exactly how much trouble he might be in.
After weighing up the charges of ‘selling an unregistered vehicle’ vs ‘aiding and abetting an international fugitive’, the salesman decided to call the police. And so, dozens of Floridian officers surrounded Stander’s apartment, and kicked in the door, only to find out the main man wasn’t even there.
No, he hadn’t made a daring getaway — in fact, Stander had no idea he had been found out, and was just out on an afternoon bike ride. When he cycled back up towards his driveway, he bumped into Officer Michael van Stetina — one of the cops assigned to guard the perimeter.
Stander realized he was busted, and made a move for the officer’s shotgun. In the ensuing struggle, he took a shell to the stomach, and fell back onto the pavement. Officer Stetina called it in, and tried to stem the flow of blood from Stander’s wounds. But by the time the ambulance arrived, South Africa’s most-wanted man was already dead.
A Warped Legacy
That’s a pretty damn cinematic ending for one of the most media-friendly criminals South Africa has ever produced: shot dead in the land of cocaine and speedboat chases. But now that we’ve finished with the main events of Stander’s life, it’s time to take a look back at the story and ask how much of it is reality, how much of it fantasy.
Perhaps a good point to start with is the 2003 movie version of his life, Stander, directed by Bronwen Hughes. As you can imagine, the majority of this flick tends towards fantasy, but we can use it as a measure for just how far the legacy of the Stander case has strayed from the truth.
Consider the fact that the movie version begins the Tembisa Uprising, showing Stander having to shoot at innocent civilians. It kicks off with this episode to present it as the formative event in the rogue cop’s life, and the driving force behind his crimes. But as we’ve already pointed out, there’s no record it even happened at all.
Nonetheless, it’s generally in keeping with the popularized version of the man and his life. Although money and infamy were likely the driving force behind the crimes of the Stander Gang, time and time again their spree was portrayed as an expression of angst against apartheid (kind of like the time I shoplifted a Dairy Milk from WH Smiths to protest the oppression of third-world cocoa farmers).
For example, in the film version, the actor playing Allan Heyl relates to Stander how he once had a black girlfriend who was beaten by the police and suffered a miscarriage, thanking Stander for helping him get his revenge. So Stander is a hero for the oppressed and downtrodden, right?
Well, there’s plenty to suggest otherwise. South Africa’s most-wanted man might have enjoyed a rockstar image, but if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that rockstars tend not to have the best record when it comes to women… and consent.
When you look a little deeper than the romanticized version of the story, there are some worrying discoveries generally left out off the popular retellings. For one, Stander’s mate van Deventer said that he admitted to taking sick pleasure out of seeing the fear in pretty young cashier’s eyes when he robbed them.
Even worse: the South African police allege that in 1983, he lured a teenage girl to a hotel room on the pretence of a professional photoshoot, where he raped her. Later, another teenager came forward to accuse him of doing the same to her.
These allegations were reported at the time of the gang’s crime spree, but some newspapers simply dismissed them as a smear attempt by a government who had been thoroughly humiliated by this gang of anti-establishment rebels. Consider the fact though, that pictures of the first girl were discovered in one of the gang’s safe houses after the police brought them down.
You won’t find much mention of these rape allegations anywhere, because they don’t sit too well with the slick antihero image of Stander’s legacy. Heavily refracted through the rose-tinted lens of an enamored media, the life of a violent, manipulative armed robber can look like quite an attractive thing. But in reality, Stander was probably anything but a hero.
The same goes for the rest of the. gang. McCall in particular was no saint. During the gang’s crime spree, they went for a gun and ammo run in Randburg. During the raid, McCall ended up shooting the owner, a middle-aged woman named Marlene Henn.
Again, the shooting of an innocent woman isn’t a major part of the common narrative (kind of messes with the feel-good vibes). So why is it that we’re so keen to cast men like these as antiheroes, and gloss over the uglier sides of their characters?
Robin Hood Was Probably a Dick
Hold onto your hats, because to answer that question, we’re going to take a brief dip into the wild wild world of folklore studies. Don’t worry, we won’t be staying long.
We’re only here to take a look at the theory of Australian professor Graham Seal, who’s spent a fair bit of time studying the stories of the Hoods, Escobars, and Standers of the world. He even went as far as making a rough checklist to help us identify a so-called noble bandit when we see one. Let’s see how many of the criteria our South African robber fits:
1. Usually male — check.
2. Forced to break the law by a corrupt system — check. According to Stander’s story of the Tembisa uprising and his subsequent rebellion, that is.
3. Has sympathy from society — check. As a self-styled anti-apartheid renegade, Stander had the sympathy of a populace which was over 65% black. On top of that, plenty of the country’s roughly 20% white population opposed the regime’s racist policies as well.
4. He follows a moral code — check. As Heyl explained earlier, “there were rules.” The idea of quietly and non-violently robbing banks without causing anyone much distress is about as moral as a heist can get.
5. Legends tell of some extraordinary ability to pull off daring crimes and avoid capture: check. Please see all of the above.
6. Lastly, his death represents one last act of defiance — check. Trying to wrestle a shotgun from a police officer is pretty damn defiant, if you ask me.
What I’m saying is, Stander pretty much perfectly fits the bill of the archetypal Robin Hood character. He’s a criminal whose moral credentials have been inflated to such a degree that people often forget the seriousness of all of the horrible stuff he did.
As Heyl put it in his communication with The Guardian: “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.”
I’m inclined to agree; the timely story of an ex-cop, anti-apartheid outlaw was too convenient for the press to pass up on, and subsequent generations of filmmakers, journalists, and less-discretionary podcast script writers have been jumping on the bandwagon ever since.
As usual though, we at CC HQ want to give you the bad along with the good, because sometimes a bank robber is just a bank robber. I mean, at the end of the day, it was the struggle of the everyday people of South Africa which drove the end of apartheid, not a trio of dudes with revolvers and fake beards.
That brings us to the end of our retelling of the tale of South Africa’s most famous, most fascinating, most fearless bank robber. His story lives on in the popular imagination as one of the most astonishing news stories of the apartheid era, proof that a sensationalized legacy is enough to obscure even the most dubious moral character.
So do we buy into the Stander Gang’s image as anti-apartheid anarchists, or were they just a regular bunch of money-craving crooks? Let us know what you think, and whether there are any other Robin Hood style characters from your country, who you think deserve a bit of realistic rebranding.
To finish us offer today, a reminder that no matter how glamorous the sex and money filled story of the Stander Gang might be, the reality of criminality often ends in a misery. Just take it from the last surviving member, Allan Heyl, who lost the better part of his youth behind bars. He told The Guardian:
“Be assured that if you are convicted for serious offenses, you will go to prison with a very long sentence […] and you will have to find new strength and resolve to continue facing each seemingly endless day.”
So crime doesn’t pay? Coming from a man who once robbed four banks in a day? Whatever mate, I’ve already pre-ordered my Lambo. Joburg here I come.
1. If his ex-colleague is to be believed, Chief Stander wasn’t even a particularly good detective. Frustrated with the newspaper narrative of a genius cop turned bank robber, Officer Chris Swanepoel gave a statement asserting: “When we were in the force together he couldn’t even catch a cold.” Mr Swanepoel, if you’re out there, we believe you.
2. While on the run in Europe, second-in-command Heyl reached out to a conman named Billy Williams to help him retrieve he loot he had stashed in the UK. Apparently he had no idea what a professional conman actually does for a living, as he was surprised when Williams stole the lot and turned him in. The UK press subsequently dubbed the conman “Supergrass” for his trouble.
3. One man came out on top financially from this whole mess: Tony Tomosello, the man who sold Stander the car in Florida. After the gang leader was shot dead on the street, Tony demanded his reward from the South African government, worth about 64,000 USD. Tragically is he had just let Stander rob a couple more banks, apartheid would have been solved and racism would be a distant memory. Thanks a lot Tony.