Monday, June 05, 2006

Author of God's Gangsters writes challenging article for Argus newspapers

Heather Parker Lewis – social worker and researcher, taught for fifteen years at the University of Cape Town – she has studied prison gangs for ten years and is author of: God’s Gangsters? – the history, language, rituals, secrets and myths of South Africa’s prison gangs (ihilihili press/2006); The Prison Speaks: Men’s Voices/South African Jails (ihilihili press/2003); Also God’s Children?…encounters with street kids (ihilihili press/ first published 1998) as well as several business books.

Argus June 2006

The prison department, encouraged by the Minister of Justice, has recommended that membership of a gang be a punishable offence, gang leaders be isolated or banished to Robben Island and those found guilty of gang related criminal acts receive an indeterminate sentence, only to be released on the advice of the relevant authority.

Although some of the above sounds familiar and the suggestions would probably be welcomed by local communities left reeling from recent shocking acts of gratuitous violence — the rampage of security guards, the murder of well known local personalities, the rape of a vulnerable mother-to-be, the bludgeoning to death of an elderly woman in Gordon’s Bay, the strangling of another elderly victim in Parow — the bold directive referred to above, was issued in 1912 and was not made on Tuesday the 23rd of May 2006 when the Minister of Correctional Services, Ngconde Balfour, presented his budget speech to the South African parliament.

By 1914 the Minister of Justice of the newly formed Union of South Africa stated that he held the upper hand. The reference was to the apparent subduing of marauding bandits who had not only terrorised Natal and the old Transvaal for over a decade, but were now entrenched in the prison system and undermining every single attempt that the warders made of implementing prison discipline. This gang, known as The Ninevites – from the Book of Nahum in the Old Testament – was under the leadership of a dynamic anti-hero, a Zulu man, Mzozephi Mathebula, who was born in the year 1867. Mzozephi later adopted the pseudonym of Nongoloza meaning Giver of Rules.
Tactics included the assault and robbery of mine workers returning to their kraals.

In 2002, after a century of entrenched gang culture within our prison system, I was witness to the Minister of Correctional Services, Ben Skosana, addressing an Imbizo at Pollsmoor Prison where he affirmed that… he too had everything under control and the gangs did not run South African prisons. The gang he referred to was the same gang of Ninevites that had caused previous governments such grief, but now they were termed The Number Gangs.

So what are the facts?

We know that 90% of convicted criminals will eventually be released from captivity and back into society. We know that in the Western Cape we have the highest number of convicted juveniles and that 80% of these young men will return to prison. In 2003 statistics indicated that a third of the prisoners in Pollsmoor Admission Centre were men who had lost their parole.

We are witness to an increase in criminal activity. Entire communities are subjected to gang-related reigns of terror. Exactly what role The Number Gangs play in this repetitive cycle of crime is a debateable point, but by the early 1990s the prison Number Gangs had already begun to return to their roots outside of prison. This is a factor present Number Gang members and the public have forgotten — that The Number was originally a criminal movement that began and operated at maximum potential outside of the prison system. (Their first hideout was in the hills south of Johannesburg in what is now Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve.) The Gang split into two, probably around the time of The Boer War. The division in the ranks was caused by a palace revolution when a senior general, a Pondo named Ngilkityane (meaning the man who bumped the stone), challenged the same-sex practices of Nongoloza. In this way the Gang of 27 separated from the Gang of 28 and it was only some years later, possibly as late as 1908, and after the senior leaders of the first two divisions were all arrested, that a third arm was created — The Gang of 26. The role of the 26 Gang is to keep the prison alive by the illegal acquisition of commodities. Prison staff, well-versed in gang behaviour, state that recent murders in the community have been deliberately committed by men eager to be imprisoned for the purpose of being initiated as 26s.

The commodities the Number deals in include money, drugs and sex. With the increase in drug trafficking since the 1990s it made sense for these powerful gangs to once again form an external base. This adjustment to a change in circumstances is a sign of a healthy system. It has caused a degree of strife within the prison gangs, because those recruited outside are not well versed in the oral history and laws of the gangs and have not earned rank on the inside, but gang operations do not appear to have been weakened.

A question the public should be asking, instead of being placated by the usual palliatives of new reform initiatives and yet another imbizo that leads to nothing more than hot air — something that Correctional Services is so expert at — is why there is, after all these years, not a single concerted initiative to undermine The Number. Gang rule in prison needs to be replaced with something a new inmate can grasp so that the concept of rehabilitation and restorative justice, meaningless words for the majority of men in jail, can become part of a national prison initiative. There is, at present, no policy for prison staff to adopt in relation to the gangs. Prison warders and heads of prisons act on an ad hoc basis with some actually using the gang leaders to negotiate with other prisoners thereby affirming the gang’s power and reducing the status of prison staff. Others have been conned into believing that The Number is some amazing human rights organisation to empower men in prison to improve their living conditions. What twaddle! Any gang member who has been subjected to a gang punishment ritual, which can include rape or a severe beating with soap in socks or even padlocks, will testify that this is a fallacy.

It’s time that Correctional Services, in a meaningful attempt to address criminal behaviour, stopped ignoring The Number. They need to deal with it. After all, the only chance we have to alter a criminal’s mind-set is once he is imprisoned. Instead of assisting him on the road to recovery he is thrown into the arms of an evil organisation that can even determine his sexual status, turning him into a wyfie for the remainder of his stay behind bars.

It’s time for Correctional Services to step beyond custodial care, to stop relying almost entirely on community initiatives (uncoordinated programmes dotted here and there all over the country) and to develop a rehabilitation policy that includes the introduction of drug-free cells. Anyone who has visited a South African prison and gone below deck will have smelled the aroma of dagga.

An issue that needs to be grasped is that Correctional Services are not dealing with an ordinary gang. The Number is a cult. The members worship The Number, expressing their devotion and homage in various rituals and the incantation of a lengthy, complex oral history and absorbing mythology that is learned, in true African tradition, off-by-heart. The members refer to The Number as a belief or a creed.

The prison gangs are highly organised and operate identical programmes of initiation and training in every single prison in the country. They are constantly sourcing new members and building capacity in recruits. The gang is run along similar lines to corporate business. The officers in The Number have the same expectations of the recruits as does any other organisation of its employees. The teachers supply the training, skills, knowledge, language and protocol. They expect loyalty and obedience in return and those who work well are rewarded accordingly. Those who are identified with special skills and impress will be accelerated through the training programmes, rising quickly through the ranks to join the ‘chief executive officers at The Twelve Points and participate at the board meetings’.

Life in a South African prison is not exactly stimulating and to the new inmate The Number appears to offer a meaningful role, some protection, companionship, status and power. He enters a magical world that allows him to escape from overcrowded and dehumanising cell conditions. Wearing an invisible uniform that only the initiated can see, he learns a language of metaphors that only the initiated understand. Like any soldier in any army he carries out every order to the last letter, no matter how dangerous or violent.

Correctional Services just cannot compete.

Once Correctional Services has done its job properly, which is, after all, the rehabilitation of offenders in safe, secure and humane conditions, it is likely that the rest of society will be more inclined to provide the jobs ex-inmates so badly need. When gang-indoctrinated men are released into an unsupportive environment, which denies them their traditional role as breadwinner, it is not difficult for the gangs to entice them back into the repetitive cycle of violence and crime.

It should not sit easily on the shoulders of Correctional Services that a violent gang culture is being perpetuated from inside a State facility that is funded by taxpayers.

Society has a right to expect more!


Anonymous shelagh said...

if the number didn't exsist in the point, there would be chaos between the men, the number brings some order, think of it murderes, rapeists, robbers, all thrown together to do there own thing, locked up together 30 in a cell with one or two wardents romering around in different sections of the prision

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