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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nongoloza's Children: WC Prison Gangs [1/5]: Nongoloza and Kilikijan




Nongoloza's Children: W. Cape Prison Gangs

Introduction

Chapter 1:
» » Nongoloza and Kilikijan

Chapter 2:
» » The functions of violence I—Making men (and not children)

Chapter 3:
» » The functions of violence II—Making men (and not women)

Chapter 4:
» » Prison on the streets, the streets in prison

Chapter 5:
» » Warders and gangs





Nongoloza's Children: Western Cape prison gangs during and after apartheid

by Johnny Steinberg


Chapter 1: Nongoloza and Kilikijan

The historical Nongoloza

The 26s, 27s and 28s all originate from bands of outlaws that plagued late 19th and early 20th-century Johannesburg. The largest and most memorable of these gangs was called The Ninevites; its rank and file were lumpenproletarians—young black men who had left their ancestral land in the countryside but had refused to take up wage employment for white bosses in the early mining town.

The Ninevites were led by a charismatic young Zulu migrant, "Nongoloza" Mathebula. (He was born Mzuzephi Mathebula. Nongoloza is the name he adopted at the height of his underworld reign.) Imbued with a crisp and feisty imagination, which had been instilled by the injustices that lay in his own past, Nongoloza shaped his crew of outlaws into a paramilitary hierarchy. It borrowed its rank structure and its imaginary uniforms from the Natal colony's judiciary and the Transvaal republic's military. Perhaps most interesting of all, Nongoloza imbued his bandit army with a political purpose. "I reorganised my gang of robbers," he reported to his white captors in 1912. "I laid them under what has since become known as Nineveh law. I read in the Bible about the great state Nineveh which rebelled against the Lord and I selected that name for my gang as rebels against the Government's laws."6

The Ninevites lasted nearly two decades. At their height, in the early 1900s, they boasted a membership of nearly 1 000. They launched their sorties into robbery and plunder from a series of caves and warrens that stretched across the south-western perimeter of Johannesburg; they also gained effective control of the inmate populations of several of the mining compounds and prisons of early Johannesburg. Had they chosen to practise their profession differently, they might have been remembered as an African pedigree of Robin Hoods, taking from the victors of South Africa's colonial order and giving to the downtrodden. As it was, the Ninevites showed little discernment when it came to their choice of victims. Among their favourite pastimes was to rob black labourers as they made their way home on payday.

And so early Johannesburg's black proletarians remembered Nongoloza with a mixture of fear and awe. It was said that he and his bandits established an underground world in a disused mineshaft, replete with shops, beautiful white women and a Scottish bookkeeper.7

It was also said that Nongoloza himself was imbued with magic, that the bullets of white policemen and soldiers bounced off his skin.8 In early proletarian lore, he was something of a Janus-faced monster: horrible because he was undiscerningly brutal, enticing because he showed that "even the poor can be terrible".9

The Ninevites were crushed in the mid-1910s. Nongoloza himself, extraordinarily enough, renounced his gang and agreed to work for the prison authorities. But by then, most of the gang's leaders had spent time in jail and had begun to recruit there. Thousands of young black men, criminalised by white South Africa's racial laws, drifted in and out of the prisons of early 20th-century South Africa.10 By the early 1930s, gang derivatives of the Ninevites had a presence in almost every prison across the country. They have been there ever since, the memory of Nongoloza and the legends of his life passed down from one generation of prisoners to the next, throughout the 20th century.

It is quite extraordinary how much of Nongoloza's imagination has been preserved in the prison gangs of today—the 26s, 27s and 28s. The imaginary uniforms copied from the early Boer republic are still there. So are the imaginary .303 rifles and bayonets that the Boer commandos took into battle with the British in 1899. Nongoloza's original rank structure, dividing members between soldiers and judicial officers, and dividing the judicial officers themselves between an upper and a lower court, is still extant.

Most interesting of all, the Number gangs have held onto the mainstay of Nongoloza's original ideology. All three are organised around a largely mythical narrative of the great bandit's career. Indeed, they place the origin of their own division into three rival gangs in Nongoloza's times. And yet, while they disagree about episodes in his life, and about decisions he made in regard to the nature of banditry, all agree that he became a bandit because blacks were being disinherited of their land and forced to work like slaves in the mines. In other words, throughout the century, South Africa's prisons have incubated a fiercely anti-colonial ideology.


The mythical Nongoloza

What follows is an account of contemporary prison gangs' mythical narrative of Nongoloza's life. It is cobbled together from interviews with about three dozen Western Cape prisoners and former prisoners. Any Western Cape prison gangster who reads it will quibble with at least part of it. As with all oral histories, there are countless variations in the story. More than that, there are rival versions, each allied to a competing doctrinal position; the 26s, 27s and 28s disagree about certain things Nongoloza thought and did, and about decisions he made. Aligned to this disagreement about the story, there is disagreement about practice in the here and now, about how prisoners ought to live their lives in 2004.

The story begins in an African village somewhere in South Africa, on the brink of industrialisation. The 28s say it is a Zulu village. The 27s don't specify where it is, but they insist the village is not Zulu, anything but Zulu. There is an elderly man: the 28s call him Ngulugut, the 27s call him Pomabasa, or Po. He is a wise man and a seer, and he embodies the interests of all black people.

During Po's autumnal years, the young men of his village begin leaving their kraals to look for work in the gold mines of the new city that the whites have built. Oddly, time and place have changed. The year is 1812, 74 years before gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. And the place of the gold mines is Delagoa Bay, on the northern-most reach of the eastern coastline, not Johannesburg.

The young men leave their kraals for the gold mines, but they never return. And so the seer, wondering what has happened to the bearers of his village's future, journeys to the mines himself. He spends time in the single-sex mine compounds where the young black men stay, and he soon discovers why they do not return. The work beneath the ground is not fit for brutes; the young men are dying as they dig up the white men's gold.

So Po flees Delagoa Bay and retreats to a cave somewhere on the outskirts of the town of Pietermaritzburg and gives thought about what to do. His cave is agter die berge (behind the mountains) a place of solitude and contemplation. He spends the first weeks in his retreat inventing a secret language, for he knows that if the young men are to be saved, the whites must not understand the talk between the men who are to become his followers.

Po's cave is a short distance from a perch. Sitting at the perch one day, he looks out over the roads that lead from the hinterland to the mining town. One morning he sees a cloud of dust on the road that comes from Zululand. He descends from his lair, goes out onto the road, and finds a young man in the cloud of dust. He asks the stranger his name. "Nongoloza," the young Zulu replies.

Po asks him where he is going.

"To the mines," Nongoloza answers, "to look for work."

The old man shakes his head. "I have been to the mines," he advises, "and I have seen what happens there. The work will kill you in the years to come."

Nongoloza asks the wise man what he should do instead.

"The gold of the white man is good," Po replies. "You must take it, but not from the ground. You must rob it from the white man himself."

Po takes Nongoloza up into his cave and the following morning, sitting at his perch, he sees another cloud of dust, this one on the road from Pondoland. The events of the previous day are repeated, but this time the name of the youngster on the road is Kilikijan and he is a Pondo. Po entices him up to his cave, and so things go on until Po has gathered 15 young migrants around him. He instructs them in the secret language he has invented, he tells them of the pay wagons that roll into the mine compounds on Fridays and he teaches them the art of highway robbery.

The young bandits are successful at stealing wages but, holed out as they are in their cave, they need other provisions as well, like food and clothes. So Po directs them to attack the colonial army camps that mark the perimeter of the mining town, and this they do. As with the pay wagons, they have success. In addition to pillaging food and supplies, they also bring back with them the accoutrements of warfare: .303 rifles, bayonets, army uniforms and the rank structure of the colonial military.

By now, Po's men are wanted and hunted. The whites advertise rewards for their capture. They must change their ways to avoid detection. So they become nomads, moving from cave to warren, using the hills outside the mining town as their camouflage. They also divide themselves into two groups. Kilikijan takes seven men and robs by day. Nongoloza takes six men and robs by night. For a long time, working in this way, they terrorise the whites, taking their gold and hounding their army.



Since the beginning, Po has been instructing Nongoloza and Kilikijan to keep a diary. There is a large rock in the vicinity of one of the caves to which the men periodically retreat. He has told them to inscribe their activities as bandits onto the rock, to record how they go about their business and live their lives. This they have done. The rock is covered with the record of their short history as outlaws.

Po now brings Nongoloza and Kilikijan together and instructs them to go to a white farmer called Rabie. He tells them that they must buy a bull that grazes on Rabie's farm, and he is very specific in his instruction: there is a particular bull the men must bring back—its name is Rooiland.

The two bandits arrive at Rabie's front door and offer to pay for Rooiland. The white man is suspicious. He has heard of the bandits who are roving the outskirts of town. He refuses to sell his bull and instructs the men to leave his property. But they will not go until they have carried out Po's order. So they kill the farmer with the bayonets they have plundered from the white army. They find Rooiland in Rabie's fields and herd him back to the cave where Po is waiting.

The 15 bandits throw a tremendous feast as they slaughter Rooiland. Po presides over the slaughter. He tells the men to preserve particular parts of the beast: the hooves, the legs, the eyes, the ears, the tail and, Po says, more important than anything else: the bull's hide.

Once the animal has been dismembered, Po calls Nongoloza and Kilikijan to his side. He tells them to take one of Rooiland's horns and to fill it with a mixture of the beast's blood and gall. He then instructs both men to drink from the horn.

Kilikijan is the first to drink from the horn. He grimaces, spits it out and then exclaims: "There is poison, in here; this stuff will kill me." Then Nongoloza takes a sip, swallows it and smiles. Kilikijan stares at him in horror: the Zulu drinks poison.



Once the drinking rituals have been completed and Kilikijan has discovered that his bandit brother drinks poison, Po instructs the two men to take the hide, drape it over the rock on which the band's diary is inscribed, and press it against the rock, until the diaries are imprinted on the animal's skin. The words of the diary, now duplicated—one on the rock, the other on the hide—are to become the law of the gang. Whenever there is a dispute about what bandits ought to do, Po says, consult the hide or the rock, because they are a record of how things were done at the beginning, and how things ought to be done in the future. Nongoloza rolls up the hide and takes it with him. Kilikijan is left with the rock.



As you might expect, this business of the duplication of the record of the law was soon to cause trouble. The old rock on which the diaries were written was large and cumbersome. Kilikijan's outlaw band was always on the move, and had to take the wretched thing wherever they went. One day, high up in the hills, one of the rock's carriers stumbled and it rolled down the side of a valley. Somewhere on the slopes, the boulder crashed into a tree and broke in half. The part of the rock that hit the tree imprinted its content on the bark. The rest rolled down into the Moliva River and floated downstream to be lost forever. Kilikijan made his way down to the tree, peeled off the bark and took it with him. The bandit was now in possession of only half the law. The rest had drowned in the stream. Nongoloza, though, possessed the whole law, for he had Rooiland's hide.



At some point after the rock had been lost, the two bands—Nongoloza's and Kilikijan's—went out pillaging together. I am not sure why. The usual practice was for Kilikijan to work by day, Nongoloza by night. Just as the bandits were about to leave their hideout, Nongoloza announced that he was ill and wanted to rest. He asked that one of Kilikijan's men, a youngster called Magubane, stay behind to tend to him. So 13 went out to plunder and two stayed behind.

Kilikijan returned during the course of the afternoon to stumble upon Nongoloza making love to Magubane under a cowhide. Incensed, he raised his sabre and told Nongoloza to get up and fight. Nongoloza demurred. He said it was written in the law that what he and Magubane were doing was permitted. It says on Rooiland's hide, Nongoloza explained, that women are poison and that soldiers must choose wives from the young men in their ranks.

This only enraged Kilikijan more, since the bandit had only half the law in his possession. He could never know what was written on the original hide and what Nongoloza added later. Indeed, in years to come, the 27s were to deny that there ever was a hide; according to them it was invented retrospectively by self-interested sodomites.

So Kilikijan took a swipe at Nongoloza with his sabre and the two men fought until, it is said, Nongoloza was ankle-deep and Kilikijan knee-deep in blood. Po, who had come down from his lair at the sound of the clashing sabres, appeared on the scene. Horrified that the two bandits had hurt one another, he ordered them to put down their weapons and enquired about their dispute.

Being a sage and a seer, the old man did not resolve the disagreement in a simple manner. Instead, he issued the terms of a riddle. He told Kilikijan to go the mine compounds in Delagoa Bay to see if sex between men was practised there. He refused to be drawn, though, on the significance of the meaning of Kilikijan's findings, whatever they might be. If the gold miners did indeed have sex with one another, what precisely would this mean? He did not say.

Po also said something else. Should the two bands of men ever return to his lair, they would find a rock at its entrance. Under the rock they would find an assegai. If the blade of the assegai was rusted, it would mean that Po was dead. Upon entering his cave, they would find his skeleton. Needless to say, that is precisely what came to pass. Neither of the bandits was to see the old man alive again. The adjudicator of the law went to his death without ever pronouncing on the legitimacy of sex between bandits.

Having listened to Po's instructions, Nongoloza and Kilikijan went their separate ways. Kilikijan went to Delagoa Bay to enquire about the sexual practices of the miners. He left Magubane behind; his band was now composed of seven men. Nongoloza headed to a place called Germiston. He took Magubane with him; his band now had eight men. That is one of the explanations for the numbers 28 and 27. There are others, but this one was repeated to me most often. I am not sure where the "2" in 28 and 27 comes from. Perhaps there were 55 bandits rather than 15. Or perhaps the "2" signifies the two original bandits: Kilikijan and Nongoloza.

In any event, the two men were never to talk of their dispute again. They next met several years later in the cells of Point Prison, Durban. Both had been captured and tried for their crimes; they had been given indeterminate sentences and faced the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in jail.

If the two pioneers never again spoke to one another of their dispute, their respective followers talked about it all the time—quietly, and among themselves—for generations, spreading rumours and casting aspersions on the other camp. Both camps agree that Kilikijan did, in the interim, find his way to the mine compounds in Delagoa Bay, and that he discovered that the men there did indeed sleep with one another. The 28s say that this vindicates Nongoloza's statement that the legitimacy of sex between bandits had always been written on the hide. The 27s disagree. Kilikijan's discovery, they argue, only confirmed that sex between men is a foreign practice, one alien to those initiated into bandit life. It arose at the compounds because the work underground was so hard: weak men needed help from stronger men with their picks and shovels, and they gave them sex in exchange. Sex between men is a pollution, a symptom of the unnaturalness of the work white men forced blacks to perform.

The dispute is, of course, incapable of resolution. The rock on which bandit law was written has long been eroded by the waters of the Moliva River. And all that remains of Po, the sage, is a mute skeleton. In years to come, this irresolvable quarrel is to shape relations between the gangs. It is bound up with the question of why Nongoloza was able to drink poisonous gall and smile. And it was to frame the immediate events that arose in those first weeks when Kilikijan and Nongoloza found themselves together in Point Prison.

There were six inmates in Point Prison. They were voëls or birdies, that is to say, members of neither camp, non-gangsters, franse, nothings, who sat in a circle and flipped a silver coin. Their leader was a man by the name of Grey. Among the first practices to emerge among the 27s and 28s of the prisons was the confiscation of the possessions of the franse. A portion would always be returned, but it was to be the ndotas, the Number men, who determined the distribution. When Nongoloza's men demanded from Grey that the six inmates hand over their possessions, coin and all, he refused. Troubled by this disobedience, Nongoloza approached Kilikijan and asked what was up with these recalcitrant men. Kilikijan, who had arrived in prison before Nongoloza, explained that the flipping of the coin was a form of gambling, that these men were trained in the arts of smuggling and acquiring valuables.

During his first days in prison, Kilikijan continued, he had stabbed a troublesome warder. As punishment, he was placed in a tiny dungeon and was fed a spare, saltless diet. The warders' aim was to make him weak. The six gamblers, led by Grey, who was skilled in the art of smuggling and had the cunning to enter into prudent allegiances, had slipped him salt and bread and other nourishment under the crack beneath his door.

Impressed and curious, Nongoloza asked Kilikijan to bring him Grey's coin. He handled it carefully, then bit it, then dropped it on the floor. "It is hard, like a nail—a spyker," Nongoloza said, "and when it drops to the ground it makes the noise of a nail. I will call it a spyker. It will be useful in the years to come. I can use it to button my uniform."

"It is called a kroon (crown)," Kilikijan replied, "not a spyker. It is useful because it brings wealth."

The disagreement between the two men extended beyond the question of what names to give things. 27s and 28s offer rival versions of what happened next. According to the 27s, the two men fought over the six gamblers. While the stakes were never openly spoken of, it was quite clear what was going on: Kilikijan wanted to protect Grey and his colleagues from the appetites of the sodomites. Absorbed into the 28s, they would be used, he believed, not just to smuggle, but for sex as well.

According to the 28s, there was no such dispute. They say that Nongoloza said to Kilikijan: "I give you permission to constitute these men as the third camp of bandits, but on several conditions. First, they will be called the 26s, to show that they will never rise above us. Second, they will be the last camp to form. There will never be a fourth camp in this prison. Every other inmate is a frans. And, finally, you will be responsible for their conduct. You will be answerable for them. When they commit a wrong, I will not go to them, I will come to you."

"That is all well and good," Kilikijan replied. "But when you wrong them, I will come to you."

And so the three camps were formed, each with their self-made philosophies of banditry and their collectively assigned roles. The 26s were to accumulate wealth, which was to be distributed among all three camps, and acquired through cunning and trickery, never through violence. The 28s, in turn, were to fight on behalf of all three camps for better conditions for inmates. They would also be permitted to have sex, in their own ritualised manner, among themselves. They were never to touch a 26.

As for the 27s, they were the guarantor of gang law; they were to keep the peace between the three camps. They would learn and retain the laws of all three gangs, as well as the laws of the relationships between gangs. And they would right wrongs by exacting revenge: when blood was spilled, they would spill blood in turn.

Today, in 2004, that is how South Africa's three major prison gangs understand their origins. In the 26s and the 27s, sex between gang members is formally outlawed and subject to severe and violent punishment. Although, as you will soon see, this ban on sex is breached all the time, and the ways in which it is breached are interesting.

The 28s, in contrast, are divided into two parallel hierarchies, two lines. There is the gold, or gazi, line which is the military line and consists of soldiers who fight the gang's battles. At the apex of the gold line is its first ancestor, Nongoloza. Then there is the silver, or private, line, which is female. At the apex of this line stands its first ancestor, Magubane.


The meanings of the Nongoloza myth

The manner in which I have told the Nongoloza myth—as a single narrative, relayed by a speaker (or in this case, a writer) to an audience—is somewhat misleading. In prison, the Nongoloza myth is seldom told. Rather, it is woven into the very fabric of gang practice. Every gang-related interaction, every judicial sitting, every meeting, is described and enacted through metaphor, and the metaphor itself is drawn from the Nongoloza myth. In other words, the Nongoloza myth is not a story one tells, but a set of practices one enacts.11

For instance, in the 28s, Rooiland's carcass is the sacred object around which the structure of the gang is shaped. The emblem of the 28s is a Zulu shield, and the shield's skin is Rooiland's hide. Each substructure of the gang consists of four men and is named, respectively, "the four points of the ones", "the four points of the twos" and "the four points of the threes". The four points refer to the places in Rooiland's carcass where the legs join the body. The function of every officer in the gang is signified by a part of the bull's anatomy. The magistrate is given the hooves: they are his four stamps—red, green, white and black—with which he marks a member for promotion or punishment. The gwenza gets the legs: they are his four pens—also red, green, white and black—with which he notes the record of every member. The glas, who communicates the gang's decisions, gets one of the horns: it is to be his bugle, with which he announces the conclusions to the gang's deliberations. The draad, the gang's intelligence officer, is given the eyes, signifying that he sees all that happens.

In short, every time a meeting of the 28s is convened, the slaughter of Rooiland is ritually re-enacted. The overcrowded cells in which gang practice unfolds are transmogrified into the wide-open plains of the 19th-century highveld. The participants of gang practice are transported in space and time; through the metaphors that define their practices, they are Nongoloza, Kilikijan and their 13 followers, the original bandits of early industrial South Africa.

What are we to make of this, the fact that, in the course of practising their rituals, prison gangsters transport themselves from their jail cells into the mythical countryside of a bandit story?

The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, may be of some help here. She argues that "ritual focuses attention [on collective, existential problems] by framing [them] … The frame marks off the different kind of reality that is within it from that which is outside it… Ritual aids us in selecting experiences for concentrated attention."12

In other words, ritual and myth are to be understood as a form of collective problem-management. Those aspects of prison life that cause perpetual, ineluctable crises, that haunt the very existential beings of prisoners, are "framed off" from the rest of prison experience, placed in the myth and "worked on" through ritual. In Douglas's words, they are "selected for concentrated attention".

If this is correct, it follows that the content of the Nongoloza myth contains, in condensed and symbolic form, the central problems of prison life, and that gang ritual consists in an attempt to manage these problems.

So which problems have been placed in the myth and how does gang ritual deal with them? Perhaps the best way to begin answering these questions is to examine the Nongoloza story through its inconsistencies.

Consider the tale from Po's perspective. His story is a strange one—isn't it?—clearly invented in retrospect by men who already know that they are to spend much of their adult lives with other men, and away from their families. For the thinking of the old African seer is somewhat unfathomable. A man of his village and the embodiment of its interests, you would imagine that his task is not merely to save the young migrant workers for their own sakes. His initial concern, remember, was the village itself: the disappearance of those who were to secure its posterity.

Bandits who protect their peasant villages from extinction surely live alongside their communities, sheltering them from the forces that threaten to tear them apart. They are an adjunct to a way of life. But not in our story. Po's young men have no plans to return to their villages. They are a new breed, an eternal army that apes the one they fight, and they work for themselves, each other and the posterity of their band. Right at the beginning of their bandit lives, they have already forgotten their villages and have become embroiled in making the laws and mythology of their own cult-like future.

It would not be unfair to say, then, that the path Po chose was as corrosive of traditional life as the white men's gold mines. Just as the whites stole the villages' progeny, so Po stole it too, swallowing up the young migrants who leave their ancestral homes, never to return.

And how, it is fair to ask, are the outlaws to acquire their own progeny? There are no women and children. Who is to pick up the shield when Nongoloza dies? Surely, in the background to the pillages and murders that are the heartland of the tale, there will be future generations of migrants and drifters, young men who abandon their families and take to the hills. The ravages of colonialism must continue if the band is to survive. Their ancestral homes must be torn apart in perpetuity if the outlaws are to have a future.

And so there is an incoherence at the heart of the tale. The survival of colonialism is the band's primary nourishment. They have become bandits for the sake of being bandits. If the band is to live, so must injustice.



The incoherence of Po's actions, I will argue, stands in for or symbolises a central dilemma of inmate life in the prisons of 20th-century South Africa. The dilemma, in essence, is how to shore up one's dignity without destroying it in the very process of shoring it up. Put another way, Po's story is a bulwark against nihilism.

In making this argument, I begin with a general discussion on the conditions of imprisonment.



Several of the 20th century's finest theorists of inmate culture have spoken of the inherent degradations of life in total institutions.13 Inmate experience is in essence one of infantilisation. If normal adult life is made meaningful by the exercise of one's agency, this is precisely what is robbed from the inmate. Agency, here, refers not only to the overarching projects of adult life, such as raising children, developing a lifelong sexual partnership, forging a career, and so forth. Even the minutiae of adult agency—the simplest things we do by ourselves, under our own control, like wash, use the telephone, decide to eat, to rest—are taken away from the inmate. He is robbed of the very basics of the adult world.

Erving Goffman speaks of the inmate experience as one of "stripping" or "mortification", as the inmate is gradually robbed of the tools of his own agency. "Upon his entrance to the total institution," Goffman argues, "the inmate … begins a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self. He is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified."14 Indeed, Goffman continues bleakly, "Every total institution can be seen as a kind of dead sea in which little islands of vivid, encapturing activity appear".15

Similarly, Gresham Sykes, in his study of an American maximum-security prison, argues that:
[the] frustrations [of captivity] … carry a more profound hurt as a set of threats or attacks which are directed against the very foundations of the prisoner's being. The individual's picture of himself as a person of value—as a morally acceptable, adult male who can present some claim to merit in his material achievements and his inner strength—begins to waver and grow dim.16

Whether the mortifications of inmate life can be arrested, or even eliminated, by institutional reform has been the subject of much debate.17 For Goffman, though, the tendency of total institutions to erode the conditions of adult agency is ineluctable. No matter how much a total institution is reformed, it remains, by definition, a place in which control of the mechanics of daily life is transferred from adults to their custodians. Sykes, talking of the prison, and in particular of its primary function—to keep the inmates inside—makes a similar point:
Searching cells for contraband material; repeatedly counting all inmates to ensure that each man is in his appointed place; censoring mail for evidence of escape plans; inspecting bars, windows, gratings, and other possible escape routes—all are obvious precautions. The custodians, however, do not stop at these, for they have found to their bitter knowledge that in a maximum-security prison the most innocent activity may be the symptom of a major breach in the institution's defences. Pepper stolen from the mess hall may be used as a weapon, to be thrown into the eyes of a guard during a bid for freedom… A fresh coat of paint in a cell may be used by an industrious prisoner to cover up his handiwork when he has cut the bars and replaced the filings with putty.18

For both Goffman and Sykes, inmate culture is to be understood as a series of accommodations or adjustments to the degradations of inmate life. According to Sykes:
Frustrated not as an individual but as one of the many, the inmate finds two paths open. On the one hand, he can attempt to bind himself to his fellow captives with ties of mutual aid, loyalty, affection, and respect, firmly standing in opposition to the officials. On the other hand, he can enter into a war of all against all in which he seeks his own advantage without reference to the claims or needs of other prisoners.19

Goffman's thoughts on inmates' adaptations to the degradations of institutional life are more pessimistic, but they are also somewhat subtler. "Solidarizing tendencies … are limited," he avers. "Constraints which place inmates in a position to sympathize and communicate with each other do not necessarily lead to high group morale and solidarity."20 Rather, he argues, each inmate harnesses a more or less private response to the institution, one that aims to protect his sense of self against the violence of mortification. Yet even here, "the individual finds that his protective response to an assault upon self is collapsed into the situation; he cannot defend himself in the usual way by establishing distance between the mortifying situation and himself".21 In other words, the inmate's very response to his mortification is symptomatic of his mortification. It is, after all, an inmate's response.

With this in mind, Goffman identifies four categories of inmate adaptation to total institutions. The first he calls "situational withdrawal"—a mental flight from the institution. "The inmate withdraws apparent attention from everything except events immediately around his body." The second mode of adaptation he calls "colonization"—the inmate appropriates and valorises institutional life, rationalising that it is far better than life on the outside. The third he calls "conversion"—"the inmate takes over the staff view of himself and tries to act out the role of the perfect inmate". The fourth he calls "the intransigent line"—the inmate rejects the legitimacy of the institution and engages in a broadside against its authority.22

Spend any amount of time talking to Pollsmoor Prison's inmates about their incarceration and you will quickly identify all four modes of Goffman's adaptation. Spend an extended period and you will discover that many inmates deploy a combination of two or more modes of adaptation. As I was wandering through Pollsmoor's B section one day, a prisoner accosted me and began railing against the prison. He said Pollsmoor was too lax, that it didn't enforce the rules properly. "Look at how many inmates are walking around with earrings in their ears," he noted. Then he took out his copy of the Correctional Services discipline manual and showed me the clause stating that inmates are not permitted to wear jewellery. "At Helderberg Prison," he continued, "if the warders found you wearing an earring, they would rip it out your ear. I want to go to Helderberg. I will be at peace there."

The following week he had forgotten his annoyance at the laxity of rule enforcement in Pollsmoor. He was dreaming of the day he would be released (some time in 2007) and run a fleet of taxis in his hometown of Knysna. With a pencil and notepad he was calculating the differences in his daily profit if his average round trip from the township to the town centre was 50 per cent full, 60 per cent full or 70 per cent full. The following day he had pencil and notepaper out again, this time calculating what a 10c increase in the fuel price would do to his profits.

"You are talking like you are going to be released tomorrow," I commented.

"It will be like tomorrow," he replied. "For the next five years," he explained, tapping his temple with his forefinger, "I will be living in here."

But Pollsmoor is also home to the Number gangs, and they may well have surprised Goffman. They display a degree of oppositional militancy and an enduring solidarity that he dismissed as impossible—by fiat, it should be said, rather than argument. Nonetheless, it would be imprudent to discard Goffman's help in understanding the Number gangs. He may not have imagined their existence, but the tools he crafted can certainly assist in making sense of them. True, the gangs should never be conflated with the adjustments and adaptations of individuals—you will see later that many inmates' relation to their own gangs is acutely tactical and utilitarian. However, the gangs can certainly be understood as an institutional expression of a collective adaptation to mortification—an adaptation laden with all the irony and pathos Goffman so masterfully captured; indeed, they should be understood so.

In their most idealised self-representations, the Number gangs are a collective variant of Goffman's "intransigent line". They reject in toto the authority of the custodians and place a premium on inmate solidarity. Their representation of the prison is one of a war zone: two armies, each endowed with its own rank structure, uniforms and paraphernalia, are pitted eternally against one another.

The power of the Number gangs as a mode of adaptation to the mortifications of prison life lies in simplicity. What better way to shore up the agency prison has stolen than to borrow the agency of one's custodians? Instead of holding up an image of inmates to prison warders, the gangs hold up a mirror. "We are what you are. You are an army, we are an army. Where you have a head of prison, we will have a judge. Where you have a head of section, we will have a general. Whatever you do to us, we will do to you in turn."

There is, of course, no such thing as a purely "intransigent line". As you will see in the following two chapters, the relationship between gangs and warders has always been managed by a delicate filigree of unwritten rules. Both sides respect an invisible line, which divides permissible from unacceptable violence. But as an inmate ideology, the idea of forming oneself into a mirror of one's captors is a very powerful one.

Powerful, but costly. The price paid for aping one's custodians is very dear indeed. In a bitter irony, prisoners end up re-establishing and practising upon one another the very system of mortification the custodians unleash on them. Consider, for instance, the nomenclature of Number gang punishment, and you will find that much of it is borrowed wholesale from the nomenclature of institutional punishment.

One of the more serious forms of punishment the gangs mete out to offending members is called the "carry-on". The offender stands with his arms in the air, leaving his torso exposed. The punishers form a circle around him. One of the punishers cries "Up!" and the rest batter the offender's torso with padlocks and bars of soap, each placed in a sock. This is a simple imitation of an informal punishment warders meted out to gangsters in some prisons during the apartheid era. When, for instance, a 26 stabbed a warder, the prison's custodians would arm themselves with batons, baseball bats and knobkerries. They would assemble every 26 member in the yard and form a circle around them. A warder would cry "Up!" and the rest would attack the assembled 26s with their batons and knobkerries. This was called a "carry-on".23 The Number gangs have simply appropriated it, and deploy it to punish their own members.

More disturbing, perhaps, is the archetypal relationship between Number gangsters, who are called ndotas (men), and non-gangsters, who are called franse. Like the passive partner in a typical sexual relationship behind bars, the frans has been stripped of the jail equivalent of his juridical personhood. When he receives a parcel from a visitor, he must hand it over to the ndotas in his cell; they will decide how it is to be distributed. If he wants to conduct a commercial transaction—sell his watch, swap a T-shirt for a toothbrush—he must ask the permission of the ndotas. In exchange for allowing him to conduct a transaction he must give the ndotas something in turn. When ndotas in a cell hold a meeting to discuss Number business, each frans must sit with his face to the wall and remain absolutely silent. Franse are also servants. They keep the cell clean and wash the ndotas' clothes.

One way of understanding the relationship between ndotas and franse is as a strange throwback to the feudal realm: a frans rents the very air he breathes. Another way, of course, is to understand the relationship as an enactment of the very mortification Goffman describes. Like Goffman's inmate, the frans is robbed of the minutiae of adult agency. He is, quite literally, told when to shit and when to eat, when to stand and when to talk. He has no right to personal possessions, to any of the material accoutrements around which a person forms his own quiddity and individuality.

One is reminded of Goffman's comment cited earlier: the inmate "finds that his protective response to an assault upon self is collapsed into the situation; he cannot defend himself in the usual way by establishing distance between the mortifying situation and himself". Indeed, in attempting to escape mortification, the Number gangs become quasi-institutions of mortification themselves. Having pushed the custodians to the periphery, and having carved out a space of ostensible autonomy, they use that space to imitate and re-enact the very precepts of the total institution. A cynic might argue that all the gangs have managed is to double the total institution over itself, creating a system of mortification within a system of mortification. The gangs' imagination is exhausted by the very universe against which they rail. The relationship between custodian and inmate is ubiquitous; all the gangs are able to do is to repeat it eternally.24

In this sense, the Number gangs are quintessentially reactionary institutions. They are locked in a circle, repeating the conditions of the present over and over.

This argument is, of course, a little too stark and needs to be qualified. Gang practice does foster real masculine virtues such as bravery, stoicism and solidarity. These are precisely some of the precepts of adult agency that the process of mortification strips, and there can be little doubt that the gangs have managed to retrieve them for at least some of their members. The point is that the cost of this retrieval is very severe: the gangs are only able to shore up some of the precepts of agency—in this case, certain masculine virtues—at the price of re-enacting the custodian–inmate relationship.



There is a related but subtly different way in which the Number gangs are reactionary. They are nourished and animated by the violence of the custodians and the degradations of the prison. In ways that will become clearer in the following chapter, the virtues that the gangs celebrate—controlled and meditated violence in the face of provocation, stoicism in the face of brutality, solidarity in the face of mutual adversity—are all fostered by the severe conditions of the apartheid prison. Later, you will see that when the prison regime softens, the Number gangs tend to splinter, and sometimes even to disintegrate. In this sense, the gangs need the very degradations against which they rail. It is truly astounding how many of the veteran gangsters I have interviewed speak nostalgically of apartheid, of "the old days" when, as one interviewee put it, "the violence of the boere was predictable and kept the Number strong".

The gangs are thus locked in an eternal relationship with their captors. They have no project, no goal, no horizon towards which they move.



The essentially reactionary nature of the Number gangs—their reliance on and replication of the violence of their captors—is a source of deep discomfort among Number members. Indeed, the idea that they have no goal, no project, is intolerable. Without exception, every veteran ndota I interviewed described the Number of the apartheid era as a revolutionary, anti-apartheid army. The following comment, by an ndota who spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s behind bars, is typical:

"Okay, I grant you, we couldn't smash the whole apartheid state because we were locked in jail. But we did our best to destroy that part of the state we had access to: the prisons. Our task was to make them ungovernable, and eventually to break them down."

"How did you plan to do this?" I asked.

"Well," he replied, "not quite break them down, but improve them. We were fighting for our rights. It is thanks to us, to the thousands of us who were killed and tortured and given carry-ons, and locked in solitary confinement without proper food, it is thanks to our broken limbs and our blood that we won the rights we have today."

"What sort of rights?" I asked.

"You should have seen this place 15 years ago," he replied. "We had no beds, just two thin blankets, so thin that if you put them together and held them up to the sun, your eyes would still get burnt. We were not allowed to wear watches. We did not have televisions. We won each of these rights with blood and sacrifice."

There is a great deal of pathos in these comments. The idea that a century-old anti-colonial army, painstakingly preserved and transmitted across the generations, adorned with imaginary uniforms, a complex, finely observed military structure, a rich myth of origin—the idea that such an entity exists to fight for a bed, a thick blanket, a watch is a humiliating one.

It is even more humiliating when one considers that the story is empirically false. It is almost certain that the small improvements in prison conditions which began in the late 1980s—beds, televisions, watches—were the result, not of Number gang activity, but of the campaigns organised by and in support of political prisoners. It was political and not criminal prisoners who began using the courts to contest the conditions of their imprisonment. It was the prison memoirs of prominent political prisoners that finally brought to the world testimony about the conditions in South African jails.25 And it was the imprisonment of global icons such as Nelson Mandela that brought global attention to penal practice in South Africa.

Indeed, the relationship between Number veterans and the South African liberation movements is a telling one. I have interviewed several political prisoners who spent time in the criminals sections of South African prisons, and thus in cells run by the Number gangs, during the 1970s and 1980s. Some were castigated by Number gangsters as "communists", "agitators" and "troublemakers". In other words, the Number had swallowed wholesale the bluntest elements of apartheid's anti-liberation movement propaganda. Others, however, tell a more complex story. According to Vincent Shabangu, a student activist convicted of public violence in 1985, who did most of his time in Pollsmoor:

Initially I was treated as an odd case. They weren't sure what to do with me. I wasn't an ordinary frans, but I wasn't a gangster. Then I started engaging with them about prison conditions, about prisoner rights, about what these things had to do with apartheid. Soon, they managed to categorise me: I was a special frans. While other franse had to get permission to leave their cells, I could walk around the section freely. When a newspaper was smuggled into the cell, it was given to me to read. They were begrudgingly in awe of my political knowledge. They used me as an interpreter of political life on the outside. At one point they told me I was so useful that I must join the 26s. I said I'd join, but only if I didn't have to go through all the shit they go through to join. I wanted to head their legal section immediately, their courts, because their legal system was crazy and I wanted to fix it. They said no, you can't join like that. So I remained a special frans. We watched each other's moves like chess players: mutual suspicion, mutual respect.26

Several MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress) soldiers who spent time in the criminal sections of South African jails say that ndotas regarded them with a mixture of circumspection and awe. Jeremy Veary, an MK soldier who was incarcerated at Pollsmoor in 1987, says this:
The boere threw us in the criminal section because they thought the gangsters would kill us. Instead, the gangsters checked us out, asked us lots of questions. When they found out we were MK, they went into a huddle and discussed what to do with us. I got the sense that it could have gone either way; they could have attacked us, or accepted us. Finally, they made a decision: we were to be looked after by the 27s. MK was the ANC's army, and the 27s was the Number's army. We were kind of equivalent.27

Grudging respect, but suspicion of Vincent Shabangu; thinly concealed idealisation of MK soldiers: the relationship of the gangs to the liberation movement was a fraught one. The liberation movement embodied precisely what the gangs aspired to embody: a goal, a project, to destroy apartheid. For this reason, they identified with the liberation movement on the one hand, but envied and wished to harm it on the other. For the liberation movement represented an actual embodiment of the very ideal that would always remain elusive to the gangs: the ideal of transcending the reactionary cycles of the relationship between prison gangsters and their custodians.28

And indeed, at the very moment the ANC came to power, in 1994, South Africa experienced the largest and deadliest wave of jail disturbances in its history. Between March and June 1994 (the elections were held on 27 April), there was unrest at 53 prisons across the country. Together, these prisons housed more than three-quarters of the country's jail population. In every case bar six, inmates attempted to burn the prison down. By the time the rebellion was subdued at the end of June, 37 prisoners had been killed and 750 hurt. No warders died, but 145 were injured.

The reasons for the disturbances were complex and manifold, but one of them was that the new ANC government refused to celebrate the inauguration of democracy by granting prisoners a generous amnesty. Veteran Number gangsters still speak of this with great bitterness. They describe their anger in the language of filial treachery; the ANC is guilty of a Cain-and-Abel betrayal.



I argued earlier that, when examined from Po's perspective, the Nongoloza myth operates as a bulwark against nihilism. It is the expression of a desire to transcend the horribly reactionary character of the gangs' adaptations to the mortification attendant on inmate life; an attempt to give the gangs an imaginary political project. Note how politically ambitious Po's story is. He does not simply valorise law-breaking under colonialism as a political good in and of itself. He attempts to position law-breaking as the centrepiece in a project of anti-colonial preservation. He is the embodiment of black interests; his task, initially, is to protect the posterity of his people in the face of colonial violence. That is why he trains young men to be criminals: to defend his people's progeny from annihilation.

The politics embodied in Po's story is possessed of an almost desperate ambitiousness. Crime is the substance of the liberation project. There is no space in the story for a rival liberation project. No wonder ndotas greeted the activists they met behind bars with such a fraught mixture of envy, anger and admiration. Activists were a mirror to the ndotas' impossible fantasy—their fantasy of cutting through the shackles of their Goffmanesque adaptations.

There is indeed much sadness in the speed with which Po's initial intentions unravel. Before he has properly formulated his anti-colonial politics, he is already embroiled in an eternally symbiotic relationship with his colonial masters. Understood as the metaphorical representation of a dilemma of prison life, Po's story is an expression of humiliation—the humiliation inherent in the inmate's strategies of adaptation.29



There is, of course, a range of other vantage points from which to interpret the Nongoloza myth. The most important of these, perhaps, is that of Magubane. The narrative did, after all, start as a tale of anti-colonial banditry, only to end as an irresolvable conflict over male sexuality. Magubane, as we shall see in Chapter 3, is the bogeyman of the tale—the greater tormentor of the Number gangs.

For the moment, though, I wish to turn to a subject raised briefly in this chapter, and one which ndotas are far happier discussing: the function of violence in the fostering of masculine virtues.

» » » » [CSVR (PDF)]

Nongoloza's Children: W. Cape Prison Gangs: Introduction
» » 1: Nongoloza and Kilikijan
» » 2: The functions of violence I—Making men (and not children)
» » 3: The functions of violence II—Making men (and not women)
» » 4: Prison on the streets, the streets in prison
» » 5: Warders and gangs


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