Nongoloza's Children: W. Cape Prison Gangs
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Nongoloza's Children: Western Cape prison gangs during and after apartheid
by Johnny Steinberg
Chapter 2: The functions of violence I—Making men (and not children)
In early 2003, a Pollsmoor inmate by the name of Magadien described to me his initiation into the 28s. At the time of our interview, his memories were 25 years old; he had been initiated at Victor Verster Prison in November 1977. He was 18 then. The following is an edited version of his testimony, together with some commentary.
"How did your recruitment begin?" I ask Magadien.
He gives a strange answer, one that, I suspect, is drawn half from myth, half from his actual experience. It is said that when a new member is recruited into the 28s, the glas (a particularly colloquial expression that means "binoculars")—a senior member, one of whose tasks is to conduct gang business in "the bush", those parts of the prison where the 28s are not active—comes to the potential recruit and confronts him with a riddle. How the newcomer responds determines whether he will be recruited and, if he is, into which department of the gang.
"The glas watched me for a long time, the way I interacted with other franse—the way I dealt with conflict, the way I solved problems. He approached me and we talked, and after a while I said I wanted to join the 28s. During one of our discussions, he said to me: 'I'm going to ask you a question. Think carefully before you answer. It is raining. You are standing under an umbrella. I say to you, I am getting wet. I may get sick. What are you going to do?'"
"I answered correctly. I said: 'I will come out into the rain with you,' which means: 'I am prepared to live like you. We are brothers. We will live and die together.'"
"And if you had invited him to share your umbrella?" I ask.
"That means I am inviting him into my bed. If I had given that answer, they would not have made me a 28. They would have made me a sex son.
"A sex son is mixed with the probationers in the silver line of the 28s and, to an outsider, he is just like a probationer, a new 28. But actually, he is a sex object: the soldiers, the members of the gold line, sleep with him at night. He cannot progress up the silver line. He is never told much about the history. He is not really a 28.
"So I answered the question correctly, and was told that to join the gang I must stab a white warder. I was told when the knife would arrive, how I must do it, and what I must do afterwards.
"I actually thought the whole thing was a joke. We were thoroughly searched every day. I thought there was no way the 28s were going to get a knife to me. But they did it. I couldn't believe it. They said it would be Friday afternoon and it was. I picked up my tray of food outside the kitchen, and it was there, hidden away, this little knife, all wrapped up with bandages, with just the tip of the blade sticking out. I learned later that the nyangi, the doctor, had wrapped the knife. That is one of his main functions, to determine the length of the blade.
"I was told I must stab as soon as I saw the knife. So I brushed past a white warder, and when I was just past him, and his back was to me, I grabbed the knife, dropped the tray and stabbed him in the back, beneath the shoulder. They had told me it must be beneath the shoulder. I must not go near an organ or the spine—just a flesh wound.
"Then everything happened at once. All the inmates around me shouted 'Nangampela!30 Die nommer is vol!' (The Number is complete!) I don't know how the 28s got there in time. It was so quick. But suddenly there was a scuffle around me, I felt the knife being taken from my hand, and in a second it was gone. It was just me standing there in shock, with empty hands, and the warder standing there in shock. The knife was gone.
"The boere beat me, brother. They beat the shit out of me. By the time they had locked me in the one-ones, or agter die berge31 —in a single cell—I had pimples all over my body. I was so swollen I looked like a bodybuilder. But I did not cry out, not once. You see, the ndota who recruited me, the glas of the 28s at that prison, he told me: 'When you stab, the warders will beat you, there and then, in front of all the inmates, all the way to the one-ones. If you cry out, or moan, just once, your stabbing means nothing. It is as if you have stabbed nobody; you will never be a 28.' Then he showed me how not to cry."
Magadien takes a roll of toilet paper from next to his bed, breaks off a wad, and shoves it in his mouth.
"You do that," he says, "and you don't cry. You just squeak like a mouse, softly, so that nobody can hear you.
"After a couple of days in the one-ones, I noticed things started happening. The cells around me were being filled with 28s. They went there deliberately to be with me. They would break rules—like shouting, or pretending to fight—so that they could come to the one-ones. And they started talking to me. At exercise time—all the one-ones exercised together—they began probing me.
"I didn't realise it at the time, but what they were doing was putting steel in my blood, giving me support to prepare for what was going to happen next. Because what happens when you stab a warder is very rough. If you're a new recruit, you need to know that your brothers are waiting for you on the other side.
"After some time in the one-ones, the authorities took me to what we called the X court. The magistrate comes to the prison. There was a quick trial; it lasted about an hour. Two years were added to my sentence.
"Then they took me back to the one-ones. The boere said: 'Ja, hotnot. That was the magistrate's justice. Now for our justice.' They kept me in the one-ones, in segregation, 15 days of spare diet. They can't give you a saltless diet for longer than that. You will die. They had nutritionists who worked out how long you could go without salt."
After 15 days, when his internal sentence was over, Magadien was taken to the maximum-security section of the prison and put in a 28 "tight corner": a cell dominated by the 28s.
South Africa's prison gangs are perhaps the most ritualised structures you will ever find. Three days of the week are reserved for a carefully delineated set of functions. Friday is the day of the rations. It is then that all the possessions in the cell are gathered, including the possessions of franse, and are distributed to individuals: first, according to whether they are franse or ndotas, and then among ndotas, according to their rank. Friday's task is performed within the confines of the cell.
But Saturdays and Sundays are different. On these days, the central structures of the gangs in each section of each prison must meet, and they do, and warders have tacitly allowed them to do so, as I discuss in the following chapter. Saturday is the day of the wrongs, Sunday the day of the rights. (The gangs say "the year of the wrongs". Everything about the metaphors of prison gang language is expansive. An overcrowded cell becomes a vast plain; a day becomes a year.) On Saturdays, the various judicial structures of the gang meet to pass sentence: an errant member is punished; a new recruit is scanned for illicit allegiances. On Sundays, newcomers are recruited, members are promoted, victories are celebrated.
On his first Saturday in the criminal section, Magadien was placed in the centre of a cell and told to strip down to his underwear. The glas circled him slowly, scrutinising his skin for vuil papiere (contaminated papers)—the tattoos of other gangs. If the glas had found the mark of the 26s or 27s on Magadien's body, negotiations with the rival gang would have begun. If he had found the mark of a prison gang the Number consider illicit—like the Big Five, whose aim is to spy on the Number on behalf of the warders, or the Air Force, whose aim is to escape from prison—Magadien would have been beaten and his recruitment halted.
On the Sunday—the year of the rights—his recruitment ceremony is performed. He is again placed in the centre of a cell, but this time several people surround him. The first to approach him is the nyangi, the doctor. What happens next is metaphorical, and is enacted by a simple process of physical mimicry. On the shoulders of the nyangi's imaginary uniform are twelve pipes: six are gold, six silver. He tells Magadien to hold out his arms, palms upwards. He takes a gold pipe off his shoulder and slaps it on Magadien's right wrist, then a silver pipe on his left wrist. He checks Magadien's pulse and declares: "Die man se pols klop twee keer per jaar" ("The man's pulse beats twice a year"), which means that Magadien is being recruited into the silver line. If he had said three times a year, it would have meant the gold line. Then the gwenza—a senior member of the silver line—places a handkerchief on the floor and slips a knife under it. He stands up and addresses Magadien:
"From today," he says, "you are no longer a frans. You are a 28. You will never swear at your brother. You will never hurt your brother. You will never do anything that reflects badly on the camp. And if you leave the camp, you will leave by your own blood.
"I am giving you your uniform. You have a white pair of sandals. Your socks are also white, stamped with the sign of 28, both inside and out. You have a white shirt, and white belt with silver buckles. You have a white tunic with two buttons, stamped with the sign of 28, inside and out. You wear a green tie. You have a white jacket, which also has two buttons, the first open, because you belong to the Number day and night, the second closed, for discipline. You wear a white beret with a silver badge, and on the badge a hammer and a handkerchief are engraved."
Then the landdros (magistrate) comes forward, takes out his green and white stamps and gives Magadien's recruitment his approval. The landdros carries four stamps—white, green, red and black—signifying the four hooves of Rooiland. When a silver is recruited or promoted, the landdros takes out his green and white stamps. When it is a gold, he takes out the green and the red, the red signifying blood. His black stamp is reserved for the death sentence.
Next, the magistrate steps forward and takes out his imaginary white and green pens to inscribe Magadien's recruitment in the 28s' proverbial record book. Like the landdros with his stamps, the magistrate has four pens, which signify Rooiland's legs.
Now, Magadien is marched out of the circle, and the formal recruitment ceremony is over. The 28s take the news of his recruitment to the 26s and 27s. They do so in the form of an exacting ritual.
Every night, the glas and draad of the 28s meet with the glas and draad of the 27s, and the glas and draad of the 26s, in a forum called the "Valcross". Only the glas is allowed to speak on the Valcross. The draad must remain silent; he is the one who will report back to the 28s what happened on the Valcross. The two 28s on the Valcross are not allowed to speak directly to the 26s. They communicate through the 27s. (This is an enactment of the principle that the 27s are the ones who uphold gang law, protecting the 26s and 28s from one another, and mediating their relationship.) At the Valcross meeting on the evening after Magadien's recruitment, the glas "bugles" his recruitment to the 27s, who, in turn, pass on the information to the 26s.
In the week to follow, Magadien will sleep alongside a different member of the 28s every night, and each will describe his uniform and his functions. The structure he himself is to join, once his training is over, is called the four points of the twos ("two" is a reference to their pulse—it beats "twice a year"). It is the lower tier of the silver line. He learns that one of its functions is that of a court: it deals with infractions committed by low-ranking silvers.
The five members of the twos are, from most junior to most senior, the silver-two, the silver-one, the Goliat-two, the Goliat-one and the landdros. The silver-two is responsible for the security of every meeting of the twos. When a junior member is to stand trial for a minor infraction, it is the silver-two who searches him for weapons, leads him into the circle, and then leaves the circle again in order to guard it. The silver-two is also responsible for the sex sons: if a soldier forces a sex son to have penetrative sex, he must report the incident to the silver-two.
The silver-one is the intelligence officer of the twos. He tells the court what the culprit is accused of, and the circumstances of the case. The Goliat-two is the keeper of the laws of the twos. He will determine the punishment at the conclusion of the case. The Goliat-one is the defence lawyer in the silvers' misdemeanours court: he will argue the accused's case. And, finally, the landdros, the most senior member of the twos, is the prosecutor. He also "has one foot in the ones", the upper tier of the silver line, which Magadien will join in the mid-1980s: he is the "centre post" between the upper and the lower tier of the silvers.
It is not from the four points of the twos that Magadien learns their functions, but from senior members of the gold line whom he sleeps next to every night. They too have their own "sub- court" to deal with the infractions of gold-line members. Their court mirrors precisely the functions of the lower silver-line court. So they explain to Magadien their own functions, and in so doing teach him the functions of the silver-line court he will join. They also begin to teach him the history of Nongoloza and Kilikijan. But only a fragment of the history—he is still too junior to be told the whole story.
Finally, he is taken to a section of the gang called the mambozas, or the forties. The 28s here are senior but inactive. They are either too old or too injured for active duty, or their position in the structure is already filled by someone else. For instance, the 28s cannot have two active nyangis in one prison. If a second nyangi is transferred to Victor Verster, he is dormant—he sleeps in the forties.
The mambozas begin to teach Magadien to sabela—to speak prison language—and it is a long, gruelling process. "Your blackboard [teacher]," Magadien tells me, "sabelas with you day and night. Your first two months in the Number you are not allowed to receive visits, to read or write letters, or to read books. You must focus on the Number, and when you learn too slowly the punishments are severe. If you cannot remember something you have been taught, you are stripped and stood under a cold shower until you 'find the Number'—until you get it right."
One of the last things Magadien learns about the structure of the 28s takes the form of a ghost story. There is a position in the silver line held by a man called Mtjoetjies. But he is dead; his place in the hierarchy is left empty.
"How did he die?" I ask.
"Back in the beginning," Magadien tells me, "when Nongoloza was imprisoned at The Point, he refused to learn English or Afrikaans, or any language spoken by white men. He refused to look white men in the eye. But one of the 28s, Mtjoetjies, was fluent in English, and Nongoloza used him to negotiate with the boere. After a while, Nongoloza realised that he had made a mistake. 'What does this man talk to the boere about? I cannot understand what he says. He may be betraying us.' So Nongoloza killed him, as a precaution.
"And now, his position remains there, empty, as a reminder that we do not negotiate with words, we negotiate with action, with violence. There have always been social workers in prison, you know. And they want to talk to you behind a closed door. If you do that, if you talk to an authority alone, one-to-one, you are severely punished."♣
Magadien's account of his recruitment is undoubtedly an idealisation. There is something unsettlingly ethereal about his recollections. The world he describes is entirely unpeopled: there are nyangis, mtshalis, gwenzas and silver-twos, but there are no flesh-and-blood beings. It is as if he has dissolved the concrete and the bars, the bad food, the bile that passes between men confined together, and abstracted from it a pure form. The gang he speaks of could be lifted and taken to any prison, anywhere. It is not about this jail, that cell, those people—it is just an idea.
Nonetheless, as an idea, there is much about it for us to explore. Magadien's is a rich, layered account and there are many aspects of it I will return to later. For the moment, I wish to explore one theme in particular: not the violence that Magadien must commit in order to join, but the violence to which he must be subjected.
It is not enough for Magadien to stab a white warder. In and of itself, this means very little. He must be beaten heavily after the stabbing, publicly, in front of the other prisoners, and he must not cry out during his beating. He must be taken agter die berge—to solitary confinement—and endure a time of isolation and spare diet. And yet "endure" is probably not the appropriate word here. It is not enough that he survives his isolation, that he just pulls through. He must not emerge shaken or bewildered; he must emerge "with steel in his blood".
Ndota means "man" in Zulu, and there can be little doubt that the recruitment ritual is an initiation into manhood. But what sort of man? The being created by the initiation is, really, a distilled version of a man—the sort of man a second-rate philosopher cobbles together. He consists of a few hard, shorn virtues and nothing else. One is solidarity, but solidarity of a very particular type: the recruit is robbed of a part of his own physical integrity for the sake of the gang. His sacrifice is visceral and highly personal; he feels it on his body. A second is stoicism. It is critical that the recruit shows indifference to his pain. He must not cry out when beaten. He must emerge from isolation unscathed. This is, perhaps, the starkest and most striking of the virtues the initiation fosters: the recruit must demonstrate the ability to amputate, or at very least to stunt, vital needs, feelings and responses. A third, paradoxically, is measured restraint: paradoxical because restraint is exercised in the very process of stabbing. The stabber can only use a short blade, one designed to inflict a surface wound. He must target a safe section of the body, one where he knows he will not cause serious or permanent injury. You will see later that this is among the most sacred of the Number's virtues, and that the survival of the gang hinges on it. A gang member who cannot restrain himself, who seriously injures a warder when he was not mandated (or "dutied" in gang language) to do so, is severely punished.
It is helpful to return to Erving Goffman to understand the initiation ritual, for the virtues fostered therein are, surely, the fruit of a particular mode of adjustment to mortification. If the prison's tendency is to infantilise inmates, the ritual's aim is to make inmates into men. They are, as I said earlier, not whole men, but distilled, shorn aspects of whole men—inmate men. They are little more than a collection of stark, honed virtues. But there is little doubt that the newly recruited ndota has retrieved, in a partial and somewhat damaged form, some of the attributes of adult agency. Of course, the agency the recruit has retrieved will be used to mortify in turn. He will use his power to inflict the institution's punishments on his own brothers, to turn franse into exaggerated versions of the inmate.
If the initiation ritual is indeed a form of adjustment, a retrieval of agency, note how it deploys the very tools of warder violence to do its work. The initiate must be beaten publicly. He must endure a spare diet in solitary confinement. The gangs have appropriated punishment and transformed it into a vital tool in the passage to manhood. In a strange perversion, they need the violence that is meted out against them. They have transformed that violence from a tool of mortification into a form of nourishment.
Note also that the initiation ritual has carefully sifted through the various forms of institutional punishment, taking those elements that it needs. In Magadien's case, institutional punishment was three-tiered. There was the formal punishment of the criminal justice system: a magistrate came to Victor Verster and a criminal trial was conducted. Magadien had time added to his sentence. For the Number gangs, the function of this punishment was for Magadien to demonstrate the dissolution of his individual interests in the face of the interests of the gang. He was choosing to delay his own freedom in order to rise through the ranks of the 28s. He was, quite literally, suspending his own life in order to step into another universe, an all-encompassing brotherhood.
But the meat of the ritual is found in the gangs' appropriation of the second and third tiers of punishment. The second was the formal punishment the warders handed out: isolation with spare diet. Finally, there was the warders' informal punishment, an illegal punishment, written, not into legislation, but into the informal annals of warder practice: he was heavily beaten on his way to isolation.
There is a great deal of irony at work here. The informal mode of punishment presumably arose because warders believed that the punishment available on the statute books was not adequate to control the prisons. Of the dozen or so white warders I interviewed, not one of them appeared to have contemplated the possibility that their informal and illegal violence was, in fact, a source of vital nourishment for the gangs.♣
If the initiation fosters virtues of solidarity, stoicism and restraint, to what end? To what work do the gangs put these virtues? Consider the following testimony. Once again, the speaker is Magadien. He is talking of a stabbing that took place in 1982. This time, the stabber is not Magadien himself but a fellow 28 whose gang name was "Cups". The prison is not Pollsmoor but one of the small rural jails that dot the Western Cape countryside. They were, in essence, agricultural labour stations. The farmers of the district used the inmates to work in their fields in exchange for various forms of payment.32
"There was this warder called Malan," Magadien begins. "Jesus, he was verkramp. He would come up behind you and smack you on the ears, for nothing, no provocation. Malan and Cups had a quarrel. I don't remember what it was about. I think it was about clothes. Malan was responsible for issuing clothes. He was stingy. Some of us were walking around with holes in our trousers so big it was like not wearing trousers at all. It was undignified. Cups went to him to complain about the state of our clothes, and he treated Cups like shit, in front of the other ndotas, told him to go fuck himself, or something like that. Later, the glas of the 28s, the one whose job is to observe and gather information, came to Cups and said: 'Why does that mapuza start with you like that all the time?'
"He didn't have to say what he really meant; it was obvious. He was saying four things: one, you are losing your dignity; two, the Number needs to make this man afraid; three, if you stab him, you will be doing a duty and will get promoted; four, if you don't deal with him, we will punish you, because to allow that man to get away with what he is doing puts the whole camp at risk.
"You see, there are good warders and there are bad warders. A good warder, we say about him that he keeps his office clean. He will order us around, but only to do things that we respect, like sweeping and cleaning. That is good. Everyone needs a clean prison, even the Number. He will respect us as human beings: he won't deny people meals; he will listen to complaints; he will tend to a sick inmate; he will not openly say that the Number can operate, but he will respect the dignity of the Number.
"But Malan was a bad warder: he is one who thinks he can get away with treating an ndota like shit, and that is one thing he cannot do. Because if you allow that then, slowly but surely, the Number can no longer operate in that prison. What would happen if we could no longer meet on the year of the wrongs? We can't allow that to happen.
"So, the order came down to Cups: 'Skiet hom, so dat hy jou respek.' ('Shoot him, so that he respects you.')
"Cups was given a knife that had been inspected by the nyangi, and when he went to stab, he was accompanied by the glas and the draad. Their function depends on whether the stabber does his job. If he stabs, they make the knife disappear. If he chickens out, they do his job for him and they punish him—they stab the warder and the ndota. So Cups walked up to him and stabbed him just like that. He was talking to another inmate; his back was turned to Cups. The glas and draad were with him and the knife disappeared.
"They beat the shit out of Cups and put him agter die berge. But they did something else as well. Although they could not find the knife, they knew it was Cups. And because they knew it was Cups, they knew it was the 28s. They know that nobody stabs without being dutied to do so.
"They called the local farmers' association over the two-way radio to tell them that a white man had been stabbed. And all the farmers from the district arrived in their jeeps and bakkies. They came with pickaxes, knobkerries, sticks—anything they could find. Then, the warders assembled every single inmate in that prison in the courtyard. They surrounded us and then the warders separated us. "Franse here, 26s there, 28s there. Then they forced the franse to take off their clothes so they could search for tattoos. If they see that a 28 member has pretended to be a frans, they put him in the right group. Once that is done, they put the franse in the cells. Then the 26s. It is just the 28s left in the courtyard, and the farmers are all around us with their weapons. A warder shouts: 'Up!' And all hell breaks loose. They break bones: kneecaps, legs, collarbones. Because they know it was the whole camp that made the decision to stab, so the whole camp must suffer."
"Didn't you fight back?" I ask.
"No, the rule was that you never provoke. If you provoke, if you fight back in a situation like that, they will kill you. It was all tactical. Sometimes it was necessary to retreat, for the sake of the survival of the Number.
"Sometimes, it wouldn't happen in the yard. Sometimes it was in the showers. They would wet the floor of the showers, so it was slippery, and we would have to take off our clothes. You can't run. You are barefoot, and the ground is slippery. They are wearing rubber soles. Then they beat the shit out of you, and you don't fight back, because if you do, someone will die."
What struck me, as I listened to Magadien, was not so much the brutality of the relationship between warders and inmates as the intricate filigree of unwritten rules and corresponding tactics. Inmate violence against warders in this particular instance, it seems to me, served a specific function. It punishes a warder for breaking two unwritten rules: first, that warders treat ndotas as ndotas, not franse, that they respect the dignity an inmate has earned through his recruitment into manhood; second, that warders respect the circumscribed spheres of autonomy that the Number gang have won: to meet on the year of the wrongs and the year of the rights, for instance.
There is thus a circular logic to this aspect of gang violence. One commits and subjects oneself to predicable ritual violence in order to forge a few simple virtues. And then one triggers the same ritual of violence in order to defend the space in which one practises those very virtues. This function of the violence is thus self-reinforcing: violence protects the very virtues it creates.
Magadien's "good warder" is one who, unlike Malan, has read and understood the unwritten rules and obeys them. He knows that for the sake of both his own self-preservation and for the sake of order in the prison, he must tacitly allow the Number gangs a certain amount of space; not too much space, because that too will threaten order. It is a question of intuition that comes with experience.
"It was a bit like a game," Magadien says. "The question is: who's afraid of whom at the end of the day? We chose warders whom we needed to fear us, and we stabbed them. Sure, they fuck us up afterwards, but put yourself in the shoes of the individual warder, the one who has been stabbed. You go away for a while on sick leave, maybe a little longer on stress leave, but then you are back. When you walk in the yard, with all the prisoners around you, you are worried. When you walk alone down the corridor, or into a cell, your heart is beating fast. Maybe, in the front of your mind, you think these people stabbed you just because they are animals. But at the back of your mind you know why you were stabbed. You do not shout, you do not scream, you do not clip a prisoner on the back of the ear. You are afraid.
"Why do you think the Number was allowed to meet three times a week: on the year of the rations on Fridays, the year of the wrongs on Saturdays, and the year of the rights on Sundays? Why do you think the warders never broke those meetings up? Because they knew. Maybe they didn't know the details. They didn't know that J.R. is a silver-two and his job is to stab me if I interrupt that bunch of inmates. But they sensed the atmosphere. They knew that, for their own safety, there are places they must not go."
Inmates, too, knew that there was a threshold they must not cross. When an inmate was dutied to stab, it was a sacred imperative that the nyangi determine the length of the blade. It ought never be long enough to kill. And the stabber was also issued with a strict instruction to strike the flesh on either side of the spine, never a vital organ. When the gang was collectively punished for a stabbing, their own self-imposed rule stipulated that they do not fight back. They knew that injuring a warder critically or fatally, or resisting ritualised punishment, would invite a deadly response, and they avoided it like the plague.
On the few occasions that an ndota did die, the gang suffered acute trauma. When a gang member was convicted of murder, he was usually hanged. On the day of the hanging, every member of the dead man's gang in the prison where he served shaved his head. For the following month, they walked the passages of the prison in absolute silence, their heads bowed and their hands crossed at their waists, a symbol of inaction. Members only spoke with one another in their cells, after lockup, and only in hushed tones. And they banned all gang activity: promotions, punishments, all decisions. The members of the other two gangs knew that the gang in mourning would not be sending representatives to the Valcross; they observed the abstention with due respect. Only once the month was up, and the stubble had begun to appear on their heads, did they begin to speak again, and to thaw the rituals they had frozen.
They took care to avoid death, to be sure, but the threshold of violence they were prepared to tolerate was very high indeed: broken kneecaps and collarbones. And, in the aftermath of a ritual beating, they did not receive due medical attention.
"We never trusted prison doctors," Magadien tells me. "For one, they were white. And they were also mapuza, the enemy. We called them perdedokters (horse doctors). There were a lot of inmates who stumbled round the prisons with broken bones, a lot of people who were stuck in the mambozas the rest of their lives because they were too fucked up to be active."
Was it worth it? How did the damaged limbs weigh up against the value of winning the space to conduct gang business? In the following chapter I will give an account of gang breakdown, a war of all against all that broke out across the prisons in the Western Cape in the late 1980s. What happened, it seems, is that the soldier lines of the gangs cracked under the violence that was meted out against them. They turned on the non-combatants in the gangs, and when the fight was over, they tore up the gangs' most sacred rules.♣
The notion that order in the prisons was maintained by a delicate system of unwritten rules is one that begs for a control experiment. What happens when one side breaks the rules, when either ndotas or warders threaten to kill one another? Interestingly enough, there was a kind of control experiment in the 1980s: the medium-security, criminal prison on Robben Island.
"At Robben Island," a veteran inmate told me, and his testimony was echoed by many others, "there was one phrase: 'Everything dies in the sea.' Nothing that happens reaches Cape Town. You know that if you stab a white warder at that place you die. Who wants to die like that? We knew that. The warders knew that. That's why they sent us there. There were lots of 28s and 26s there who had once caused trouble at Pollsmoor.
"But it became a nice place if you behaved, and you did behave because you didn't want to die. The warders there were very corrupt. They'd choose two or three inmates, give us wetsuits and take us into the water to dive for crayfish and abalone. Then they'd sell it on the side to line their own pockets. And you know what? When they took us diving they gave us knives. Each inmate would get his own knife, hardened gangsters. That's how we knew the island's rules: 'Ja, you can stab me to death, but you'll go nowhere.'"
It is a strange story, isn't it? The gangsters' fears were surely unfounded. Apartheid was a callous system, but its prisons were not concentration camps, not even the jail in the middle of the sea. If an inmate were to vanish from the face of the earth, his family would ask questions. The prisons service would have to provide answers. On murder, at any rate, there were accounts.
But gangsters believed that if they stabbed, they would die. And their perceptions shaped prison life. The Number became a shallow echo of its usual self. There was no recruitment and there were no promotions. Nobody was hauled before inmate courts and no one was punished. 28s would get together and talk, but idly. For ndotas anxious to climb the ranks of their gangs, it was wasted time.
So Robben Island was something of an incidental control experiment. If the relationship between gangsters and warders is indeed framed by a structure of implicit rules, what happens when one side throws the rulebook away? What happens when warders announce—wordlessly, by the gesture of giving inmates knives—that Number ritual is punishable by death? The gangs evaporate. They become ghosts, living their frail afterlife on memories of what they did when they were flesh-and-blood beings. Indeed, the gangs' own metaphors described things this way. "In maximum, the Number is vleis en bloed. Robben Island is die stokkies" (limbo).
It is testimony to the massive gulf that lies between the camps of a totalitarian state, where people can indeed "disappear" with little fuss, and the brutal jails of a merely authoritarian state, which is still held to account. There are no gangs in Primo Levi's Auschwitz—a world where warders kill at will. However much the veterans of the Number may talk of the holocaust they witnessed under white rule, the apartheid prison was no concentration camp.
» » » » [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