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 4: Prison on the streets, the streets in prison
When an unknown inmate is transferred to a new prison, he is asked a question the moment he enters his cell: "Who are you?" The question begins a test of authenticity. If he is a 28, he must sabela a reply that he is a son of Nongoloza, that he works by night. If the questioner is a 27, he will respond by declaring that he is Kilikijan, that he works by day.
The two then run through the motions of a formulaic and well-rehearsed exchange, together describing the early history of Nongoloza and Kilikijan. The new arrival must use the right words and the right metaphors; everything hinges on his mastery of prison language. When Kilikijan is satisfied that the new man is a genuine child of Nongoloza, he delivers him to the glas of the 28s, who asks him the same question: "Who are you?" Now that he is in his own camp, the new arrival must describe each rank in the 28s. "The glas blows his bugle, the nyangi throws his pipes, the general sits with his back to the four points of one-times…" He must describe every rank except his own; he identifies himself by his omission.
According to several of the veteran inmates I interviewed, something strange began happening at the end of the 1980s. A new inmate would arrive in a cell. He would be asked: "Who are you?" The newcomer would answer confidently that he was, for instance, a soldier in the gazi line of the 28s. But the manner in which he answered, his clumsy use of prison language, his haphazard grasp of the Nongoloza myth and the terminology, demonstrated that he was not, in fact, a 28, that he knew next to nothing about prison gangs.
The inmate would be quizzed further.
"Where did you become a 28?"
"In Hawston"—a small fishing village about 100km east of Cape Town.
"But there is no prison in Hawston," the ndota would say.
"I was not recruited in prison," the newcomer would reply. "I was recruited by the Rooidakke"—a prominent street gang in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "I was ordered to do a hit, to shoot somebody. They said that to join the gold line of the 28s, you have to take blood. Once I'd done the hit, I would be a 28."
The inmate would reel in astonishment. He had never heard anything so crazy in his life.41♣
Why did the rubric of prison gangs begin spilling onto the streets? It is difficult to answer this question, except in speculative terms. Ever since the 1970s, there had been a loose and informal relationship between prison and street gangs. Two of the major street gangs of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the Scorpions and the Born Free Kids. When they went to jail, Scorpion members generally joined the 28s. (It was said that a Scorpion must go to the 28s to fetch the poison for his tail.) Born Free Kids generally joined the 26s. (It was said that both 26s and Born Free Kids were "chicos"—smooth dressers.) But it was a loose relationship. It was understood that the walls separating the prison from the street were sacred, that there was no such thing as a practising 26 on the outside: the very idea was absurd.42
All this began to change in the late 1980s. The imagery and ritual of the prison arrived on the street—bastardised, in scraps and pieces—and it spread like wildfire. By the late 1990s, two of the major street gangs of the time—the Americans and the Firm—had adopted Number-gang ritual wholesale. (The Americans adopted 26 ritual, while the Firm adopted 28 ritual.) Indeed, in the early 2000s, the Firm began calling itself the 28s. Its leaders had designated themselves generals, and had appointed captains, sergeants and judges.
The street gangs took the world of the prison—its metaphors, its nomenclature, its logic—and imprinted it on the ghettos. Ever since the early 1970s, the street gangs of the Cape Flats have been extorting protection money from neighbourhood shops, demanding a cut of liquor distributors' profits, taking transit fees from the taxis that drive through their turf, maiming those who dare to sell anything without their permission. But now, beginning in the 1990s, street gangs began using prison as a metaphor to understand their relationship with those upon whom they preyed. The street gangsters are the ndotas; the taverners, liquor distributors and taxi drivers from whom they extort are the franse. Like the franse behind bars, they too must rent the air they breathe.
It is a strange thought, isn't it? For much of the 20th century, inmates imagined the jails that housed them as the open plains of the 19th-century highveld and the forests of early Natal. Joining the 28s, for instance, was described as a Homeric journey through a wooded wilderness. Now, in the late 1990s, the youths of Cape Town's ghettos began to imagine their neighbourhoods as prisons, each piece of turf a massive jail cell of the initiated, every taxi owner a frans to be milked.
The street gangs had finally "stolen" prison: they had turned the institutions that punish them into founts of inspiration.
It is not just the supergangs. The inspiration of prison has permeated the most parochial street corners. In 2002, in Mitchells Plain, I met a 21-year-old man who had joined a gang unheard of outside his neighbourhood—the Jolly Killers. I asked him to do a piece of research work for me and he agreed on condition that I pay a third of his fee in advance. A week later, I phoned him to ask how the work was going.
"I'm not going to do it," he replied. "I'm a 26. My work is to con you out of your money."
"You're a fool," I said. "It wasn't much work and if you'd done it you would have earned a whole lot more."
He laughed patronisingly. "You don't understand. I'm a 26. That's my ethos."
"Who made you a 26?" I asked.
"The leader of the Jolly Killers went to jail and became a big 26," he replied. "When he got out, he recruited us all."♣
Why, after so many years, did it happen when it did—in the late 1980s and early 1990s? I can only give a partial and speculative answer. In the first place, the character of Cape Town's underground economy had begun to change substantially by the late 1980s. The major gangs of the previous decade—the Born Free Kids, the Mongrels, the Scorpions—all had a regional presence in the Western Cape, but they were, in reality, little more than regional affiliations of local groups. Gang leaders made money, but not that much money. They controlled turf, but not that much turf. The typical gang leader would control a few dozen blocks of a ghetto. He would run its mandrax and marijuana trade, much of its liquor trade, extort protection money from its shopkeepers, control its commercial sex industry, buy and sell stolen electronic equipment. The underground market was static. It was confined largely to mandrax, marijuana, liquor and stolen goods industries, and to small-scale extortion.43
The gang leaders who came of age in the late 1980s did so in a very different world. The rapid insertion of South Africa into global markets brought new drugs into the country (crack, heroin, club drugs), new merchants and, above all, new markets. An impressively innovative network of West Africans took over inner-city prostitution and used it to create a brand-new crack market, one that, significantly, cut across class and racial lines. Also, the emerging rave scene in South Africa brought with it a host of new club drugs, bringing scores of middle-class youths into the drug market.44
The traditional street gangs of the Western Cape found not only that drug consumption was growing rapidly, but also that a sizeable proportion of the emerging drug market was located outside their traditional turf. With the prospect of their own clients deserting them for new drugs and new players, they knew they had to expand quickly or risk being swallowed.
The major gangs scrambled to consolidate their traditional constituencies and to lay down new turf throughout the Western Cape: from the inner-city suburbs of Cape Town, to the coastal villages both east and west of the Cape Peninsula, to the rural towns of the Western Cape hinterland.
It was a time of great risk and uncertainty for Cape Flats gang leaders, but a time of great reward for those who succeeded. The late 1980s saw the emergence, for the first time in the history of the Western Cape underworld, of stinking-rich Cape Flats men, millionaires many times over: people like Colin Stansfield, who cut his teeth in the Scorpions and scaled the ranks of the 28s; Ernie "Lastig", who led the Rooidakke and is today reputed to control the lucrative poaching of abalone off the southern Cape coast; Jackie "Lonti", a 26, leader of the Americans before his assassination in 2000, and the man reputed to have brought crack cocaine to the Cape Flats.
Men like these were the first in the history of Western Cape crime who needed to build and maintain province-wide allegiances. They required the allegiance, not only of foot soldiers, merchants and street dealers (it takes a veritable army to control a province-wide trade) but, above all, of consumers. A large portion of Western Cape drug consumers had always bought their drugs according to their gang allegiance. Now, the allegiance would have to be to a large, abstract, province-wide entity. In other words, the imagination of consumers became a vital resource on which to work.
What better set of tools with which to reshape the imagination of marginalised young men than the iconography of the prison? For decades, rumours, tales, slivers of narrative about the Number gangs had been trickling onto the streets. Prison generals walked out of jail demigods. The words "28", "27" and "26" had long been sprinkled with magic. The real question is why Number lore had not taken hold on the streets earlier. Indeed, the way some interviewees describe it, the introduction of Number lore on the streets seemed organic, natural: it captured the imagination immediately.
In mid-2003, for instance, I interviewed a gangster who had been one of Jackie Lonti's most trusted lieutenants in the late 1980s, precisely the time when the Number found the street. I asked him if he recalled the very beginning, the first time the Americans began, incipiently, to understand themselves as 26s. He replied:I'm not good with dates, but sometime back then, in the 1980s, Jackie spent a while in jail. When he came out, he brought the Number out onto the street. To deal now, you had to know prison gangs.
I remember once, a few days after Jackie was released, there was someone dealing in buttons in Athlone who Jackie didn't trust. He said it was time to get rid of him.
But he didn't say it like that. He said: 'No, that guy is a frans; he can't work with money.' He called this guy to his house and said to him: 'Hei, wie is jy?' ('Hey, who are you?')—just like in prison.
It was strange when I heard that. On the one hand, it was new—nobody had ever said that on the street before. On the other hand, it felt like it was old, like we had always thought that way; only now, Jackie had put the right words to it.
It was received on the streets as if it were organic, as if had always belonged there. But there can be little doubt that it was introduced as a conscious strategy. Faux Number gangs—prison gangs on the streets—were the thread with which the likes of Lonti stitched together regional empires.♣
So, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, young men arriving in the prisons began to announce that they had been made ndotas on the outside by men like Lonti and Stansfield. These men were famous and rich, and the veteran ndotas behind bars knew it. But they also knew that such men did not hold senior rank in the prison gangs proper, that they did not have the authority to initiate people on the inside, never mind on the streets. So, many among the first generation of the new "street ndotas" were ostracised and beaten when they came to jail.
But that did not last long. As the likes of Lonti became multi-millionaires, their cachet grew. They became heroes, indeed gods, to scores of young men of the Western Cape underclass. Some of them crafted their own heroism by deftly inserting a subtle political subtext into their discourse. They started off as dirt-poor ghetto kids under a racial dictatorship, they said, and they had become the richest and most powerful men in the province in spite of that. They had defied apartheid, not just by breaking its laws, but by becoming omnipotent. Indeed, they were far more competent than the Number gangs ever were at blurring the distinction between crime and politics, at spinning banditry as a life of political virtue.
At this, Colin Stansfield was the best of all. When the African National Congress won South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, he appropriated the victory as his own. He hired the local football fields in the ghetto of his childhood, Valhalla Park, erected a giant marquee, bought thousands of litres of beer and truckloads of meat, and invited every resident of the ghetto to attend. He threw the biggest party in Valhalla Park's history.
Against all this, the old tradition of orthodox prison gangsterism stood little chance. Many of its proponents were crusty old-timers, rank with the smell of many years in prison. Who were they in the face of Stansfield, Lonti and Lastig—the demigods of the new era? It was not long before the street gangs had begun not just to adopt but to appropriate the world of the Number as well. It was not long before those initiated on the outside were indeed ndotas, because what "ndota" meant now was totally new.45
Several interviewees pointed to a specific event in 1996 in Pollsmoor Prison as a turning point. Jackie Lonti was interned at Pollsmoor. He was, at the time, among the two or three most powerful men in Cape Town's underworld; the gang he led, the Americans, was probably the largest and the most prosperous. He was a 26, but not a general. Many of the 26s around him were also Americans. So, they were his followers on the outside, many his equals or seniors on the inside. Among the 28s in Pollsmoor at the time were leaders of The Firm, the Americans' major rival in the region's illicit economy, and thus Lonti's enemies. According to one interviewee, a 26 and an American:Jackie sent out an order to all 26s in Pollsmoor: he told us to raise the Star-Spangled Banner in our cells, and to declare war against the 28s. You must understand that what he did was so wrong according to our tradition that he should have been sentenced to death for it. First, he told us as 26s to raise the flag of the Americans, a vuil papier, a flag of the fourth camp. That alone is punishable by death. Second, he declared war against the 28s when the issue that sparked the war was an issue from the outside, not from the four corners. That alone is punishable by death—you do not bring the outside into prison. Finally, he was not a general. He did not call a meeting of the Twelve Points. Only they can declare war against the 28s, and only in consultation with the 27s. That, especially, is punishable by death.
But he was Jackie, and Jackie meant more than anything else. So we raised our American flags in our cells and we went to war with the 28s. Something like that had never happened before. After that, the Number was never the same again.♣
When I arrived at Pollsmoor Admission Centre towards the end of 2002, the prison was in flux. There were very few high-ranking street-gang leaders in the prison at the time, and thus little authority. A host of pretenders were jostling for power in all three gangs. It was a good moment to come to Pollsmoor, for the politics of a power vacuum is always instructive; in particular, the fraught, pained relationship between the old and the new, between the dying, yet still potent, traditions of the 1980s and the new ethos of the 2000s, was stripped bare.
Among the hundreds of 28s in Pollsmoor Admission Centre at the time, seven had been recruited in the 1970s and 1980s and, thus, in "the old way". They had all, they claimed, taken blood, been beaten by apartheid warders, spent time in isolation on a saltless diet. In the weeks after their respective initiations back in the 1980s and 1970s, they had all, they claimed, been taught the Number the proper way: taught to sabela, taught the history of Nongoloza, the rank structure, the rules. They, they said, were the only real ndotas in the prison, flesh and blood. Everyone else, they said, had been recruited in the 1990s and 2000s, after the blood lines had closed and after the street gangs had infected the prison. The others were all tronk laaities—mere boys, not ndotas. The term tronk laaitie is particularly stinging: it not only signifies a boy, rather than a man, but also subtly implies that its bearer has entered the gang by becoming a passive sexual partner. Tronk laaities, the seven veterans claimed, had not taken blood, or had cried when they had been beaten. Their knowledge of the Nongoloza myth was scrappy and piecemeal—they had picked it up off the streets; their knowledge of the gang's laws was so incomplete it was dangerous.
The veterans' talk really was as it sounds: a parody of a bunch of old men complaining about the youth of today. The result is that they talked more freely with me than anyone else did. They had reason to. They felt that the proud tradition that had once been theirs was being spat on. They wanted the past—or their idealised memories of it at any rate—to be recorded: they liked me for my notebook.
None of these veterans were particularly high-ranking. All were officers, but middle-level officers. All had acquired their current rank in the mid or late 1980s. They had all, they claimed, refused to take a higher rank after the blood lines closed because, ever since then, a higher rank had become meaningless—it was not flesh and blood.46
Six of the seven played only a marginal role in the day-to-day politics of the 28s. Most were elders, or "in die wolke" ("in the clouds'), as they say in the Number gangs—acknowledged, but inactive. Nonetheless, there were particular times when the veterans were to play a pivotal role. When and why tell us much about the politics of the Number gangs today.
In the remainder of this chapter, I track three incidents that happened while I was at Pollsmoor. The first was a conspiracy to stab, the second was the arrival in Pollsmoor of Colin Stansfield, one of the most famous gangster capitalists of the Western Cape, and the third a successful stabbing. All three incidents were characterised by a crisis of authority. In each, the project to shore up authority took the form of a failed attempt to invoke the rules of "the old days", the times when "ndotas were flesh and blood".
Incident 1: the failed recruitment of Rashid
In late 2003, a prominent member of the Americans—I will call him Rashid—was arrested for possession of crack cocaine and interned in the awaiting-trial section of Pollsmoor Admission Centre. At the time, Rashid controlled the Americans' operation in the Cape Town inner-city suburb of Sea Point. He was, in other words, very rich and very powerful. Being an American, he naturally gravitated towards the 26s. He was, however, an anomaly: despite his position in the Americans he had never been to jail and had thus never been initiated as an ndota.
When Rashid arrived at Pollsmoor, the 26s in the prison fell into a dispute. Faction A argued that he should immediately be given a middle-ranking position in the gang. Some said that his position in the Americans gave him automatic membership of the 26s, that to deny him membership would be to dishonour him. Others were more transparently expedient: Rashid had access to a large drug market, and the 26s knew how to get his drugs into prison, where they could be sold and thus enrich the gang.47 Giving him immediate membership would thus bring immediate reward.
Faction B in the 26s was outraged. Access to manhood cannot be bought, they said. A man in prison earns his manhood with violence. Rashid's position in Sea Point entitled him to nothing on the inside.
For days, tension simmered in the 26s. Faction B threatened that if Rashid was made an ndota, he would be stabbed. Faction A retorted that if Rashid was stabbed, the leaders of Faction B would all be killed. Finally, the dispute was taken for mediation to die manne in die wolke (the men in the clouds), the old-timers who had been recruited back in the days when the line dividing men from boys was clear.
Their decision was nothing less than extraordinary, an exercise in pragmatism so transparent it was almost amusing. Of course Rashid would have to stab to become an ndota, they said. How could it be otherwise? Moreover, since there was so much controversy surrounding his recruitment, he would have to stab in dramatic fashion. The Minister of Correctional Services was due to visit Pollsmoor later that month. It was to be a grand affair. A marquee was to be erected in the central courtyard. A host of dignitaries was coming to the prison. Rashid would have to stab another inmate there and then, in the middle of the minister's speech.
Now, it was quite clear to everyone in the 26s, including the men in the clouds, that Rashid was not going to stab anybody. He was, above all, a businessman, and a very successful one at that. Unlike most 26s, he had a high-calibre legal team on his case; he was expecting to be released on bail within days or weeks. If he stabbed another inmate in broad daylight, he would not only lose his bail hearing: he would be charged and convicted of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and would spend years behind bars. He was not going to do it. It would be bad for business, to say the least.
So, the men in the clouds twisted the tail of their verdict. In deference to Rashid's prominent position in the Americans, they concluded, he would not have to commit the stabbing himself. It would be done on his behalf by two junior 26s, and they would be promoted to officer rank for their troubles.
Naturally, this did not satisfy Faction B's complaint. They nodded their consent—one does not openly challenge the men in the clouds—but hours after the meeting ended, its decision was leaked to a senior warder. He, in turn, kept his newfound knowledge close to his chest until the day before the minister's visit. That evening, he transferred the two appointed stabbers, as well as the entire leadership of the 26s, to another prison. On the day the minister came, every other prominent 26 was kept locked in his cell. Two days later, when the minister was safely back in Pretoria, those who had been transferred were brought back to Pollsmoor.♣
What had happened, of course, is that the 26s had attempted a clumsy marriage between two conflicting conceptions of value, status and authority. The first conception is animated by the world outside: it is a world of high-stakes illicit commerce, a world of multi-million rand businesses. Its protagonists are money men who have earned their authority through their wealth and, in turn, through their capacity to build and control private street armies. These are men who have borrowed the iconic status of prison and prison gangsters to organise their soldiers and their consumers on the outside. But their world is not prison—it is the illicit economy.
The second conception is animated by a century-long tradition behind bars. It is about the making of men in total institutions, a world sealed off from the outside, a world in which the purposes of ritual are to arrest the slide of inmates into childhood and womanhood.
For the duration of my research in Pollsmoor at any rate, neither conception of authority eclipsed the other. They co-habited uneasily, and the result is that both were disarmed. Inmate life, in other words, was characterised by a profound legitimacy crisis. The gangster capitalist of the world outside was unable to win hegemony in the prison, for the simple reason that the prison is, after all, the prison, and not the outside world. The making of ndotas through violence serves deep, visceral needs—needs peculiar to inmates—and they cannot be wished away.
So the gangster capitalists—in this case, Rashid—had to go through the motions of submitting to the ostensible authority of the men in the clouds, men Rashid has the right to treat like dirt on the outside. And, yet, the old men's authority was only ostensible because they knew they could not order Rashid to stab: he was, after all, an important man on the outside, and thus an important man in prison.
The result is that both rivals were defeated. Rashid was unable to play his role as the inmate man—an initiated ndota—and thus spent his brief time in prison in limbo: a big shot, but at the same time a little boy. Yet his defeat was hardly a victory for the traditionalists. The paralysis his stay in Pollsmoor caused only brought home that the rituals that so painstakingly, so precariously, separate men from women and boys, were in ruins. One way of expressing the problem is this: ever since Western Cape gangsters started becoming multi-millionaires, Nongoloza has been split in two. Out in the world, he is the bandit turned robber baron. He has used his outlawry to build an empire, and he has become the hero of the region's criminal classes. Inside, he is still the figure who builds the dam wall between men and children, and between men and women. Western Cape inmates cannot have both Nongolozas, but they cannot give either of them up. They try to piece together a composite Nongoloza—bits of one, scraps of the other—but the composite figure cannot stand on his own two feet.
Incident 2: a robber baron comes to Pollsmoor
In February 2002, Colin Stansfield, one of the first multi-millionaire gangster capitalists of Cape Town and a consummate populist, was sentenced to six years in prison for tax evasion. After sentence was passed, he was taken directly from the courtroom to Pollsmoor in order for his case to be processed in the Department of Correctional Services bureaucracy. A few hours after he arrived, he was whisked off to Helderstroom Prison, about 100km away, where he was to serve his sentence.
Stansfield was the founder of The Firm, which, by 2002, had begun calling itself "the 28s".
I was in Pollsmoor on the day Stansfield briefly appeared there. About an hour after his arrival, a rumour quickly spread through the prison.
"Colin arrived at the processing centre wearing a huge trench coat," I was told. It was late summer. The temperature was well into the 30s. "All the inmates in the processing centre surrounded him, and then he opened his trench coat: it was lined with R200 notes. Before the warders could get to him, he dished out the money to every 28 in the room. Every 28 got at least two R200 notes."
Later in the day, I found two warders who had been in the processing centre at the time. The part about the trench coat, it turned out, was fabricated. But the part about the money was true.
As the story spread through the prison, the 28s began speaking to one another about it. They were, I discovered, furious with Stansfield.
"Colin was only here for a few hours," I was told, "and he still had to buy his safety. He was frightened. Each of those R200 notes saved his skin. Because he knew that here he would encounter real 28s, real ndotas, and they would not be pleased with what he has done to our camp. On the outside he calls himself a general; in prison, he was never vleis en bloed. On the outside, he allows young boys to call themselves 28s, and when they get here, they think they're ndotas. Here, there are tough questions he has to answer. So he bought his way out. He is a weak man."
I doubt whether Stansfield's life was in danger for the few hours he was at Pollsmoor; I doubt whether anyone would have dared to stab him. The story I was told was spun from bitterness and envy, not from a sober reading of Stansfield's status in prison.
It is, nonetheless, an interesting story. It is a graphic depiction of the uneasy co-habitation of the gangster capitalist's ethos and the prison's ethos. The essence of the story is that men like Stansfield have stolen something with their R200 notes. They have stolen an inmate tradition. Its function was to create a world of meaning within the total institution, to sift through the complexity of inmate experience and to make something intelligible from it.
Incident 3: the stabbing of Warder Davids
In March 2003, a senior warder in B section, which houses sentenced prisoners, was ambushed in the corridor by three inmates and stabbed 12 times. I have called him Warder Davids. Most striking about the attack is that the aim was to kill. No short blade, no single wound below the shoulder, but a vicious, potentially lethal assault. As it happens, Warder Davids was not critically injured. But he did take several weeks off work, and the rest of the staff who remained behind were deeply traumatised.
In the days following the assault, the tension in B section was almost unbearable. The inmates were confined to their cells 24 hours a day. Attack dogs were brought back onto the section for the first time in six years. They had been banished from the corridors of Pollsmoor by its new, reformist head. The warders patrolling the section made no attempt to conceal their hostility— they were itching to retaliate.
Indeed, warders had in fact retaliated. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, warders reverted to an old ethos learnt under apartheid: they beat the stabbers heavily. Perhaps it happened because the head of the prison was on extended leave at the time. Their action was, on the one hand, a release of anger and an expression of fear, but it was also an attempt to get information, to find out who had ordered the assault, and why. The prison's management did discover that the assault had been planned by the 26s and 27s. But they were not sure why.
But the ndotas I spoke to were all sure. "It's obvious," I was told. "They didn't just want to stab him. They wanted to kill him. That means the 26s were attempting to raise their flag over the prison,"—meaning that it was a bid by the 26s to wrest control of Pollsmoor, both from the warders and from the 28s.
In the weeks prior to the stabbing, a series of events had upset and unsettled the inmates. For one, the head of the prison, a charismatic figure with a strong presence, had gone on extended leave. Inmates could not articulate why his absence unsettled them. Indeed, it remains something of a mystery to me. But they all insisted on underlining the importance of his absence. Second, there had been a surprise search raid in the prison, conducted in the middle of the night by warders brought in from other prisons. The raid had unearthed an armoury of homemade weapons and large stashes of mandrax and cannabis. Finally, in the weeks prior to the assault, senior warders had discovered and closed a "hole" between two sections of the prison. A young, junior warder, in charge of a notorious 26-dominated cell on D section, had been bullied into allowing senior 26 members to swap sections at night, thus creating a 26 thoroughfare through the prison. The warder's actions had been discovered. He was transferred and the hole closed.
In short, the events preceding the stabbing amounted, in inmates' eyes, to a concerted staff campaign to tighten control over the prison. Large quantities of weapons and merchandise had been confiscated, movement had been restricted. One of the goals of the stabbing was to win back space that had been forfeited.
And, indeed, the day after the stabbing, the 26s spread a rumour and ensured that it reached the ears of the staff: another senior warder—and they named him—would be stabbed within the next week. The rumour had its desired effect. The warder in question was removed from the prison and put on office duty. There was infighting among senior staff: recrimination, finger-pointing, talk of demotion for those who were not doing their jobs. In the wake of the stabbing, the staff were undoubtedly both afraid and divided. What the 26s had in mind was the creation of a prison environment lucidly described by Gresham Sykes:
The social system of the prison finally reaches a point where the inmates have established their own unofficial version of control. The custodians, in effect, have withdrawn to the walls to concentrate on their most obvious task, the prevention of escapes. The outward guise of the custodians' dominance within the walls is preserved, to be sure, for the inmates are still counted, some infractions of the rules are still punished, and prisoners continue to be marched back and forth from their cells. But surveillance has grown lax and guards are careful not to antagonise influential inmates. Institutional supplies are looted with relative ease and goods flow in freely from the outside world. Prisoners administer their own stern justice to inmates who have broken the inmate code and officials seek the advice of their captives in regard to cell and job assignments.48
If one of the goals of the stabbing was to win back control from the warders, another was to dominate the 28s. Were the 28s to acknowledge that the 26s had indeed "raised their flag" over the prison, they would have to submit to 26 authority in the day-to-day management of inmate life. The 26s would get to choose who is appointed to the "food spans"—the inmates who go to the kitchen at meal times to fetch the food trolleys. This is a crucial function, for it gives inmates the freedom to move through the prison, and thus to communicate. The 26s would also get to control much of the internal drug market: it would be understood that the 26-aligned merchants would have privileged access to drug consumers in the prison. "The 26s stab and raise their flag," an inmate told me. "Then they rule Pollsmoor; they get all the power and the respect." In other words, since the 26s were the ones who pushed the warders back to the periphery of the prison, they are the ones who reap the benefits.
In the wake of the stabbing, however, the 28s refused to acknowledge that the 26s had raised their flag. The reason was simple. The stabbers had been beaten publicly in the aftermath of the attack, and they had cried, the 28s claimed. They had squealed, naming their co-conspirators on the spot. They had shown no fortitude, no stoicism. The stabbing thus meant nothing.♣
Once again, the meaning of the stabbing turned on an appeal to a lost authority, to the way things were done when ndotas were ndotas. One senses that the stabbers were always going to fail the test, that every prison-gang action always fails the test, that the authority to which appeal is made is designed to be elusive. The crisis of legitimacy is in essence a crisis of masculinity. The real man, the ndota vleis en bloed, stands in the mists of the past, in the days "when the Number was pure". Everyone who tries to emulate him will fail. Nobody will ever be a man again.
It is a strange and interesting use of tradition. Usually, the past is reified and traditionalism thus established in order to confer authority upon actions in the present. Here, the function of tradition is inversed. It is used to emasculate the actions of the present, to hollow them out. The past represents something deeply painful: an impossibility.
No doubt, the past was never quite what it is made out to be. If I had conducted this research 20 years ago, it is probable that veteran ndotas would have moaned, as they do now, about the erosion of tradition, about how men were really men when they were recruited. All the testimony I gathered from the veterans is more or less idealised. Indeed, it appears that prison gangs have been inventing a pure past for themselves since the very beginning. That is probably why the Nongoloza myth has been pushed forward nearly 100 years. There had to be an original purity, a lost wholeness, right from the beginning.
Nonetheless, it would probably be a mistake to argue that nothing ever changes, that history simply repeats itself. One can only guess at the sources of legitimacy crises in prison-gang ranks 20 years ago, but there can be little doubt that they are qualitatively different from those of the present. The emergence of gangster capitalism and its multi-million rand industries in the late 1980s, and the simultaneous interpenetration of the ethos of the prison and the ethos of the street, has undoubtedly changed prison-gang culture forever. Nongoloza the robber baron and Nongoloza the prisoner of fortitude, solidarity and restraint are likely to spar with one another for a long time to come.
» » » » [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