Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Back 2 blogging

Yipeeeee!!!!! I'm finally back - all problems solved. In the end I had to buy a new computer. I opted for a desktop instead of a laptop. I will take the damn laptop to get the screen fixed and then attempt to sell it on a "voetstoets" basis. And so now.....back to regular blogging.... at last!!!!

I could not resist posting this quote:

"Those who feel they don't want to go or have no place to go, then please stay."
Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour saying prisoners eligible for release under the South African government's amnesty for petty criminals could ask to stay in prison if they felt they were not ready to be freed.

Yeah right, like anybody's going to want to stay in prison. During a press conference held by former Stander gang member Alan Heyl a couple of weeks ago, he was asked by one of the reporters if there was anything he would miss about being in prison, like the people for example. Although he said that he might miss one or two people, Heyl was quite emphatic that there was nothing he would miss about being in prison and that there was absolutely nothing nice about being in prison. Hmmm... I can't imagine why?

If anyone is interested in reading about the horrific reality of life behind bars in South Africa, I can highly recommend "The Number" by Johnny Steinberg. The book is about the number prison gangs in the Western Cape told through the life story of gangster Magadien Wentzel who rose to prominence as a magistrate in the 28's. The book is a real page turner, meticulously researched, gripping and easy to read. Steinberg also puts Wentzel's life in context by recounting the social and political history of the coloured community in the Cape which was really interesting. I found the book to be incredibly thought provoking and it stayed strongly in my mind for days after I had finished reading it.

One of the aspects of the book that was highly intriguing, and that I was quite amazed to find out about, is the incredible complexity of the structure of the gangs - the 28's, the 27's and the 26's. The gangs consist of a disciplined and intricate hierarchy with constitutional like laws and rules that are set in stone. With each rank comes a particular imagined uniform and weapons. Not only that, but the laws and structures are descended from an almost biblical type narrative based on the true story of a black criminal gang that existed in Johannesburg in the early 1900's.

"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 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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."

You can read the full online essay "Nongoloza's Children" by Jonny Steinberg here.


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