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Prison life in South Africa is characterized by an elaborate system of gangs, through which much prisoner-on-prisoner violence is mediated. While gang activity is common to many prison systems, South African prison gangs are distinctive. Most importantly, gangs in South African prisons have a national organization, and a gang member who is transferred from one prison to another, or even released and reimprisoned, will keep his membership and gang rank in the new prison. The gangs have a history that predates the formation of the South African prisons department. They are not spontaneous creations in each prison, with an improvised system of membership and command, but have an elaborate structure, ranking and disciplinary code that mimics the militaristic structures of the South African apartheid system in general and the prison administration in particular.

The three predominant gangs operating in South Africa's prisons today are the 28s, 27s and 26s, known collectively as the "number gangs." They trace their origins, by an elaborate oral history, to the late nineteenth century, when gangs were formed in the all-male compounds occupied by migrant laborers working in the mines on the Witwatersrand, near Johannesburg. One man, Nongoloza Mathebula (1867-1948), is credited with the establishment of the basics of the gang system. Gang membership spread from the mining compounds to the prisons, aided by South Africa's pass laws, which ensured that the great majority of black South African males were exposed to the criminal system, since they could be arrested at any time for failure to carry documentation proving their right to be in a particular place. By the 1920s, the gangs had ceased to exist in their original form outside the prisons, but had become entrenched inside the prison walls.69

Each of the gangs has an elaborate quasi-military command structure, involving up to thirty different ranks; each rank has specific hierarchical duties, and internal discipline is strictly maintained. Promotion, particularly to the higher ranks, may be obtained by committing acts of violence on persons outside the gang. The gangs themselves are distinguished according to their aims and activities: the 28s are regarded as the senior gang, and are distinguished primarily by their organized system of "wyfies" or coerced homosexual partners; the 26s are associated with cunning, obtaining money and other goods by means of fraud and theft; the 27s protect and enforce the codes of the 28s and 26s, and are symbolized by blood. Other gangs, of more recent origin and regarded as illegitimate by the number gangs, are the Big Fives, who collaborate with the authorities as informers and in other ways; and the Air Force, who organize mass escapes. Minor local gangs, sometimes associated with gangs in the outside world, also exist. Gang membership is marked by tattoos, symbols and "uniforms" recognizable by all prisoners.70

Gang membership is theoretically voluntary, but the fact of confinement for up to twenty-three hours a day in overcrowded communal cells places enormous power in the hands of the gang hierarchies. Nevertheless, not all prisoners are gang members, though they may have to cooperate with the gangs in various ways.71 During our visits to prisons, numerous prisoners expressed to us their desire to be free of the gang system and removed from the pressures inherent in sharing cramped quarters with groups founded on violent activity. This was especially true in Modderbee and Barberton prisons. On the other hand, gangs clearly provide a form of support structure to long-term prisoners deprived of any alternative means of socialization.

Gangs may deprive non-members of all their personal belongings or deny them access to privileges. Several ex-prisoners described to us the experience of arriving in the section for awaiting trial to have everything they had brought to prison taken away from them. One prisoner described having to "buy" the right to a bed from gang leaders in the cell. Another stated that he had been deprived of access to his visitors on several occasions by gang leaders who had demanded payment to allow him to see them next time.

In theory, the number gangs are not antagonistic to each other, but in practice they are competing for scarce resources C including the recruitment of other prisoners. Accordingly, the potential for violent conflict is great. Each prison will tend to have one dominant gang, which imposes its own discipline beneath that of the prison authorities. Attempts to disturb this structure can lead to warfare between the gangs; large influxes of prisoners from other parts of the system may also upset an existing equilibrium. Approximately two weeks before we visited Kroonstad Medium A prison, a fight took place between the 26s and the Big Fives. Over 200 prisoners from the Cape area had recently been transferred to the prison, as a measure to relieve overcrowding. The newly arrived prisoners largely belonged to the 26s, and challenged the previous hegemony in the prison of the Big Fives. Four prisoners were seriously injured and treated in the hospital in the town, another six were treated in the prison hospital. In Barberton maximum prison, a fight involving the Big Fives, 26s and 28s had taken place in December 1992, two months before our visit. In August 1993, thirty-three prisoners at Leeuwkop maximum security prison were injured when rival gangs attacked each other and guards used birdshot to separate them. Three were hospitalized.72 In October 1993, a wave of gang-related violence spread throughout a number of South African prisons, causing numerous injuries and some fatalities.

In addition to general conflict between two gangs, we received reports during our visits that gang-related assaults by prisoners on other prisoners were a daily occurrence in maximum security prisons, and common in all prisons. In Barberton maximum prison, a prisoner told us that he had been assaulted approximately one month before our visit by gangmembers. He spoke to us from a single cell, where he had been moved from a communal cell where he had been housed with prisoners from a different gang. Virtually all ex-prisoners that we interviewed stated that they had witnessed, or themselves been subject to, gang-related assaults.73

Sexual assault between prisoners is also common and is bound up with the institutionalized system of "wyfies" within the 28 gang. An ex-prisoner from the main prison in Johannesburg known colloquially as "Sun City" for its floodlighting, described being assaulted by more than twenty prisoners who wanted to rape him one night soon after his arrival. He reported the assault to the warders, but gang members bribed the guard and he remained housed in the same cell for nine months. An ex-prisoner from Pollsmoor described sexual assault as "general and routine." Another ex-prisoner held in Groenpunt and Losperfontein prisons, who had joined the 28s as a teenager while in reformatory school, stated that rape of younger prisoners would happen "about every week."

In September 1992, a nineteen-year-old prisoner at Groenpunt prison in Vereeniging died in prison. Gerald Nkomo had complained to the authorities of being raped, and asked for a transfer to a different prison. A few days before he died, Nkomo's sister had visited him in prison, when he was in good health, but told her that he was scared that his cell mates were going to kill him because he was pressing his complaint of rape. In February 1993, after repeated requests from a prisoners' rights organization for an investigation, the Department of Correctional Services stated that the doctor who had examined Nkomo found no signs of rape, and that there would be no inquest into the death because Nkomo had died of "natural causes."74

The prison authorities acknowledge the existence of the gangs as a problem, and express their complete opposition to the gang system. Various methods are used to try to minimize gang activity, including housing members of different gangs in different communal cells (this was not the practice in all prisons we visited, but was the case, for example, in Barberton maximum security prison), and punishment for activities connected with gang membership.75 Prisoners may also request to be housed in single cells, and during our visits we spoke to several prisoners who were segregated in this way at their own request because they believed their lives to be in danger in the cell to which they had previously been assigned.

Nevertheless, it was clear to us from our interviews with prisoners and ex-prisoners that at least some prison warders are in active collaboration with the gang system. The very existence of a gang, the Big Five, whose stated aim is to collaborate with the authorities, is suggestive of a less than whole-hearted opposition to the gang system. Ex-prisoners, including members of the Big Five, described to us the system by which prisoners in the gang will collaborate with the authorities, participate in corrupt practices, or defend warders in court if they are accused of wrongdoing; in return they are granted early parole, good work assignments, and support against the other gangs.

Prisoners frequently labelled the Big Five gang as informers, and expressed their fear that their conversations with our representatives would be reported to the authorities by members of the gang who might be within earshot. At least two prisoners reported to us that attempts had been made on their lives by members of the Big Five acting on the instructions of warders to whom they had previously made complaints, and that the authorities had taken no action to protect them. One prisoner, held in solitary confinement in Barberton maximum security prison and facing a charge of murder, claimed that he had been caused to commit the murder by members of the prison staff. A recently released ex-prisoner who had been held in Modderbee and Leeuwkop, two of the most notorious prisons near Johannesburg, similarly claimed to have been a member of the Big Five and to have carried out a murder on the instructions of warders in the year before his release.

The causes of the gang system are complex, and difficult to address in the short term. It is clear, however, that the effects of the system are multiplied by the lack of work or recreational activity, especially in maximum security prisons; the extreme overcrowding and consequent lack of privacy in many prisons; and the tolerance of elements within the prison authorities of some gang activities.

69 Nicholas Haysom, Towards an understanding of prison gangs, Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town, 1981; M. Slabbert and J.H. van Rooyen, Some implications of tattooing in and outside prison, Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town, 1978; Van Zyl Smit, Prison Law and Practice, pp. 48-50.

70 Haysom, Prison Gangs; W.J. Schurink, "The world of the Wetslaners: an analysis of some organisational features in South African prisons," Acta Criminologica, Vol.2, No.2, 1989; Breyten Breytenbach The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983), pp. 272-278.

71 Studies indicate gang membership of 50 to 90 percent in some institutions. Van Zyl Smit, Prison Law and Practice, p.49.

72 SA Conflict Monitor, August 1993.

73 Cases reaching the South African court system as a result of murders committed in prison confirm that gang members may be instructed to kill other prisoners. In such cases, the fact of gang membership may be regarded as extenuating circumstances. See, for example, S. v. Masaku 1985 3 SA 908 (A); S. v. Magubane 1987 2 SA 663 (A).

74 Information supplied by NICRO-Johannesburg; see also, Jacquie Golding, "Warders blamed for prison killing," Weekly Mail, February 26 to March 4, 1993.

75 Departmental Orders provide that prison staff should pay immediate and thorough attention to requests from prisoners to sleep in a particular cell because their lives are threatened, and that certain categories of prisoners, including members of different gangs and informers to the police or prison staff, should be housed separately; DOB II(1)(g)(xii) and DOB II(3)(m)(vii). See also Van Zyl Smit, Prison Law and Practice, pp. 147 & 187.

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February 1994