Pick a Number

South African prisons are a breeding ground for violent gangs. But how do members on the outside get by?

By Christopher Udemans

Araminta de Clermont

Araminta de Clermont

Willie Afrika sits propped up against a short white wall. He wearsa striped  shirt and ocean-blue jeans; well dressed for a homeless man. His face speaks of a hard life, one dominated by violence and fear. Wrinkles radiate from his stern blue eyes, terminating at his temples.

He looks around attentively, carefully surveying his surroundings. The smell of urine punctuates the air. “I don’t want this life,” he says.

Willie has a girlfriend and a young son whom he sees once a week. They live on a wine farm on the outskirts of Cape Town. He speaks proudly of his son but laments the fact that he has to sell drugs to support him. “I’m not a stealing man. You see, I sell ganja. The ganja makes us food.”

However, this is not the aspect of his life that troubles him most. His primary concern lies with his affiliations.


Willie joined the Numbers Gang when he was nineteen, the same year that marked the thirteenth anniversary of his mother’s death. He had been in Pollsmoor Prison when a gang member approached him.

The renowned South African prison gang has three divisions –or kampe –the 26s, 27s and 28s. Membership is reserved for those who are approved by all three.  Willie had been approached by a 27.

“All the guys in 26 must say make him a 27, all the guys in 27 must say make him a 27, all the guys in 28 must say make him a 27. You see, the whole people must say so,” says Willie. “Peoples join for protection. And respect.

He ruminates about his stints in prison, recalling the cramped living conditions. “There is 80 peoples in a cell,” he says, pointing out the imaginary dimensions of the room he is picturing in his mind.

The space he allocates is no larger than that of a medium sized living room.

“There is maybe only 20 beds,” he says. “Ndotas* sit on the floor. Peoples that is high up get the beds.”

Individuals in the three kampe are organised by rank. One rank is distinguished from another by way of goonyas, tattoos which function much like the stars on the epaulettes of an officer in the army. The more goonyas a prisoner has, the higher up they are in the pecking order.

Willie scratches his scar-ridden arm. Mounds of scar tissue mark his otherwise smooth skin. They t highlight a story, providing vivid images into a difficult and unknown past.

“Every day in jail you see blood. People hit other people. People stab other people and fight other peoples with sloots**. In the shower there is always fighting.”

He looks down, examining the cracks in the pavement. His silence is broken by a voice. It is deep. A male. It sounds much like Willie’s, only older.

“Give me the dagga. How much is a quarter?” asks the voice.

“20 rand,” replies Willie.

He hands the man what looks like a ball of newspaper.

“What is this?” the nameless figure asks.

“A quarter” replies Willie.

“Why must I pay R20?” the voice asks with disdain

“Ok give me a 20 and I’ll give you a 5,” says Willie

The man is introduced as Anton October. He wears a dirty white Nike shirt and baggy blue jeans. The jeans have holes at the knees. He looks older than Willie. Open sores surround his mouth and his right cheek is marked with a deep scar. He looks menacing. But his voice injects softness into his demeanour.

“This is my brother,” says Willie. “I call him my brother because he’s also a 27. He was the first of us to become an ndota. How long was your first sentence again?”

“Six years,” says Anton, “but I want to delete that part of my past. I went to prison for housebreaking. More than half of my life I have been in jail. When I was 12 I went to a reformatory. I grew up behind the bars.”

Anton looks at the Numbers Gang with different eyes from his friend. To him it serves a purpose. It is a litmus test for masculinity.

“You see, an African guy – he must go to the bush and get a cut if he get to be ndota, a big man, a growing up man. A white man, they must go to the army, if they come back, they are a man. And where do coloureds go? A coloured must go to the jail. Then he can be a man.”

The two gangsters start speaking of their first experiences in the gang. A young ndota is assigned a blackboard, or teacher. He guides the recruit in the ways of the Number and functions as a human exemplar.

“It’s like a school,” says Willie. “You come into the 27s and you get a man that gives you school everyday. He teach you, he’s the main man.”

Anton nods in agreement. “If you go to the army, there is someone that train you. It’s just like that,” he says.

Willie looks up and spots a man in the distance. The figure indicates that he is interested in Willie’s wares. “Wag” shouts Willie, indicating for the man to halt. He searches a dirty winter coat next to him and pulls out a piece of crumpled newspaper. Carefully, he opens it up, revealing a large amount of marijuana. He takes out a small quantity and wraps it in newspaper before running off to his customer.

Anton starts speaking again. “You know, a place like Pollsmoor there is no women. There are only men.”

He hesitates.

“If someone gonna act small than everybody is gonna make him small. If you act big, everybody is going to respect you.”


The topic of prison rape is a contentious one. Longtime leader of the 28s, John Mongrel, openly supported the idea of having a wyfie or male wife in prison. In an interview with Ross Kemp, host of the television series Ross Kemp on Gangs, Mongrel stated that he chooses a new sex slave every few weeks. When Kemp asked, “What if they refuse?” Mongrel looked at him and stated unflinchingly, “I kill them.”


 Willie returns after making a sale that will help to feed his girlfriend and son. He sits back down with a sigh.

“I don’t want to sell ganja. I like to draw. I like to paint.” He begins to explain that he is a talented artist but he has never tried to sell anything that he has created. He hasn’t painted for over ten years.

Anton speaks. “From the time I was at school I tell myself, me, I want to be a lawyer. Or a doctor. But now me, I was not making finish my school.”

He shakes his head. A shadow disappointment spreads across his face.

Looking up he says, “So how can I get that dream now?”

The conversation starts winding down. Both men decide that they are too old to change their stars. They have made their decisions. Now they have to deal with them. Add to that the strict exit policy of the Numbers gang.

Anton speaks for the last time.

“There is one way in, no way out.” If you want to go out, you must die.”


*ndota: a man initiated into the Number

**sloot: blade


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