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Correspondent Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Killers don't cry
Pollsmoor prison
Pollsmoor prison, South Africa

Nominated for the Nombre D'Or Award 2001 (Documentary category)

This programme was first broadcast on Sunday 29th April 2001. The feature below accompanied the original article.


Alan Little reports on the ruthless gangs that terrorize and kill in South Africa's prisons, and a brave attempt to reach out to the murderers and ask them to confront their actions.

Mogamat Benjamin has been in prison for 34 years and he has killed more people - mostly fellow inmates - than he can remember. He has beheaded and mutilated their corpses.

He has - along with other members of his gang - cut out his victims' hearts and eaten them in a grim semi-mystical ritual in which the life-force of the victim is supposed to pass into the bodies of the killers.

The 28 Gang

Mogamat holds the rank of General in the gang known as the 28.

There are people who I said should be killed and they were killed

Mogamat Benjamin

"I am powerful," he told us. "I am partly God. No man has a higher rank in Pollsmoor than me. In the camp of the 28s a person's life is in my hands.

"The final decision is mine. There are people who I said should be killed and they were killed."

This is no idle boast. For years, Pollsmoor has had a murder and assault rate that matches the anecdotal claims.

"It's not the warders who have control of the prison any more. The Numbers control the prison. They make the decision here," says prison warder, Barry Coetzee.

Coetzee has reason to feel afraid. He has been warned that he has been selected by the gang leaders as a future target. Someone in the gang structure - he doesn't know who - has been ordered to stab him as a test of courage and loyalty to the gang. This is known as "calling a number".

"A number has been called on me", said Coetzee. "I will be stabbed or cut with a blade. My blood has to flow. There's no way to defend yourself. You never know when, you never know where. It's terrifying. It's a psychological war".

No fear allowed

Erefaan Jacobs, a
Erefaan Jacobs, a "Judge" in the '28s' Gang
Erefaan Jacobs is Mogamat's second-in-command. He holds the rank of Judge. It is his job to try gang members who break gang law and to decide on appropriate punishment.

"When you join the gang, I will not allow any fear from you", he said.

"We develop you in such a way that you will become fearless. You can only come into the camp [of the 28s] by spilling blood."

The men of the number cut the emblems of their allegiance into their skin. Facial tattoos are the ultimate abandonment of all hope of a life outside.

Tattoos are an expression of loyalty
The Numbers gangs have their origin in the violence of white rule. The 28s are the oldest gang. They were founded in 1906 as a revolt by 28 black prisoners. The gang quickly became a way for its members to defy - and protect themselves against - the atrocities of the white prison regime.

Gang sex

It developed its own military-style hierarchy, its own elaborate codes of punishment and reward, and its own sexual mores. For what distinguishes the men of the 28 is sex. An intricate protocol determines which new recruits will serve as sexual partners for which established gang members.

It was as a revolt against sodomy that the second main gang was formed - the gang of the 27s. They are known in prison as the men of blood. Their loyalty to their officers is tested by stabbing warders and other inmates. In Pollsmoor Maximum, almost half the warders have been stabbed or cut at least once.

The gang known as the 26 prove their loyalty by robbing warders and fellow inmates of whatever material possessions can be smuggled in.

It is a pattern repeated across South Africa, for the Numbers Gangs operate in all South Africa's prisons and inmates transferred from one prison to another must demonstrate a knowledge of gang culture, beliefs and practices in order to be accepted into the camp in the new prison.

Pollsmoor Prison
Pollsmoor is pioneering a new approach to the prison gang culture. Jonny Jansen is the first black man to head Maximum Security. He has persuaded leading gang members - including Mogamat and Erefaan - to join a programme known as "Change is Possible".

Breathtaking workshops

We obtained exclusive access to film a series of remarkable and - at times - breathtaking workshops in which the gang members were forced to confront themselves - to examine who they are and the evil that has so blighted them - for the first time in their lives.

It is an astonishing experiment in human nature - an attempt to reach into the souls of mass murderers and multiple rapists - to see whether they can be changed.

The workshops are run by Joanna Thomas from Cape Town's Centre for Conflict Resolution. She is a striking feminine presence in the masculine and emotionally repressive zone of Pollsmoor Maximum.

It took her many days to break down their suspicion, and some threatened to stab her.

On the last day of the course, they faced the toughest test. Joanna forced them to talk about their families - their wives, their children.

But, tellingly, it was when they spoke about their fathers that the floodgates opened. There was not a single man in the room who could recall an affectionate male presence in their childhoods.

A powerful moment

I see a struggle and as long as I see it I am prepared to engage with it

Joanna Thomas
It was a powerful and extraordinary moment to witness - a fleeting instant when the humanity seemed to seep back into the most dehumanised of human beings.

That is what motivates Joanna Thomas to come back into this place day after day. "I am not so na´ve as to believe that one series of workshops can change a man who has been in the heart of the gang system for most of his life. But I see a struggle and as long as I see it I am prepared to engage with it."

Click here for transcripts

Reporter: Allan Little
Producer: Pearlie Joubert
Director: Clifford Bestall
Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch

AV Allan Little:
The secret world of Gangs in South Africa's prisons
Allan Little:
The moment of initiation into a Gang
Alan Little:
Some Gang members want Joanna Thomas stabbed:
Allan Little:
Gang members gather for a revolutionary workshop
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