News and Views

‘Numbers’ Jail Gang Behind Pistorius Threat

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As Oscar Pistorius starts a five-year sentence at Pretoria’s Central Prison the Olympian will need to urgently study the lore and laws of South Africa’s numbers gangs.

More than a century old, the gangs – the 26s, 27s and 28s, dominate South Africa’s prison system with a mixture of arcane mythology, sexual intimidation and sometimes extreme violence.

Pistorius, serving his sentence for the manslaughter of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will quickly have to learn how to navigate through the darkest corners of jailhouse anthropology.

His life may depend on it.

According to his lawyers he has already had a death threat from the ‘general’ of the 26s, who is reported to be a murderer serving a 33-year sentence.

He told a South African news agency that if Pistorius is given special treatment then he will die.

This may have been part of the plea for leniency. But it’s also a real danger.

Pistorius will most likely remain in a segregated part of the prison which also accommodates the mass killer of the apartheid regime, Eugene de Kock.

If not, he may have to seek the protection of the 28s or 27s from the threat made by the leader of the 26s.

All three gangs have their roots in the story of how Po, a deity of some kind, met Nongoloza and Kilikijan in the late 19th Century as both men were heading to work in the white-owned gold mines of the Vaal Reef.

Po advised against it and encouraged both men to form highway gangs.

Kilikijan worked by day, with seven members. Nongoloza and his eight followers owned the night.

The two fell out over Nongoloza’s predilection for sex with other men.

The clash in a Durban prison, legend has it, over six men that Nongoloza wanted to take as ‘wives’, produced, in around 1907, the 26s who take a mediating role.

Today the numbers gangs are made up of mixed race members from the Cape.

Most speak Afrikaans but Funagalore, the language of the mines, is the ‘official’  lingua franca of the numbers.

Their interests extend far beyond the prison walls.

The 28s are the root of the ‘American’ – an organised crime syndicate on the Cape Flats; the 26s were formed by the Staggie brothers from the Hard Livings gang.

All run prostitution, drug dealing and protection rackets worth millions every year.

Pistorius would have trouble joining the 27s. They’re the most violent group.

So that would leave the 28s. They run kitchen work. But the 28s’ hierarchy is tough to climb.

Membership of its top tier, the Gold Line, requires initiates to stab a prison warden.

This is the ‘male line’ in a gang that celebrates same-sex relationships.

The foot soldiers for the Gold Line are known as the Third Division. They are the gang’s muscle, sworn off sex, they may not have contact with the Silver Line, the gang’s majority.

Probationers must always show they are available for sex by revealing part of their chest; while seen as sex slaves they are pampered and protected – as “wyfies”.

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