I have yet to meet a young person who is as awestruck about the police detective as he or she is by the gangsters in the movie, Four Corners, says Jeremy Vearey.
Cape Town - I have been following reaction to the movie Four Corners about numbers gang violence on the Cape Flats with the necessary caution of not getting lost in the hype around its authenticity or artistic merit.
While I am not duly concerned with commentary from those far removed from the brutal reality of the events the movie depicts, it is the reactions of youth on Cape Flats streets where I work as a police officer that is of greater concern.
These reactions range from awestruck fascination with the mystique of “Sabela” and the “discipline” of the “number” as they see it in the movie, to taking sides with their favourite characters – the 26 street gang leader and 28 “general”.
I have yet to meet a young person who is as awestruck about the police detective in the movie. Youths I encountered seem to relate to organised gang violence, depicted so authentically in Four Corners, and its prevalence is deemed normal, or, worse, acceptable.
Those of us who know the real story of the number gangs have the duty to correct these misperceptions.
I want to share a few thoughts on number-driven gang violence sourced from my manuscript titled “Nongoloza’s Legacy: Prison and Street Gangs in the Western Cape”.
The use of violence within the numbers gangs (26, 27, and 28) is usually strictly governed by ritualistic procedure and codified conventions. Although there are exceptions to this rule, they are usually reserved for the mandated actions of “Shozis” (soldiers/Nqayi/Masjalou/Martial Law) of the 26, 27, and 28 gangs who have to act immediately against any threat which approaches the “kamp” (Umkozi).
Failure to act by a soldier under these circumstances amounts to a disciplinary record on his ‘docket’ and “vuil papiere” (a bad record). It is this type of violence by Shozis which drives most of the reactive and retaliatory violence in prison and street gangs who subscribe to the number code.
In number gang terms it is said of a Shozi: “Hy staan nag en dag op ’n pos van gevaar. Hy is altyd gebritish. Hy staan op ’n pos by die hek vannie kamp en moet alle gevarre wat na die kamp kom, same time verdallah.”
Even the imaginary uniform of a Shozi of the 28s, for example, manifests this constant readiness for war in that it is said that it includes a three-legged pot (“bloed pot”) which he kicks over with his red boots with the number 28 stamped under the sole, his khaki shirt with its three top buttons open when in war, armed with a “303 rifle” (prison mug) on his right hip and an “asssegai” (prison-sharpened spoon or makeshift shiv) on his left hip. He also has eight gold rounds, one in the barrel of the 303 and seven gold rounds in the magazine with an additional 20 gold rounds in an ammunition pouch, to signify that he is always ready for war.
In addition to violence emanating from the mandated actions of Shozis, other prescribed wars by gang law – “volgens die Slasloekoes (laws) van Moegswane” (rules from the years when Paul Mabasa, Nongoloza and Kilikijane lived) – are enacted according to ritual and are terminated ritually when its purpose has been achieved. The examples which follow do not include ritual violence by the 27 gang (“Holland”) who are permanent “Men of Blood”, an exclusive warrior class who also mediate in conflicts between the 28s and 26s.
Example 1: War in defence of land. This is often waged under the rule that any threat to their land/ turf/section or space within a prison cell from outsiders must be defended by blood: “Die land vannie oemkosie moet met bloed verdedig word.” In a similar context, a cleansing war is as prescribed to rid gang space of those who have defiled it by their presence: “Die land moet geskoffel word om dit skoon te maak vannie Vuil Mpatas.”
Example 2: War to declare the presence of the number in situations in which the number gangs do not have control. Gang law prescribes that where a number gangster arrives in a prison controlled by “Franse” (non-gang members) or “Vuil Mpatas” (members of the fourth camp of 25s and 29s) he must first wait for six-to-eight days, depending on his gang affiliation, after which he must draw the blood of the enemy to announce his presence.
Example 3: “Bloed volgens Nobangela”: this type of war is usually sanctioned by the full leadership of the gang (The 12 points of Number Ones) and its motive (“nobangela”) must be understood by all. In this case the ritual demands that the war sanction is recorded by the “mabalang” (clerk) in his book and declared officially by the General or most senior officer present.
Example 4: “Skiet mettie volle nommer/Die stimelas bots”: this is a full declared war between the 26 and 28 gangs when either parties have not done what the law demands of them to do, or a senior officer such as a General (Maspaal/ Magadeni/Mafailant) is attacked and this needs to be corrected. This war is usually resolved when both parties stop the war in prison by stabbing a warder (“die bloed vannie Mapuza het salute”). Outside prison, among the more puritan number street gangs, there is usually mutual agreement on whose blood must be shed.
Up until the early 1970s in the Western Cape the numbers gang culture was restricted to behind prison walls, and mixing street gang rules with that of the number was a punishable offence according to the code. However, with the emergence of super-gangs such as the Born Free Kids and Cape Town Scorpions this trend changed and the former aligned itself more to the 26 orientation whereas the latter subscribed more to the 28 code in the mid- to late 1970s.
This was also compounded by the fact that released prisoners from both gangs and others, such as the Mongrels in Hanover Park, started abusing their prison gang ranks as a stamp of authority to take over the leadership of some street gangs, as well as form power blocks against non-prison gang members to destroy the hegemony of “Franse” or “Mpatas” (non-gang members) in these gangs. It is this trend of number code affiliation among street gangs that has become entrenched in the codes of conduct and inter-gang wars between the 26s and 28s outside prison today.
It is these realities about the organised gang violence of the number gang world that our youth need to see in all its inglorious brutality and predatory evil. Numbers gangs fight for reasons not governed by our sense of morality or rules and settle matters on their terms subject to their own code. In their world, I, as a South African Police Service member, am a natural enemy termed (“Mapuza”), while you as a civilian, are a mere “Mpata” (stupid non-gang member whom they consider legitimate prey).
* Jeremy Vearey is a senior SAPS officer who grew up in Elsies River. He has lost many family members and friends to gang violence on the Cape Flats, lost one cousin to a war between the Sicilians and Born Free Kids in 1980, another killed by the 28 gang in 1987, and several other friends and other extended family members to gang violence between the Born Free Kids and Scropions gangs in the late 1970s. He spent his Section 29 detention prior to being sentenced for terrorism in 1987 in the B and A Sections of Pollsmoor Maximum Prison alongside number gang prisoners were held as an attempt by the Security Police to break him.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.