Department of Correctional Services officials are now receiving managment training to assist them in coping with the increasing stress of dealing with large volumes of prisoners. A warder at an East London Prison keeps a close eye on prisoners. 241006 Picture: Steve Lawrence

You just have to expose them to conditions for their humanity to be exercised, says Jeremy Vearey.

Cape Town - In 1987, Umkhonto we Sizwe commander Ashley Forbes and 14 other revolutionary soldiers, including me, Leon Scott, Nazeem Lowe, Peter Jacobs, Niclo Pedro and Wally Rhoode were in Pollsmoor Prison awaiting trial on “terrorism” charges.

Throughout this period, before leaving for Robben Island, we were respected as Nelson Mandela’s soldiers and even held in high regard as “men of blood”, an honorary title reserved for members of the27s gang.

Three incidents at the time demonstrated the reverence with which the numbers gangs regarded us.

One involved a decision by the leaderships of the 26s, 27s, and 28s gangs in the B Section of Pollsmoor Prison to kill a prisoner named “Cliffie” a month before his release because they believed he had stolen from us.

As soon as the prison authorities heard of this they woke us one night at midnight and asked us to “cancel the contract”.

We did not know what they were talking about, but some of us accompanied them to a cell where the gang leaders who had made the decision in question were held.

There we thanked the numbers gang leaders for their gesture of honour and requested that they leave the matter to us to deal with as soldiers.

They accepted our proposal and “Cliffie” lived to see another day.

Another incident involved a particularly violent member of the 27s gang called “Wolf” who, according to numbers gang leaders, was permanently “bloed dronk” and uncontrollable.

At the time Wolf was awaiting transfer to death row after having participated in a ritual prison gang murder in which he had slit the throat of an “enemy” with a razor blade, drunk the man’s blood, and eaten his heart.

One day Warrant Officer Christo Brand (Mandela’s former warder) asked Forbes to speak to Wolf.

Apparently Wolf had stabbed his cell mate and broken the toilet pot in his cell, resulting in other prisoners having to be moved and his being chained to the cell door.

Forbes succeeded in calming Wolf down.

The gangster later hero-worshipped Forbes and followed our terrorism trial by reading Grassroots and other newspapers smuggled into prison to keep him happy.

A third experience involved a 28s gang general called Roberto dos Santos, whose cell was well stocked with law textbooks and journals, and who had the title “tronk lawyer (jail lawyer)”.

It was rumoured that his legal advice had saved several prisoners from death row and that even the warders consulted him on legal matters.

Dos Santos took a keen interest in our “terrorism” trial and made a point of regularly advising some of us on how to deal with our cross-examination, which he followed daily in the newspapers.

At some point he even supplied us with newspapers and publications such as the Weekly Mail, Grassroots, and the Saspu National, published by the South African Students Press Union.

At this stage you may be wondering where this “terrorist” is going with this.

The point of it all is that nothing and no one is beyond redemption or their own humanity, no matter what the numbers gangs try to make them.

You just have to expose them to experiences which create the opportunities and conditions for their humanity to be exercised and reinforced, and redemption will follow.

And this is the most valuable lesson we can learn from the movie Four Corners, and the very real experience of the “Fighting Fifteen” in the real Four Corners of Pollsmoor Prison.

* * Jeremy Vearey is a senior SAPS officer who grew up in Elsies River. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus