THIS is a story about a horse or rather about a horse that disappeared.

But the consequences of it led to decades of violence in the hills of the Witwatersrand and the fields of rural KwaZulu-Natal.

But most of all, it resulted in the birth and growth of prisons number gangs throughout South Africa.

It happened in 1886 and it traces the journey into a life of crime of Mzuzepi Mathebula, who was accused by a farmer of allowing one of his horses to stray. Giving his side of the story years later, Mathebula explained in the Department of Justice’s annual report for 1912: “Before I finished the first month of… employment one of the horses got lost. My master accused me of being negligent and blamed me for it. I told him that as I was working in the garden that day, he could not hold me responsible for the loss as all the horses were out grazing alone.

“He then threatened to place me in gaol if I did not go out and look for the horse. I searched, but did not find it. He then told me to go back to my kraal and work for Mr Tom
Porter (a previous employer) again, and added that Tom 
Porter would then bring to him the value of the horse that was lost.

“This amount would represent my wages for about two years.” Deeply angry, Mathebula made up his mind that the only way to escape the stranglehold of the farmer was to leave Natal. And so, when Porter sent him and another employee to Johannesburg to deliver supplies to the mining camps, he escaped.

At first he worked as a “houseboy”, regularly sending part of his earnings to his family in Natal. At one point he offered the owner of the horse three pounds as full and final payment for the horse, but was told he would also need to present himself to the farmer. It was at this point that he decided to break ties with his family completely by quitting his job as a “houseboy” and changing his name to Jan Note. His next job was as a groom for a group of highway robbers led by two white men known as Tyson and McDonald.

A conscientious worker and a quick learner, Note was invited to join the group. But he stayed just long enough to learn the ropes before leaving to form his own gang. An alliance with a gangster named Nhlopa, a leading member of the local black underworld, had promising beginnings.

But after the two had set themselves up in the Klipriviersberg hills, south-east of Johannesburg, with about 200 vagrants, Nhlopa was caught breaking into a tailor’s shop. After being tried, convicted and jailed, he turned to religion. Note was on his own again. But not for long. Changing his name once again, this time to Nongoloza, he drew together a gang of Nguni speakers, organising them along military lines.

Explaining the inner workings of the gang, he said: “I myself was the Inkoos Nkulu or king. Then I had an Indunu Inkulu-styled Lord and corresponding to the Governor-
General. Then I had another Lord, who was looked upon as the father of us all and styled Nonsala. Then I had my government who were known by numbers, number one to four.

“I also had my fighting general on the model of the Boer vecht general. The administration of justice was confided to a judge for serious cases and a landdrost for petty cases.

“The medical side was entrusted to a chief doctor or Inyanga. Further, I had colonels, captains, sergeant-
majors and sergeants in charge of the rank and file, the Amasoja of Shosi – soldiers.”

Nongoloza called his group Umkosi Wezintaba (the “Regiment of the Hills”).

They were trained to be particularly brutal, attacking those who tried to stop them or who refused to comply with their demands with frightening ferocity. Nongoloza was caught, tried and jailed a number of times, but no prison could hold him for long.

He was moved regularly from The Fort in Johannesburg to Pretoria and to Cinderella prison in Boksburg, but all it did was allow him to build up his organisation in the various jails. He was eventually offered a job as a warder, straying back into crime several times before his death from TB in 1948.

From the late 1800s to the present, Nongoloza’s story has become on the most enduring and frightening prison stories, built on the numbers gangs – the 26s, 27s and 28s, which, according to Don Pinnock in his book Gang Town, “operate with extreme and often casual brutality and the ready taking of blood” in jails around the country.

“In the hands of prison inmates this story has blossomed into a durable mythology. It has become a code of conduct, a dress code echoing that of late 19th century Boer and British armies, a secret language and an unwritten ‘book’ that has to be memorised.

“The numbers gangs, like Nongoloza’s jail gang, have their own parliament, legal system,punishment, territories and economy.

“The 26s, for example, have a Makwezi (president), generals, captains, sergeant-majors, lawyers, doctors, inspectors, teachers and soldiers,” writes Pinnock.

Police gang expert Jeremy Vearey lists the six laws of the 26s as:

1. You will not do what you want.

2. You will not lie to your brother or argue with him.

3. You will inspect the honest work of police and wardens.

4. You will not sleep under the same blanket as your brother (no sex).

5. You will not physically harm a non-prison gang member the first time he offends you, and first give him two warnings before harming him.

6. You will die with your brother under the flag of 
the 26s.