Growing up in a dusty township on the Cape Flats, John W Fredericks was arrested for robbery and sentenced to two years in Pollsmoor prison when he was 17. There, the number gangs vied to initiate him into their ranks, but he resisted their advances, offering instead to help them pass the time by telling stories. Life after prison became a nightmare when he was arrested for a murder he hadn’t committed. Struggling to deal with his past, he turned to storytelling again, and painstakingly learnt the art of scriptwriting. The result was Noem My Skollie, last year’s hit film of his life which was watched by almost 90 000 people and won numerous awards.
It was raining when we entered the reception area of the old Pollsmoor prison. We handed in our valuables and were stripped of our civvies. Our clothes were stuffed into a canvas bag with our names attached and put into storage until our release. We were then body-searched, and the warder seemed to take great pleasure in shoving his gloved hand up our butts as if we were animals.
We were given prison clothes: short pants, navy-blue shirt, jersey and jacket. No underwear or shoes. They gave each of us a katkop (half a loaf of bread with a dollop of jam) and a monitor, a trusted prisoner with an "M" badge attached to his shirt, escorted us across the yard to our section. My pants were too big and I held them up with one hand while the other clutched the katkop. I had a bad cold, and I had to swipe my runny nose on the sleeve of my jacket. Convicted prisoners hanging out the cell windows gave wolf whistles and a convict shouted at Gimba, 'Hei, ronne hol!' (Hey, round butt!) Another pointed at me. 'Djy gan nog in my arms * ê!' (You’re going to lie in my arms!) I tried to control my trembling as I stepped between the puddles of water.
As we passed a lone warder on guard duty, Gimba brushed against him and the warder smacked him viciously, dumping him into a puddle of water. 'Fok daai kant toe, bandiet!' the warder shouted. (F*** that way, convict!)
Gimba scrambled up, still clutching his katkop. We moved on and the monitor murmured, 'Daai’s Koegedam. Die bandiete het hom geryp op Kougadam se tronk' (That’s Koegedam. He was raped by convicts at Kougadam prison)
The monitor handed us over to another warder, who unlocked the gate and took us to our section. The keys rattled as he unlocked the cell door. He shoved us into the cell and shouted, 'Twee Krismis-hampers!' (Two Christmas hampers!)
We entered and a voice shouted, 'Staan op stimela!' (Stand by the door!)
We waited there and my eyes scanned the scene in front of us. There were men playing dominoes, dice, and snakes and ladders, and others just staring at us. In the corner, four convicts, their heads hooded with blankets, were sitting in a circle, deeply involved in a sabela (numbers gang) conversation.
A white-haired old convict with a towel slung around his neck approached us. He stopped in front of us and grinned, showing smoke-yellowed teeth. He tugged at a tobacco joint and blew smoke into my face and reckoned, ‘Djy lyk vaagweg bekend’ (You look vaguely familiar)
He looked at me for a long moment as if trying to remember where he had seen me before. Then he focused on Gimba. ‘Djy’s ’* mooi laaitie. Die agge gan jou jag om jou ’* wyfie te maak en hulle passellie hie. Die sesse hulle roof en plunder en hulle soek soldate wan hulle is maa min hie’ (You’re a pretty boy. The 28s are going to hunt you to make you a concubine and they control this cell.
The 26s rob and plunder and they need soldiers because there’s only a few of them here.) He whipped the towel from around his neck, exposing a ‘27’ prison gang tattoo with the words ‘The Kid Loves Blood’. ‘My naam is Timer,’ he said, ‘en ek vat bloed!’ (My name is Timer and I take blood!)
The four hooded convicts got up and walked towards us as I wiped my running nose again. I felt like a small kid again, a frightened kid at that. They stopped in front of us, and I looked at the one who was clearly the leader, a slim, dark-skinned dude with a ‘28’ tattooed across his throat. He had purple gums and a lone tooth stood guard at the side of his mouth. ‘Wie’s julle vi’dag!?’ he barked at me (Who are you today!?)
I trembled. ‘Os issie Young Ones’ (We are the Young Ones)
He hit me viciously in the face and tears sprung into my eyes as he screamed at me, ‘Die Young Ones beteken fokkol hie nie!’ (The Young Ones mean f***-all here!) He came at me again and I stood my ground, locking eyes with him, and he stopped. ‘Soe djy’s sterk gevriet? Os sal sien vanand!’ (So you’re a tough guy? We will see about that tonight!)
One of the 26 gang members, named Ghost, pointed to Gimba and addressed Gums: ‘Die een is Mr C se laaitie, soe hy’s onner osse protection’ (This one is Mr C’s kid, so he’s under our protection).
Gums’s eyes lit up at the revelation. ‘Mr C se laaitie? Daai vark het my swak gemaak op Barberton se tronk!’ (Mr C’s kid? That pig made me weak at Barberton prison!)
‘Os kan altyd die ding stryt maak, Gums,’ Ghost said. (We can always sort it out.)
‘Stryt maak?’ Gums replied. ‘Hoe gan djy dit stryt maak, roebana? Djy het dan fokkol nie! Tong en lip beteken niks; bewysstuk, daai’s die nobangela!’ (Sort it out? How are you going to sort it out, robber? You’ve got f***-all! Talk is cheap; demonstrating, that’s the thing!) More 28 members gathered around, and Ghost and his fellow 26 brother, Sampie, backed down.
The cell was a long room with beds on both sides, each made up of a straw mat and three blankets, folded into a bundle. In the middle was another row of mats Timer pointed us there. ‘Julle slaap oppie eiland,’ he said. (You sleep on the island.)
We found an open space on the island and sat down. Gimba gobbled up his katkop. I felt ill and had no appetite so I hung on to mine. Minutes later a lackey arrived and told us: ‘Gums roep julle, julle biete gou kom voo julle op julle moer kry!’ (Gums is calling you, you better come quickly before you get f***ed up!)
‘Ko os gan hoo wat hy wil hê?’ Gimba said. (Let’s go find out what he wants?)
I was going nowhere. ‘Gan djy!’ (You go!)
Gimba got up and walked towards Gums’s ‘ranch’. I followed, still holding onto my katkop.
The 28 gang hierarchy in the cell was gathered at Gums’s huge double bed made from a stack of mats and blankets. An evil-looking convict with ‘Call Me Dog’ tattooed across his forehead leered at us. The lackey was busy making an ‘andalabak’, a cake made with crumbed bread, sugar and a dollop of jam mixed together in a flat tin that he held over a vet lampie (fat lamp) to warm it.
Gums indicated to us to have a seat. ‘Sit daa’ (Sit there)
I sat down as Gums tugged on a thick dagga zol. He blew smoke into my face and offered me the zol. I refused the offering. ‘Nie dankie, ek roekie dagga nie.’ (No, thank you, I don’t smoke dagga.) The Dog chuckled hoarsely while Gums fumed and offered the zol to Gimba, who accepted eagerly.
Gimba tugged at the joint and held his breath, savouring the hit and trying to impress.
Gums cut off a piece of cake and offered it to me. ‘Iet ’n stukkie koek.’ (Eat a piece of cake.)
I remembered my cousin Lenny’s advice that I should never take anything from another convict and that I didn’t have to join the number. I showed Gums my katkop.
‘Nei ek is olraait, ek het nog my katkop.’ (NoI’m alright, I’ve still got my bread.)
The Dog found it funny and chuckled again. Gums bit angrily into the piece of cake with his one molar and offered it to Gimba. I looked at Gimba and admonished him with my eyes, but he ignored me and ate the cake. Suddenly Gums shoved a small amount of tobacco into Gimba’s shirt pocket, took his hand and read his palm. ‘Relax djy gan nog ’* lang future het same Gums.’ (Relax you’re going to have a long future with Gums.) Gimba’s eyes flashed at me as the reality of his situation hit home.
Gums turned his attention to me. ‘Soe djy’s ’n clever? Die clevers is byte, die moegoes is binne! Djy slaap hie vanaand!’ (So you’re a clever? The clevers are outside, the stupids are inside! You sleep here tonight!)
I let him hang for a few moments as his crew waited for my response. ‘Ek dowel mossie vi daai club nie’ (I don’t play for that club)
Gums exploded and beat and kicked me in a frenzy of fury, screaming, ‘Jou fokken tief!’ (You f***ing bitch!)
I scampered away as Gums turned on Gimba. ‘Djy, Elvis! Druk ’n number!’ (You, Elvis! Sing a song!)
I lay on my bed and listened to Gimba singing in a falsetto. The bell rang for lights-out and Gums shouted, ‘Toe mettie kop en oep mettie hol!’ (Close your heads and open your bums!)
I waited for Gimba to return to his bed, but I heard a couple of thuds and Gimba pleading. Soon his pleading turned to moaning and I knew that he was not returning to bed.
I lay on my back and stared up at the bare rafters and the dew forming droplets on the corrugated-iron roof. I tried to stay awake but I succumbed to sleep. I don’t remember how long I slept, but I know I was dreaming of the long-legged girl at the dance. I dreamed that she was caressing my thighs and it felt almost real. My eyes popped open and I stared at the roof. I suddenly realised that there was somebody behind me under the blankets who was caressing my thighs. I whirled in shock and fear, grabbed the perpetrator by his shoulders and headbutted him twice in succession and blood gushed out his nose. It was Gums! Gums staggered back and clutched at his nose, snarling, ‘Jou fokken tief!’ He turned to Dog. ‘Dog! Gie my ’n goemba!’ (Dog! Give me a weapon!)
Dog threw him a mug with a leather belt threaded through the handle. He wrapped the belt around his wrist and came at me swinging. I had nowhere to run and tried to cover my head and face as the mug thudded against my upper body. I staggered and fell and a silent scream escaped from my lips as Gums swung the goemba to deal out the death blow. The weapon stopped in mid-air and inexplicably Gums walked back to his bed. I moaned in pain.
* This is an extract from Skollie by John W Fredericks, published by Zebra Press at a recommended retail price of R250