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Nongoloza’s Legacy: The History Of South Africa’s Number Prison Gangs
Known as ‘The Number’, South Africa’s Prison Gangs are divided into 3 factions: the 28s, 27s, and 26s.
The story of how they formed and continue to thrive is an intriguing one couched in myth, the impact of Apartheid in South Africa as well the harsh realities of Prison life.
History Of Nongoloza
The roots of the 28s, 27s, and 26 Gangs lie in the introduction of Mining to South Africa in the early 1900s.
Black labour was required for the mines and an exodus of young African men to work in the mines ensued.
Conditions on the mines were harsh due to unsafe working conditions, and a significant number of Mine workers were injured or died on the mines never to return home.
Its in this context that the story of Nongoloza, a former Farmworker who would rise to become an Outlaw robbing carriages en route to Johannesburg’s Mines emerges.
Nongoloza born Mzuzephi Mathebula was born in 1867 in Zululand, and at age 16 he took up employment as a stable hand on a Horsefarm in the town of Harrismith.
This would lead to an unexpected turn of events that would seal his fate when one of the Horses under his care was lost and his employer demanded compensation for the Horse to be paid out of his wages.
Nongoloza would have had to pay over his wages for a period of two years in order to compensate his employer so he decided to venture to the Transvaal in search of alternative employment.
Whilst in the Transvaal he found another job and sent a sum of 3 Pounds to his former Employer as payment for the Horse.
However, Nongoloza found himself unable to accede to his former Employer’s demand to deliver the money in person, and after continued pressure exerted on his family in the rural area by his former Employer, Nongoloza decided to re-invent himself and permanently severe ties with his family by changing his name and making the Transvaal his permanent home.
He took up the name Jan Note in 1888, and found employment grooming Horses for 4 White men who unknown to him at the time made their living as highway robbers. In a short while, Nongoloza’s employers were impressed with his work and ability to keep a secret so they invited him to join their gang.
After participating in a few robberies, Nongoloza decided to strike out on his own, and formed his own gang called the Ninevites after the Biblical City of Nineveh.
The Ninevites terrorised the Transvaal mines and surrounding areas, but Nongoloza was eventually caught and imprisoned.
For the period 1900-1914 Nongoloza was in and out of Prison but he eventually renounced his ties to the underworld and worked as a Government Employee to help assist in management of the Prisons.
Following his release after 1914, he died a drunkard in 1948 aged 81 after stints at various Government Jobs including working as a Nightwatchman.
With Nongoloza’s imprisonment, the Ninevites entered the South African Prison sytem, and they would eventually define South Africa’s Prison Culture as they became the 28, 27, and 26 Gangs that survive today.
As such, although the Ninevites were defeated in the 1900s, by the 1930s, the Ninevites who had spent time in prisons all across South Africa had obtained many recruits throughout South Africa passing down the Nongoloza legend to succeding generations.
The process through which this occured can be interpreted as a form of Post-Colonial African mythology venerating Nongoloza and the Ninevites as Anti-Colonial Heroes resisting the Cultural shift in African life to paid wage labour on the mines as well as the inhumane Prison conditions of their era.
The Nongoloza And Kilikijan Myth
The Nongoloza myth begins at the dawn of Industrialisation in South Africa when a Village Elder named ‘Po’ notices that young men from the Village leave to work on the gold mines but do not return.
He decides to investigate, and after making his way to the mines he discovers the deplorable working conditions that have led to the death of the young men that have not returned.
On his return, he takes residence in a cave along the mine route and contemplates a solution to the problem which includes inventing a secret language that the Mine Owners will not understand.
After a while a two young African Men named Nongoloza and Kilikijan cross his path and after he asks them where they are going, he dissuades them from looking for work on the mines. Instead, he instructs them to gather followers from other African Men going to look for work until they form a Band of 15 in total.
Po then trains the group in the art of Highway Robbery, and the band of Robbers under the leadership of Nongoloza and Kilikijan flourish.
The leaders command separate groups, one which operates by day, and the other by night.
The Law of the Gang is written on a Stone until Po instructs Nongoloza and Kilikijan to obtain a Bull’s hide to write the Law so that one copy of the Law would be in Stone and the other written on the Hide.
A Bulll called Rooiland is obtained and slaughtered and a copy of the Law is written on Rooiland’s Hide.
The Rock is given to Kilikijan whilst Rooiland’s Hide is given to Nongoloza.
One day, a fragment of the Rock breaks off as it rolls down a hill and part of the Law in Killikijan’s possession is lost in a River.
The Band of Robbers continue to pillage together until one day Kilikijan discovers Nongoloza having sexual intercourse with one of the underlings under Kilikijan’s command called Magubane.
This sparks outrage as Nongoloza and Kilikijan engage in a bloody fight as Nongoloza insists that the full Law on the cowhide permits sex between bandits which Kilikijan cannot dispute even if it may have been added later by Nongoloza.
In the end, Po intervenes and suggests that the way to resolve it is for Kilikijan to travel to the mines and see how the men there behave, and when he returns Po will give his verdict.
Kilikijan travels to the mines and he observes men there having sexual intercourse with each other, but on his return, Po is deceased, and the final verdict is never pronounced.
In the aftermath of Po’s death, the gang splits into two factions.
Nongoloza’s faction became the 28s gang whilst Kilikijan’s became the 27s.
Nongoloza and Kilikijan subsequently find themselves in Prison where they find it expedient to form a third faction of the Gang involved in smuggling and making money in prison for both their factions which became known as the 26s.
In this structure, the 28s are the Judges or Lawkeepers, the 27s the Enforcers of the Law and the 26s are the money-making faction.
The alliance and peace amongst the gangs is thus kept as each respects the others domain.
In this period, Prison conditions in Apartheid South Africa were especially wretched for Black Prisoners.
For this reason, The Number Prison Gangs viewed their acts of violence such as the stabbing of Warders as acts of resistance meant to draw attention to the need to address particular issues such as diet and healthcare which they felt were being neglected.
As such, the Numbers Gang, in particular the 28s have always viewed their role as that of fighters for Prisoners rights from the Apartheid era.
The Numbers Gang Sexual Controversy
The sexual controversy reflected in the Nongoloza legend can be seen as a reflection of the need for Prison Gangs to deal with the questions of sexuality and masculinity within a Prison environment.
Whilst Gang Members maintain that the sex in question is not anal penetrative sex, but is conducted between the thighs, there seems to be division regarding the permissibility of sex in Prison with the 27s and 26s in particular viewing it as a vice of the 28s gang that they do not condone.
Ultimately, the Nongoloza myth is a romanticisation of the harsh reality of Gang life.
Nevertheless, in it we can see reflections of the Historical conditions that have led to the creation of the Gangs.
The Culture of the Number today is brutal and victimises Gang Members, innocent non-affiliated Inmates known as franse and Prison Staff.
It would be naive to view the Number today purely as an instrument of resistance because its power and symbolism has now been appropriated by contemporary Criminal Gangs as the original meaning of the Nongoloza continues to be lost in translation with each new generation.
The Documentary below provides a realistic portrayal of life under the Number today: