Join 3,436 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Numbers
August 5, 2010 4:50 AM   Subscribe

The amazingly detailed origin myth of The Numbers, the largest South African prison gangs. Jonny Steinberg details the three largest gangs' (tenuously) shared myth, which accounts for their strangely symbiotic relationships by dictating who may steal, who may rape, and who may judge.

And so the three camps were formed, each with their self-made philosophies of banditry and their collectively assigned roles. The 26s were to accumulate wealth, which was to be distributed among all three camps, and acquired through cunning and trickery, never through violence. The 28s, in turn, were to fight on behalf of all three camps for better conditions for inmates. They would also be permitted to have sex, in their own ritualised manner, among themselves. They were never to touch a 26.

As for the 27s, they were the guarantor of gang law; they were to keep the peace between the three camps...And they would right wrongs by exacting revenge: when blood was spilled, they would spill blood in turn.

Today, in 2004, that is how South Africa's three major prison gangs understand their origins. In the 26s and the 27s, sex between gang members is formally outlawed and subject to severe and violent punishment. Although, as you will soon see, this ban on sex is breached all the time, and the ways in which it is breached are interesting.

The 28s, in contrast, are divided into two parallel hierarchies, two lines. There is the gold, or gazi, line which is the military line and consists of soldiers who fight the gang's battles. At the apex of the gold line is its first ancestor, Nongoloza. Then there is the silver, or private, line, which is female. At the apex of this line stands its first ancestor, Magubane.
posted by pollex (35 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
(The text under the fold is quotes from the paper)
posted by pollex at 4:50 AM on August 5, 2010


This is fascinating, thank you. I'm torn between wanting to read it all and not wanting to read it all. If I've learnt one thing from reading the early sections it's this: don't go to jail in South Africa. Really..
posted by MuffinMan at 5:17 AM on August 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


The biggest problem with The Numbers is that it don't provide nearly the same power and flexibility as its biggest rival, The Excel.

what?
posted by mrstrotsky at 5:31 AM on August 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


er... doesn't

And why are the 26's afraid of the 27's?

Because the 27's 28 29.

In Brief:
massive prison populations = bad.
widespread violence (sexual and otherwise) across south africa = really bad
failure of the ruling anc party to actually govern in any significant manner = tragically bad.
likely future of south africa if it continues on this path = bleak

Africa needs more Botswanas
posted by mrstrotsky at 5:38 AM on August 5, 2010


Failures of the ANC aside, this system developed over a century of National Party rule.
posted by atrazine at 5:49 AM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I admit OT.

Upon reading: This is a really fascinating origin myth. It's pretty neat to think that prisons have such a vast institutional memory, though I suppose it makes sense, given the huge overlap in populations over time. That, plus the significant amount of free time makes it a well designed memory machine.
posted by mrstrotsky at 5:54 AM on August 5, 2010


Wow, this is an amazing read. Long, but worth is.

If I've learnt one thing from reading the early sections it's this: don't go to jail in South Africa. Really..

This, times ten.
posted by Forktine at 6:05 AM on August 5, 2010


Holy shit this is fascinating.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:27 AM on August 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


On reading the whole thing (it kept me fascinated enough to do it in one sitting - it's worth it) I was struck by the limited nature of their relationships. The very intensity of the gang conceals the poverty of their life; as the piece identifies, the very purpose of the gangs is inchoate. I thought the section regarding their awe at the knowledge of the political prisioners was very revealing, and indeed I wondered if their sense of grievance at the ANC's refusal to issue a wide pardon upon achieving power was partly due to the implicit rejection of The Numbers as fellow travellers.
posted by jaduncan at 6:40 AM on August 5, 2010


Steinberg expanded this paper into a book The Number. It's really good.

AG EN TWINTIG!
posted by PenDevil at 6:41 AM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and thanks pollex, this truly is best of the web.
posted by jaduncan at 6:51 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


As I'm reading this, I keep getting thrown by the use of the word "imaginary" to describe uniforms and weaponry. How is the term being used here?
posted by sswiller at 7:13 AM on August 5, 2010


Holy shit, this is fascinating. Very long (I've just read the first chapter and must get some work done before continuing) but really interesting.
posted by ob at 7:20 AM on August 5, 2010


Laugh now, but this is how major religions are founded.
posted by Azazel Fel at 7:28 AM on August 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Crazy, crazy stuff. Great find. They've got the edge on wackiness to any other secret society..the fact that there are 3 interdependent gangs with their own interpretation. Nuts.
posted by Not Supplied at 7:37 AM on August 5, 2010


In the 26s and the 27s, sex between gang members is formally outlawed

Two households, both alike in, well...

This has got to be the epitome of stranger than fiction. Fascinating.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:47 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was fascinating.
posted by flippant at 7:51 AM on August 5, 2010


I keep getting thrown by the use of the word "imaginary" to describe uniforms and weaponry.

It was my interpretation that they do not, in fact, have such uniforms nor fancy weaponry (eg: no white berets, just prison outfits, no assegais, just shivs).
posted by aramaic at 8:02 AM on August 5, 2010


At the centre of these symbols, narratives and myths is the figure of Magubane. He is the Number gangs' worst fear—the man who is also a woman, the bandit who parts his legs for other bandits. It is the ambiguity he represents that needs to be erased.

Fascinating.
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on August 5, 2010


Very long; did read

Awesome material.
posted by Edgewise at 8:23 AM on August 5, 2010


Laugh now, but this is how major religions are founded.

I was thinking the same thing.

I'm reading the Power of the Bull right now, and the mystery of how and why people come to such specific and seemingly irrational symbols and systems is profoundly interesting. Contemporary examples of mythogenesis do help shed some light: by making it clear how contingent and historical the process must have been.

I think the Great Goddess was probably an outspoken and beloved grandmother, remembered and exalted by the generations immediately following her. Peer pressure does the rest.
posted by General Tonic at 8:36 AM on August 5, 2010


Totally fascinating!
posted by snofoam at 8:53 AM on August 5, 2010


Human beings! I am speechless at this account of memory, ritual, intelligence, cruelty, desire, complexity...I am trying to match patterns from this account to patterns of life in the West but it hurts my brain.
posted by kozad at 8:55 AM on August 5, 2010


So was there the "First Nation" named 25 that they all had to pay 42 bucks for to join?
posted by symbioid at 10:09 AM on August 5, 2010


Incredible how the onslaught of capitalism basically rang the death knell for the 26-28s.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:10 AM on August 5, 2010


I am trying to match patterns from this account to patterns of life in the West but it hurts my brain.

North American prison and street gangs generally have their myths and legends as well.
posted by jtron at 11:08 AM on August 5, 2010


Steinberg expanded this paper into a book The Number. It's really good.

"1 new from $219.34 5 used from $117.43"

Argh.
posted by stargell at 11:53 AM on August 5, 2010


Not much cheaper used on Amazon UK. Is there an Amazon SA?
posted by jtron at 11:59 AM on August 5, 2010


Yeah, this is one place where an ebook would really help out.

If y'all want to see Pollsmoor prison, here are some of Michael Subotzky's prints. Subotzky is a member of Magnum Photos.

Here's a TV piece about the gangs. Here's another one...a bit cheesy.
posted by pollex at 12:04 PM on August 5, 2010


The Number @ Kalahari.net.
posted by PenDevil at 12:16 PM on August 5, 2010


The SA Amazon is called Kalahari? Nice.
posted by pollex at 12:19 PM on August 5, 2010


$17 plus shipping at kalahari.net. Almost makes me want to buy a few copies...
posted by jtron at 12:40 PM on August 5, 2010


Thanks for this, pollex. The Number is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it (and Kalahari).

I live in Cape Town, and it's not uncommon to see hawkers bearing distinctive prison 'tjappies' (tattoos), marking them as members of a particular numbers gang. Here's a brief slideshow from the guardian.co.uk, depicting a recent-ish photographic exhibition of local ex-prisoners and their gang tattoos - and a BBC News interview with the artist, Araminta de Clermont, and a couple of her subjects.
posted by tuckshopdilettante at 5:04 AM on August 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Utterly horrifyingly great read, thank you pollex.
posted by unliteral at 7:48 PM on August 17, 2010


This was very interesting and well written. Pollex already linked to the full documentary, but here's an interview with John Mongrel, the general of the 28s in Pollsmoor (nsfw).
posted by Kattullus at 8:13 PM on September 3, 2010


« Older "...Connie set a land speed record on her 1350cc S...  |  Pencil sculptures: miniature m... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments