Coded narratives of Nongoloza, Doggy Dog: narrating the self and nation in Jonny Steinberg's The Number.
Jonny Steinberg's The Number: One Man's Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs (2004) is a self-reflexive and sophisticated re/presentation of Magadien's life story as it is framed by crime, prison and other exigencies that have impinged on the lives of many coloured people during and after apartheid. Throughout the book, Steinberg shows that The Number is more than merely the story of Magadien Wentzel, a 43 year-old coloured man from the Cape Flats who, at the time Steinberg meets him, has spent a quarter of a century in South African jails as a senior member of the 28 Number prison gang. Steinberg underscores the sense in which his biography is not simply about the life of an individual by noting in the prologue to the book that "[t]he prospect of recording his [Magadien Wentzel's] story was attractive, not only because his time as an active 28 encompasses a long period of prison gang history, but also because the cornerstones of his life coincide with so many of the beacons of modern South African history" (xx). Among other things, the narrative can be viewed as what Coullie et al (2006: 4) call a collaborative auto/biography or mediated testimony, because "as much as Steinberg recounts Magadien's life story, he is ... also producing an autobiographical narrative about his own encounter with Magadien and his world" (Roux 2009: 29). Interwoven with the story of Magadien are the legendary crime and prison-life stories of Nongoloza and Kilikijan, and that of the infamous murderer, Doggy Dog. The common link connecting Steinberg's principal personages is their membership of, or association with, various South African Number prison gangs. In addition, Magadien and Doggy Dog are contemporaries: in fact, they meet in Pollsmoor prison in the late 1990s. Steinberg suggests that the criminal careers and prison life of Magadien and Doggy Dog mirror those of Nongoloza and Kilikijan respectively. It is precisely the discursive interweaving of these different narratives, widely separated in time and context, on which this article will focus.
According to the Number prison lore, the 27s were founded by Kilikijan, and the 28s by Nongoloza, in about 1812. It is said that these individuals led a gang of robbers that terrorised both whites and blacks at a time when South Africa was still under colonial rule. The two fathers of the Number are said to have been recruited into banditry by a Zulu sage called Paul Mabaso, or simply "Po". Po's was an ambivalent rebellion against exploitative and oppressive colonial rule which ended up producing effects similar to those that it had tried to counter. The young men that he wanted to save from the ravages of early colonial industrialisation ended up being notorious outlaws. According to the myth, after the death of Po, Kilikijan led a group of seven or 27 bandits; then he and Nongoloza fell out over the issue of whether homosexual relationships among the bandits should be permitted, and as a result the gang split into two factions. Many years after going their separate ways, Kilikijan was arrested and incarcerated in the Point Prison, Durban. When Nongoloza was subsequently arrested and put in the same prison, he found Kilikijan already a senior prisoner. He had quarrelled with and stabbed a warder, and had been saved from imminent death by a group of six franses (non-gangsters) who smuggled salt and other foods into his solitary confinement cell. These six franses were to become the 26s. (1)
Steinberg suggests that both consciously and unconsciously, Magadien and Doggy Dog live their lives as if they were following a written script of the lives of Nongoloza and Kilikijan, respectively. Doggy Dog is the gangster name of Dawid Ruiters, the man who led a group of four men that murdered two women and a toddler and brutally stabbed a man and left him for dead on a farm near Nieuwoudtville in 1996. Previously, Doggy Dog had been a 26 Number gang member but before being sentenced to an indeterminate prison sentence in February 1999, he spent a dramatic two- year period at Pollsmoor Remand Prison which led to his metamorphosis into a 27. Through this story, and the stories ofNongoloza/Kilikijan and Magadien, Steinberg suggests that mythic narratives and not just materially-based motives, drive crime and criminality. Achille Mbembe's observation that "contemporary African modes of writing the self are inseparably connected with the problematics of self-constitution and the modern philosophy of the subject" (2002: 240) captures some of Steinberg's main preoccupations in The Number. But over and above this, through the stories of Nongoloza/ Kilikijan, Magadien and Doggy Dog, Steinberg illustrates how narratives of the self, even obscure ones such as those of the prison underworld, are constituted by and also constitute the identities of prison gangsters. Such narratives are possessed and haunted by, and, in turn, possess and haunt, national and even global narratives in subtle ways. But that is too long a tale to tell, and so in this article I shall focus on Steinberg's representation of Doggy Dog's crime and prison story.
Steinberg tells the story of Doggy Dog in a way that demonstrates the power of narratives and how an individual's life experience and worldview are mediated through them. In his interpretation of Doggy Dog's story, Steinberg gives considerable weight to the historical and symbolic significance of the Nongolozan/Kilikijanan narrative. The story of Nongoloza/ Kilikijan, bandits driven by a fiery but ambivalent anti-colonialist impulse, wins the hearts and loyalty of many followers within a short space of time. Their story has been recited again and again within the walls of South African prisons. Steinberg points out that it is this story that has created a community of prisoners known as the Number in almost all South African prisons, and that it is this mythic narrative which largely accounts for the Number's resilience. When Steinberg asks Magadien during an early interview which story encapsulates what Nongoloza means for him, Magadien says the story of Doggy Dog, without even pausing to think. Steinberg suggests that stories about crime and criminals set within the context of perceived injustices suffered by disadvantaged groups carry an exceptionally powerful charge--powerful enough to shape not just the subjectivities of individual prisoners, but also the contours of prison culture and even of popular culture. This is something that Doggy Dogg's case showed up in a particularly striking way. For, as Magadien points out,
The whole country was talking about Nieuwoudtville; it was on the front page of every newspaper. And then Dog walks into prison and starts talking as a 27. It means the whole country is talking because Kilikijan is back. Because the Number is powerful. Every time he walked down the passage, 26s would ask him for advice. They made him a god. And once that happened, the 28s had to accept him too ... He could sabela (recount) the whole history of the Number on the valcross, just like an old and experienced 27 does, and so we could not question him. Nor could we deny the blood he took at Niewoudtville. (2004: 68) (2)
As Magadien implies, the manner in which the media reported on the gruesome crime and the trial that followed was also important in shaping the popular imagination. In this connection John and Jean Comaroff observe that despite the prevalence of real violent crime, South Africans seem to be preoccupied with the mediated representation of lawlessness and disorder. Contextualising the South African case, they point out that globally, "the spectre of illegality appears to be captivating the popular imagination" (2004: 800-1). Furthermore, as the Comaroffs see it, crime in the postcolony is politically useful inasmuch as it enables the state to stage law-enforcement spectacularly. Of course, it is the crimes of the "bottom" rather than those of the "top" that best lend themselves to such spectacularisation. On this point, Zygmunt Bauman (quoting Thomas Mathiesen) offers the following judgement:
Whatever one may do about safety is incomparably more spectacular, watchable, 'televisable' than any move aimed at the deeper, but-- for the same reason--less tangible and apparently more abstract, layers of the malaise. Fighting crime, like crime itself, and particularly the crime targeted on bodies and private property, makes an excellent, exciting, eminently watchable show. The mass media producers and script writers are well aware of this. (1998: 118)
In South Africa, the preoccupation with the mediated depiction of law and order--and their opposites--was dramatised on a national scale through the processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC captured people's imaginations not only because it encouraged national healing by playing down retribution, but also because it put forgiveness and reconciliation on stage, dramatised them and attracted large audiences of viewers and listeners. In Bauman's theorisation, the TRC could be seen as a stage-managed event offering a safe exit-route for emotions long pent-up and aimed at selling South Africa as a safe investment destination by reassuring international investors that the state was in firm control of the poor masses that otherwise might be tempted to perpetrate violent crimes of appropriation after the demise of apartheid. On the other hand, for the local population, through its watchable and televisable shows of disclosure aimed at closure, the TRC gave the impression that justice was being done. The theatricalisation of the lawful and unlawful noted by the Comarroffs and seen both in the TRC process, and in the way Doggy Dog's crime was interpreted inside and outside prison, suggest that in post-apartheid South Africa, power functions not only in the panoptic manner proposed by Foucault, (3) but also by way of dramatisation through stories.
On the issue of mediated law, order and the spectre of illegality, Steinberg's analysis suggests that during the apartheid years it was the ability of the prison to be glamourised through stories that made it captivating to the young coloured men of the ghettos created by the mass removals of the 1960s. Commenting on how the apartheid project of isolating the ghettos and taming its young men by putting them in institutions backfired, Steinberg observes:
If the kids of the new ghettos were stranded in their isolated pockets, the one thing that brought them together, that created allegiances crossing ghetto boundaries, highways and deserted scrublands, was the magical tales and the exotic initiation rites of the reformatories and jails. (2004: 124)
Steinberg contends that it was not only the physical confines of reformatories and prisons that brought these young people together, but equally--or more so--the stories. In other words, the narratives that issued from such institutions played an important role in forging communal identities. The way these institutions were perceived and represented by those who had passed through them as places where heroes were born was what made them enticing and intriguing to young men outside.
Steinberg further shows that the challenge posed by the prison to the state has continued into the post-apartheid era: while the state has been turning crime into a public media spectacle, the underworld of prison gangsters has been infiltrating civil society in subtle and pervasive ways:
Prison is the great networking centre of criminal South Africa. Spend four or five years of your life in the 26s, and wherever you go after that you will always find a brother with whom to do business. Prison has taken the illicit market to every village in the country. (2004: 62)
Steinberg here paints a picture of the prison as the very source and spring of the crimes it has been set up to prevent. Unlike a biological heart, however, the prison does not distribute life-giving blood to the body politic; instead it pumps the poison of crime to the remotest village of South Africa.
Bauman's observations concerning the function of the prison in postmodern societies characterised by excess labour have relevance here. He argues that prisons are laboratories "of the 'globalized' society, where the techniques of space-confinement of the reject and the waste of globalization are tested and their limits are explored" (1998: 112). Bauman's comments are consistent with Rusche and Kirchheimer's assertion that "[e]very system of production tends to discover punishments which correspond to its productive relationships" (1939: 5). Ironically, the urban underclass, represented by the likes of Doggy Dog and Magadien, become complicit with the unspoken but carefully orchestrated post-apartheid project of managing excess labour through mass confinement of largely unemployed urban youths.
The stories of Doggy Dog's crime and his Pollsmoor remand are illustrative of the interweaving of crime and prison stories with past history and with the authority of the nascent post-apartheid state. Steinberg says that the newspaper reportage of the murders clearly linked the crime to the new democratic dispensation and the TRC process. He says that journalists emphasised the fact that the victims were landed whites and the perpetrators were black and self-styled outlaws. He points out that what made the killings uncanny was the fact that they seemed to be unrelated to robbery as such. The crime seemed to take on the ambivalence of the Nongolozan banditry, which was in part a response to a racially exploitative colonial system. According to Steinberg, what captured people's imagination about Doggy Dog's crime was not only its excessive nature in relation to the criminal loot obtained, but also the racial, class and political overtones that seemed embedded in it. He writes:
[T]he Nieuwoudtville murders carried a symbolic weight in 1996 that would have been absent several years earlier. To say, in 1996, that Kilikijan is roaming the countryside once again, that he has killed Rabie, is to say that nothing has changed, that authorities are still authorities, and bandits are still bandits. (2004: 70)
Many people saw in the Nieuwoudtville murders the unravelling of the 'rainbow nation' narrative; they read into it the implication that South Africans "were to pay dearly for the ordered political settlement that ended white minority rule; the price would not be open civil war, but an endless relay of quiet, inarticulate sniping from the margins of the new democracy" (2004: 55). But to demonstrate to the world that the rainbow nation was not going to be held hostage by criminals who killed law-abiding citizens and looted their property, the judge presiding over Doggy Dog's case handed down a dramatic sentence. Steinberg reports: "[T]he judge dusted off a law that had never been used; he gave them all an indeterminate sentence. Dog ... [was] told to return to court in 50 years" (74).
As a national narrative was threading itself into Doggy Dog's story, and the public was actively weaving this crime into the national narrative, Doggy Dog himself was merging it with the myth of Nongoloza in the remand prison. Steinberg argues that as Doggy Dog was killing three defenceless white people on Hendrina Louw's farm on the outskirts of Nieuwoudtville, in his mind he was re-enacting Nongoloza and Kilikijan's exploits at Rabie's farm which had taken place almost two centuries earlier. Doggy Dog's words when he commanded his lieutenants to start killing were: "Up bayonet!" (2004: 63). These are said to have been Kilikijan's words of command as he and Nongoloza butchered Rabie for refusing to give them his bull. Doggy Dog's order seems to have been correctly interpreted by his accomplices, since once the words were spoken they started killing their victims. This crime enables us to catch a glimpse of the hypnotic power of the Nongolozan myth on the prison Number gangs. Steinberg insists, however, that it would be wrong to conclude that Doggy Dog was simply bent on re-enacting a two-centuries-old myth. For as much as his words were laden with symbolic significance, they also translated into real power for him in the here and now of the criminal social order and prison politics. As his actions involved bloodletting, they inducted him, along with his three co-murderers, who until then were all 26s, into the 27s. Up to that time the 27s were the only Number prison gang to which admittance was gained through the spilling of blood.
The Nieuwoudtville crime also throws into relief the inside prison/ outside prison dynamic in the Number scheme of things. According to the Number myth, the 26s came into being within the four walls of the prison; only the 27s and the 28s, in the persons of Nongoloza and Kilikijan, started life outside prison. The founding fathers' murder of Rabie, which resulted in their incarceration, counts as a sacred event in the myth as it defined the enemy from the perspective of the bandits, but this murder also enabled Nongoloza and Kilikijan to assume undisputed leadership positions in their respective gangs after Po's death. When the Number gangs' activities were restricted to prison perimeters during the long years of apartheid, one was inducted into the 27s through a stabbing, usually of a warder. The warder's blood represented that of Rabie, the exploitative white farmer murdered by Nongoloza and Kilikijan in about 1812. During their long incubatory years in prison the Number mutated and eventually the 27s emerged as the soldiers, the killers, and the defenders of all of the Number gangs. As a result of their stringent admission policy, the 27s were destined to become a dwindling minority in South African prisons.
With Doggy Dog's crime, Nongoloza and Kilikijan, who started their career in banditry outside the prison walls, came full circle, so to speak. For, in 1996, two years after the sweeping away of what one might call the last vestiges of colonialism, they again burst out of prison in the person of their avatar, Doggy Dog. Figuratively, the post-apartheid murder of the white farmers by Doggy Dog was an affirmation that Nongoloza's and Kilikijan's enemies had not changed. The end of apartheid threatened to dissolve an ideology that had sustained the Number for many decades. Doggy Dog's actions breathed new life into it by reaffirming that to the Number gangs "the world is forever divided into bandiete and boere, and the boer is always the enemy" (Steinberg 2004: 53), whether in prison or outside it. The crime was a symbolic reminder that so far as the Number mentality was concerned, the colonial conditions that had created Nongoloza were still in place in post-apartheid South Africa. The continuation of the Number, and of its backward-looking mentality, challenges the notion of a definitive break signalled by the term "post-apartheid".
Steinberg in his book discerns a curious connection between the South African underworld and prison, on one hand, and wider political developments on the other. The demise of the apartheid state coincided, not by accident, with global political changes that culminated in 1989 in the collapse of communism in the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Steinberg argues that changes that were occurring in prisons and in the criminal underworld in South Africa were not unaffected by these national and global developments. For example, he points out that before the political changes of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the wall that divided the world of street gangs from that of the prison Number gangs was almost impermeable. The unashamedly materialistic street gangs with their lack of any strong ideological conviction had no desire to share the fiercely ideological and decidedly frugal way of life of the prison Number gangs. As Steinberg puts it: "When a Born Free Kid (street gang) had finished his sentence, he left the 26s behind injail, and when he came back to prison he left the Born Free Kids on the streets" (2004: 72). This double life had been the life of Magadien for almost two decades. But changes in the national and even global politico-economic environment led to the emergence of extremely wealthy street drug lords, such as the Americans and the Firm in the Western Cape. When these gangsters landed in prison, shorn of their street armies, they found themselves at the mercy of the Number prison gangs who had little respect for them. So it became one of their urgent tasks, with an eye to their personal safety, to make the prison replicate the streets. Steinberg remarks:
In the early 1990s, something strange began happening on the streets. The Americans took scraps and pieces of the ancient 26 ritual--recruitment, rank structure, and so forth--and began to emulate it, in a cobbled bastardized fashion. The Firm did much the same with the legacy of the 28s. (73)
The legacy of the 27s was too bloody for any of the street gangs to appropriate, and that task was left to Doggy Dog. With his Nieuwoudtville reputation he was able within a few months to populate Pollsmoor prison with half-baked 27s, all of them Americans who supplied him with free drugs to gain this favour. In time, these new 27s were released onto the streets. In this strange turn of events, Kilikijan, the father of the 27s, committed to prison almost two centuries earlier, was back on the streets, as it were, in the form of the Americans gang. But now, in addition to possessing the streets, these drugs-based gangs were networked with the global underworld. Viewed in this light, Kilikijan came out of prison onto the streets as a virulent mutant that overflowed South Africa's borders.
Returning to Kilikijan's avatar, now on remand at Pollsmoor: as Doggy Dog foresaw, what he had done at Hendrina Louw's farm while outside prison on parole, was correctly interpreted by the Number gang members. Seen as the very embodiment of the Number, he became its feared defender as undisputed leader of the 27s, a distinction earned not only by virtue of the blood he had spilled, but also--and importantly--through the myth he had appropriated. The blood that Doggy Dog spilled symbolically returned the Number to its original state and pitched the battle where it started and belonged, outside prison. But if, from a Numbers perspective, Doggy Dog's was a crime of historic import, on the personal level it was a deed shot through with ironic pathos. For in masterminding the Nieuwoudtville murders, Doggy Dog was, in effect, embracing life imprisonment as his destiny. Magadien, the man on whom The Number focuses, accurately reads Doggy Dog's motivations in committing the Nieuwoudtville crimes. Confiding in Steinberg, he says: "You see, there comes a stage in your life when you know you will be spending more of your life inside than outside. So you plan for your future, your life in prison ... Dog ... did what he did outside to plan for inside" (2004: 67). In other words, Doggy Dog saw the Nieuwoudtville rampage as his high road to becoming a big number in the Number.
This is a disconcerting perception, because what it means is that the prison plays itself out outside its walls. For the Number gang members, for whom prison had become their real home, the world outside was just a stage where all sorts of experimental and myth-inspired crimes could be wantonly committed in preparation for their permanent residence in jail. This attitude is seen also in Magadien, for whom the few years spent outside prison after his induction into the Number in about 1978 were but a mirage, wasted time which could have been more fruitfully spent in prison climbing up the rank structure of the Number.
What is striking about both Doggy Dog's and Magadien's attitude of rejecting the world outside prison in favour of prison life is that to a degree it mimics what happened to Po and his two lieutenants. Po left home because he was chagrined by the loss of the young men of the village to early colonial industrialisation. So his narrative seems to be inspired initially by the need to save the village from extinction. But no sooner does Po discover what happens to the young men in the mines, than he decides to form a gang of bandits who will never return to their homes. Thus, the wise old man of the village becomes the monster he originally intended confronting. Doggy Dog's "deranged, maniacal road journey" (Steinberg 2004: 61) of crime culminating in the Nieuwoudtville murders shows how former prisoners feel alien in the outside world, unable to function effectively or to earn their keep there. So their desire to go back to prison appears to reflect a pathetic and pathological helplessness whose effect is to render the harshness of prison life preferable to the challenges of the outside world. This kind of helplessness led Po and his associates to abandon their villages and live in holes and disused mines. During colonial and apartheid rule, a similar powerlessness resulted in many black South Africans abandoning their villages for hostile mine compounds and urban hostels, which were themselves run like prisons, and indeed provided the models for prisons in South Africa.
Jonny Steinberg's The Number opens a window onto the way in which ancient stories can be reanimated in the imaginations of malefactors living centuries later, operating there as active, energising and shaping presences liable to burst forth in acts of violent criminality. Bearing witness to this are the intertwined narratives of Magadien, Doggy Dog, the Number prison gangs and Nongoloza/Kilikijan. These narratives give rise to disquieting reflections. Equally disquieting is the fact that the Numbers, with their tentacles reaching into many, perhaps most, South African prisons, do not see the end of apartheid as making any difference to their backward-looking ideology, one rooted in the injustices and oppressions of dispensations now defunct. So the post-apartheid South African socio-political narrative will need more than a little luck if it is to be spared replays of the Nieuwoudtville outrage of 1996.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press.
Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. 2004. "Criminal Obsessions, after Foucault: Postcoloniality, Policing and the Metaphysics of Disorder." Critical Enquiry 30(4): 800-24.
Coullie, Judith, et al. (eds). 2006. Selves in Question: Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mathiesen, Thomas. 1997. "The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault's 'Panopticon' Revisited". Theoretical Criminology 1(2): 215-34.
Mbembe, Achille. 2004. "African Modes of Self-Writing". Trans. Stephen Rendall. Public Culture 14 (1): 239-73.
Roux, Daniel. 2009. "Jonny Steinberg's The Number and Prison Life Writing in Post-apartheid South Africa". Social Dynamics 35(2): 231- 43.
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Steinberg, Jonny. 2004. The Number: OneMan's Searchfor Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
Van Onselen, Charles.2008. The Matter of a Horse: The Life of 'Nongoloza' Mathebula, 1867-1948. Pretoria: Protea.
Waetjen, Thembisa. 2004. Workers and Warriors: Masculinity and the Struggle for Nation in South Africa. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
(1.) There are various versions of the origin of the name "the Number". A likely source, however, is the mines since most of the historical Nongoloza bandits were former miners. One anonymous miner reportedly said that they were first given an identification number. He went on to say: "They do not know your name, but they call you by the number" (Waetjen 2004: 85). In colonial and apartheid prisons, prisoners were also largely identified by their numbers. See Van Onselen (2008) for an analytic assessment of the symbolic meaning of Nongoloza's life.
(2.) Before 1987, the Number prison gangs, especially the 27s, were joined only through the spilling of blood. The individual who wanted to be a 27 had to demonstrate the reckless courage of Kilikijan and Nongoloza (who had murdered a white farmer and stolen his bull, Rooiland) as part of his initiation into banditry. In addition, a prospective leader of the three Number gangs had to be thoroughly conversant with the myth of Nongoloza and Kilikijan and fluent in the gang prison language or risk being killed if he showed the slightest deviation from the oral myth. That is what Magadien refers to as sabela. In The Number, Steinberg suggests that Doggy Dog's Nieuwoudtville farm murders were committed as a result, and a re-enactment, of the Nongoloza-Kilikijan myth. Doggy Dog was possessed by the myth of Kilikijan as he killed his victims and saw himself as a reincarnated Kilikijan. Interestingly, in the above quotation, Magadien suggests that fellow Number prison gangs interpreted the gruesome murders in exactly the way Doggy Dog had hoped they would.
(3.) In Discipline and Punish (1975), Michel Foucault argues that since the eighteenth century, in France and other European countries, there has been a dramatic change in the way power functions. He sees a shift away from violent and dramatised forms of power to what he calls panoptic mechanisms of power. He writes: "Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power ... the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers" (1991: 202). Through Doggy Dog's case and the way the Number prison gangs function, Steinberg's analysis undermines this Foucauldian model of power.