By Ncedisa Mpemnyama
His hands flail aggressively, sort of like those of Dhalsim, the video game character from the Street Fighter series. They are weirdly longish and gangly, with clearly visible scars from a fresh round of nyaope injections. He gets animated when he speaks, demanding a cigarette, a Zol or money. His machine gun rap Setswana unsettles me. Suddenly, I struggle to understand the language, even though I usually comprehend it with ease. One minute he screams and scratches his arms violently, the next he murmurs obscenities. I look down and hear his rough and coarse voice shouting from dry cracked dark lips. His face is elongated like most faces of those Setswana speaking folks often called ‘boMalankane’.
He has harsh and darting eyes filled with suppressed rage. He looks close to six feet tall, slender and athletic – if he would take care of himself. His shiny cleanly shaven head looks a tad smaller than normal. The prison clothes seem to hang on his shoulders without respect for fashion norms or swag. He is the physical representation of the mess that is prison life and the unkindness its conditions entrench on black people. It seems like he has been in a nyaope-induced whirlwind for years and has lost hope of ever being integrated back to society.
He is visibly annoyed, with his thin torso glistening, exposing his funny looking Flyweight sixpack which my mother used to make fun off during those giddy childhood days when Zolile “Bone Crusher” Mbityi was our hero. He yells angrily, perforating the icy silence of a dirty and cold cell, “kea phatloha bra yaka.” I later find out the meaning of this unending utterance which is at the core of his anger based blitzkrieg – “I feel like I am bursting from the inside my brother.” The other cell mates try to calm him down to no avail. He’s angry and it seems he is used to the cell coming to a standstill every time he is angry.
I am fascinated by his masculine performance, so I look at him with fear and wonder. Our eyes connect and he gives me a cold stare which overburdens me with lurking promise of physical harm that might be brought at any point with reckless abandon, as a result of that, I feign a feeble conversation with a comrade near me.
The man in question is Mjovis, as he is known in the cell. We are at Kgosi Mampuru Maximum Security Prison in Pretoria. A few days prior to this we were arrested at Advocate Thuli Madonsela’s office, the then Public Protector. We had gone there to ask her to take seriously the matter of R26 billion which was stolen from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) by apartheid senior politicians and big business at the latter stages of that regime. Our movement, Black First Land First (BLF) initially raised the issue to Madonsela a year earlier, at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) while they celebrated the frail and problematic octogenarian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
After the arrest, which was the most dangerous moment in my life, all 26 of us were taken to a police station close by, with wrists aching from the tightly fastened handcuffs. Before that, we had been pointed at with revolvers and R1’s in the face and told to lie down or be shot. The whole spectacle felt like something out of a Sylvester Stallone movie. A comrade from the Eastern Cape, Mqaba, was hyperventilating and sweating all over the police van, such that I had to use my aching manacled hands to wipe the sweat which was dripping from his eye lashes to his eyes. He kept telling me, “ye bra, bathi bazosibetha ababantu.” [my brother, these people say they will beat us up.] Although I feigned disinterest, I knew he was telling the truth. Fortunately, the anticipated violence never materialized.
Sitting in that cell, I felt like white power had finally caught us and was dealing with us once and for all. As I tried to block Mjovis’ face and unending soliloquies from my head, it dawned on me that for real I was in prison. I felt an urge to pray but quickly shut the idea down.
We had been moved two times since we had arrived. Every cell seemed to operate in a visibly hierarchical manner. For instance, when we got to the first cell we were told in no uncertain terms that we must go and wash. As we took care of our hygiene, the boss guy of the cell was looking at us in a manner that measured every stroke. As the cold water cascaded down our backs, we could feel his homoerotic lecherous looks. It was disturbing to say the least. I finally understood the pain women often feel when walking the streets with men undressing them with their eyes.
The warders, who were predominantly black at the lower levels, were quick with what looked like wanton violence on inmates. This happened whilst their senior white counterparts looked on in a leisurely manner. Once in a while, the white senior warders would come and scream obscenities or dish out a warm klap on a terrified new inmate. The prisoner would cower like the kaffir they are and ask for forgiveness even when they had done nothing wrong.
When we arrived at the cell, we could tell we were going to be robbed and/or beaten up. Thanks to a black warder who was sympathetic to our ideas, he managed to get them to back off and leave us alone. After this, the cell became settled and seemed to be operating with some form of normalcy. As things began to normalise, with Mjovo having asserted his authority, we began to see who wields power and who is subjected to it.
The routine was mundane and uninspiring. You’d wake up and clean the cell as Mjovo and his nyaope cabal screamed, “shikisha monna, shikisha.” My back suffered immensely after this unpaid chore.
The “comrades”, as we were called, were looked at as some cheese boys to be tricked and looted food and money through chicanery and other means. This did not go down well with one of our comrades, Xolani. Apparently he had been in prison before and to him the whole situation was nothing. It was as if he was home. He told me he had been incarcerated before for close to 7 years at Sun City and this to him was like the annoyance of a mosquito. He is also affectionately known as Mjovis.
I tell him we have two Mjovis’ in the cell. He shakes his head in disapproval of the Mjovis we found there. He says the Kgosi Mampuru Mjovis is a small boy who is taking advantage of awaiting trial prisoners. If he would be given his sentence and taken to the other side, he would be shown flames. I laugh uneasily.
We are taken out to be counted like animals and then later on to eat. The food served kills my appetite. It looks horrid. Xolani tells me to eat and I force the tasteless pap and chicken down. I’m sure cardboard tastes better. “You are not at home here comrade,” he intimates as he mesmerises me with his Sun City stories. They are littered with violence and profound moments of sensitivity brought forth by the conditions of complete desperation which prison engenders. We hear stories of people who have been awaiting trial for 4, 5, 10 years, while their black and white lawyers coin it. The lawyers most hated are those from legal aid. All prisoners agree that legal aid lawyers are bunglers of note. We also learn there are racist white magistrates that sadistically prevent the release of prisoners in order to make them age in the prison system. The white magistrate in question apparently has a famous saying which goes something like this: “I turn a young man into an uncle and an uncle into a madala and a madala into a corpse.”
As comrades from the outside come to visit us, we notice that some prisoners never have visitors. A short, stocky brother we christen “mAfrika” has not seen his mother since he got arrested 5 years ago. His mother can’t afford the bus fare from Limpopo to Pretoria. The Africanist shouts to us “Izwelethu” and “one settler one bullet”every time he sees us and unfailingly asks for a cigarette after. How he learnt we are people of such slogans I will never know. UmAfrika annoys some comrades. This is because sometimes the Africanist is a Muslim fellow who randomly screams, “As Salaam Alaikum”. Other times he is an avid Orlando Pirates fan wearing a jaded t-shirt of the sea robbers. Whatever character he assumes, it is always to allow him access to a certain group of people so as to ask them for a favour or two. He makes me smile when all these transformations happen. Mjovis takes decisions on who stays and leaves the cell. Sometimes the Africanist is in our cell and other times he is told to ‘voestek’ unceremoniously.
One day he was told to leave but he returned with a white man to our cell. Comrade Mqaba complained to me in isiXhosa, “bra, wenzani lomAfrika wenu ngoku? Ngumlungu otheni lo?”[my brother, what is this mAfrika of yours doing? What is this white man doing here?] I try and check what’s going on and keep quite.
Mngxitama calls a meeting to evaluate what’s happening in the cell. “Comrades,” he says with a silly grin, “there is a clear power shift in the cell. I believe the racist will make a move for power in no time.” Lindsay, who has been pretending to be Muslim since we got arrested, explodes, “if that’s the case we must moer him.” The other comrades agree. I agree too. “I can’t be bullied by whites in and out of prison,” I tell Mqaba next to me.
We later find out from a Zimbabwean cell pastor that the white racist has brought a TV set and more nyaope to the cell, hence mAfrika is fawning over him. The racist has the nicest bed in the cell, controls the TV remote and refuses for us to watch the news. To add insult to injury, he heckles when we do political education with the church group comprising of brothers from around the country, Zimbabwe, Uganda and other parts of the continent. The comrades go berserk when he does this. “Fuck you fascist!” Mngxitama starts screeching in his high pitched angry voice. He goes to Mjovis as our release is imminent. “Mjovis you are one of us, we respect you,” he continues in a sermon-like manner. “But what you are doing is wrong and urekisa rona komagoeng.” He gasps and a dead silence befalls the cell. Thobani out of the blue shouts, “Izwelethu.” Mngxitama goes on, “make a decision before we leave here, are you a slave of this white man or a self respecting black man? Is your dignity to be sold for drugs or TV?” Xolani is now clapping and nodding his head. James, our comrade from Soweto gets up from his flea infested bed and comes closer. We shout in unison, “stay where you are James!” The guy who constantly masturbates and screams “baby I love you” as he jerks off in the wee hours of the morning is now stretching his half finished hairdo.
Mjovis explodes and tells us he does not partake in politics – he’s here to serve his time and leave. He paces as he speaks, while the racist seats smugly on his bed watching. The warders open the gate for counting. Mjovis is still fuming. He feels disrespected and undermined. He is murmuring again. I’m on my knees waiting to be counted. He taps me on the shoulder to move to another cell. I ignore him. Mqaba gives him a cold stare. He goes for another guy. I survive being moved. We go and eat. The white man remains in power.
The next day we are in court. We have been inside for a full week. We post bail and we get released. All our heads are shaven (except for Comrade Yerushka who was in the women’s section of the prison) in solidarity with those who’s heads were forcefully shaven owing to Western notions of cleanliness which the Correctional Services Department operates by.
On most days I think about Mjovis. I worry about his fate and many other young men and women who rot in those jails numbing their pain with nyaope and all sorts of other substances. I worry the correctional services are not rehabilitative at all after what I saw. I worry about how a brother like Mjovis will ever be reintegrated into society. I worry about how the policies the African National Congress (ANC) continues to pursue seem not to be geared towards a rooting out of the prison industrial complex which produces and sustains characters like Mjovis. I worry about the flawed and dangerous notions of manhood incubated in those overcrowded prison cells teeming with disease, gratuitous violence and normalized indignity, which in effect is a small scale crude representation of black life generally.
Today we were at court again. It will be close to two years of expensive Pretoria trips, postponements, unscrupulous black lawyers who overcharge us and give us bad legal advice as well as waning spirits from some comrades. The truth still stands #AbsaMustPay back the money it stole.
The case was postponed to 7 May 2018.
Ncedisa Mpemnyama is the Chairperson of Black First Land First, Western Cape (BLF WC)