On remand in Sun City

Ten days on remand in Johannesburg prison was enough for Cheche Selepe.

THERE ARE 61 of us and we are taken to a temporary cell for our first night in "Sun City", as inmates call Johannesburg prison. Each cell has a boss, known as the "cleaners". Our boss is a member of the notorious 28 gang, who kill their victims and eat their hearts. Addressing us in Xhosa, then English and Afrikaans mixed with some tsotsi-taal the "cleaners" emphasises that we are all prisoners and we are one. No one's shoes, clothes or money will be taken away. Everything is available on sale, from tobacco to ganja and a "pill". He adds that the toilet does not work, so we should flush it with a bucket of water. Later I discover that no toilets seem to be working.

The cell, like all the others, is long and narrow, with grey concrete walls. The windows are high up and are mostly shattered. At one end is a basin, shower and toilet - all without doors. Two rows of bunk beds fill the rest of the space. The most superior base, where bosses stay, is called "China" and is right at the end of the cell. Sometimes it is divided off by hanging up bedsheets for more privacy.
The boss decides who sleeps in which bed. That night the three whites in the group, a Nigerian and a Xhosa-speaking youth slept in "China". The whites have to give the boss lots of gifts for this privilege. The gap-toothed "cleaners" from the bundu is beaming like a beauty contestant through the gift-giving ceremony as they produce watches, magazines, pens and other items. The youngest white guy is from Sandton and is charged with drunken driving. His mother is coming the next day to pay the R3,000 bail, he says. The five are treated nicely. They drink "coffee" - half a teaspoon of coffee powder to three-litres of water, which only the boss is allowed to mix.

The rest of us are allocated inferior sleeping places, with three or four to a bed (17 more prisoners have joined us). The boss commands every one to go to sleep and the lights are turned off. His last word is that we must all be up at 4am. It is a sleepless night for me, listening to the constant drizzle from the leaking sewerage pipes outside.
The next day we are driven like oxen to cells in section A, which is less feared than section B. I land in a cell where the "cleaners" is a Tsonga-speaking youth from Tshwiawelo. There are lots of Tsonga-speakers in this cell as well as two youths from Dube, Soweto. These two have been in Sun City since 1999 for car hijacking. The youngest has developed sores on his feet, a common ailment said to be caused by the prison diet.

The daytime routine is simple. There are two meals a day - breakfast at about 6am and then lunch at 1 pm. Before each meal a guard comes to count us. We are told to fola - squat like frogs in rows of two. Then we are let out to eat. The main menu is maize stamp, maize rice and porridge, all steamed and watery, plus either meat or fish, accompanied by terrible tea. The only other food is a quarter of dry brown bread, kal-kop, which can be traded for tobacco. For six kal-kops you can rent a bedsheet marked "Department of Correctional Services".

Sentenced prisoners dish out the food and the guards check the size of portions. Lots of it never gets served because those who work in the kitchens steal the meat to sell later. You can be sure whatever meat or fish should have been served during the day will be up for sale that evening.

Thirty minutes or so after the guards have locked up for the night the prison springs to life. Rythmic shouts start echoing: "Hey, wena (you), number 4, hey wena, number 4". These are prisoners in cell 4 wanting to buy food, marijuana and other drugs. "Hey wena number 4 woza (come)", responds the dealer. It's a real Stock Exchange and goes on for about half an hour, ignored by the guards. To purchase, the buyer puts money inside a container wrapped in a plastic bag and ties it to a rope made from sheets and blankets, which is dropped out of one of the broken windows. Once the dealers are happy with the money, food and drugs come rolling into the cells, hauled past the leaking sewerage. I think the guards are the major shareholders in this market.

I don't spend very long in the first cell because I make the mistake of lying down on a bed with white sheets to relax. You are supposed to ask permission from the boss to do things - even squashing a cockroach. The rule here is one mistake and you're out. It's called being "hit with a bomb". So I am transferred to another cell run by a coloured member of the 28 gang. There is a junior boss too, a Xhosa-speaking rasta man from Port Elizabeth now based in Booysens. He is charged with rape - because of "a jealous girlfriend", he says. The cell is divided into Bushie (coloured) and Darkie (black) territory, with the Bushies occupying "China".

I chat to a poor Zulu boy who is charged with murder. There is bad feeling between him and a Xhosa, who relates how his brother and sister were murdered when Zulu impis attacked their shanty settlement. He jokes that hostel-based Zulu speakers are happy to be here since prison resembles hostel life in many ways.

I try to turn the conversation from tribal war to politics and a fellow who claims to be the son of former defence minister Joe Modise joins in. He has many ideas for improving the lives of suffering prisoners and the people. But he is said to be mentally disturbed and is regularly taken to the doctor. His lament goes:

"I am here because I found a car with keys inside in Hillbrow and was caught by traffic officers on Louis Botha Avenue in Bramley. It was an 18-seater brand new Super T. I have been here for 20 months awaiting trial. I have no education and no skills, that is why I do crime to survive. My father is Joe Modise. He divorced my mother when I was 11. In 1989 he took me to Tanzania and I stayed in the former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere's house. I had lots of money in Tanzania, I was getting everything I wanted. I knew the late Joe Slovo - he taught me life skills - 'OR' (Oliver Tambo), and Walter Sisulu. Madikizela Mandela knows me very carefully. In December 1991 I returned to Nelspruit to stay with my mother and in 1999 I stole R80,000 from my father's safe to buy a BMW520. I drove all the way from Mpumalanga to Johannesburg so that I could tell the president my suggestions. I went to ANC headquarters at Shell House and explained all this to the guards, but they said I am telling a kak story.

"I have two brothers in prison because they roofed (robbed) the Fidelity Guards. My mother is a rich lady, she has left us, I do not know where she is. My father was a minister and I see him as part and parcel of the whole suffering problem."

I try to sleep but cockroaches start falling from the top bunk onto my face, so I decide to sleep on the floor, which angers the rasta man. He says insect bites are a natural thing in prison. I should let them eat me and they will leave when they are full.

Maybe because of this incident, next day I'm moved to another cell. A white Afrikaner is the "cleaners" here. Strangely, he does not stay in "China". There's something wrong in this cell: the boss-hood is a contested terrain. A Zulu-speaker complains: "I told this white guy that I've been longer than him in prison, I am the 'cleaners' here." So he tells me to share a bed with a young man called Tupac, who is from Dlamini, Soweto and in for house-breaking. Tupac introduces me to a friend of his from KwaZulu-Natal. He is in for murder and has sold his fancy belt and shoes for tobacco. He has been on remand for more than a year and when he talks of life outside his big, round eyes become teary. He warned me against walking barefoot in prison. "There's lots of illnesses that enter the body through the feet," he says. We are joined by a 21-year-old Boerkie (white Afrikaner). He is naughty-by-the-looks, with lots of tattoos on his body and hands. One reads: "Young and Dangerous".

There are six Boerkies in the cell. Boerkies are enterprising with tattoos. One tattoo costs R5, you can pay over a period with kal-kops, clothes or anything of value. I never bothered with tattoos. My late grandmother would fight us for even drawing on our bodies with an ordinary pen. She disliked dreadlocks too, because "employers do not want people with such funny hair." (I followed her instructions on tattoos but not on dreads.)

In the upper bunk, there is a dark-complexioned Bushie from Riverlea. He is in for rape. He likes to chat to the young Boerkie in Afrikaans. "Why don't you have a tattoo?" asks the white guy. The Bushie takes off his trousers and shows how he was "circumcised" here in prison. They have cut his penis with a razor blade and inserted a bean or ganja seed. "This is my tattoo," argues the Bushie.

The white youth decides he too will be circumcised. Two other Boerkies hold his hands against the bed and the operation ensues using the same razor blade they shave with. I move my eyes away as he screams in pain. Within three minutes the operation is done and the young fellow is now brandishing a bean in his penis. "Yeah, you are a man now," shouts his Bushie friend.

As I fall asleep I can hear the worshippers holding their regular "service" in the toilet area. They sing and two "priests" read from the Bible, one in English and the other in Nguni. One says prayers in English, the other in Xhosa, and they all finish together with the Lords prayer in Zulu. I think we all pray to leave this place soon.