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Culture, Reality

Arrested Development

by Unathi Kondile / Illustration by Sasan / 15.06.2012

It’s a Saturday. I just finished playing a round of pool or snooker – we call it either or in the townships. Really doesn’t matter as long as you’re the last one to sink the black. No pun intended. Then you’re the winner. The venue is Msobomvu, in Butterworth. Standing outside are lighties in their late teens, smoking whilst surrounding their ‘ngqundu’ or quart of beer.

One of these boys recognizes me with a “Salut! TaMaUni! Kunjani eKapa?” Unqabile!” I tell him Cape Town is fine, ask him what he’s been up to – to which he nonchalantly tells me he’s been in and out of prison for various petty crimes, but he’s alright. He’s trying to get his life in order, but jobs are tough and he’d really like to stop crime.

Later that day questions crossed my mind. This thing called prison, jail, emjiva or whatever we call it – is it still relevant in post-apartheid South Africa? I mean yes, worldwide, this is where we courier our social deviants to, but I couldn’t help thinking there is something very problematic about the institution of prison.

I would go as far as saying prisons are outdated and glorified centres for the hardening of criminals.

For example: A 16 year-old boy is convicted of, let’s say theft, and sent to prison for six months to “teach him a lesson”. In all probability that boy will come out of that jail cell much worse then he was. He may come out a murderer. It’s said that we have rehabilitation programmes in our prisons. How does one even begin to rehabilitate anything in hell? Futile objectives these.

Something else is at play. Prisons have literally become schools – schools where a new language is inculcated into one (Advanced Tsotsitaal?), schools which boasts a curriculum around prison history that somehow glorifies where they find themselves. It’s booming.

Visit any township in this country and it will become glaringly clear that those who have been to prison earn an unspoken type of respect amongst their peers. They bully societies with their prison credentials and alienate others with their newfound prison languages. As twisted as this might sound being an ex-convict is fashionable in some parts of this country. Afterall most of our ruling politicians themselves are ex-convicts, tat’ uRholihlala Mandela, included. Do we not perhaps think that prison, boasting such alumni, becomes bearable and respectable, at some point?

If it’s a bearable place to find yourself, then it becomes evident that the reason people commit crime is because they can and there are no measurable repercussions, especially if you’re already familiar with prison life.

Prison has become bearable. The idea of isolating those who misbehave is outdated. We, as a society, are no longer thinking of new ways to rehabilitate criminals and reintegrate them. Instead we isolate them, give them rooms share lessons, experience and transmit their hatred and traumas amongst one another.

Perhaps it’s time we seriously re-thought the model of putting criminals in cages, together. Perhaps prison as an institution is long outdated. Our history also necessitates that we ponder how black people, in particular, view prison. Is it a threat or is it some form of heroic captivity following on the heels of the majority of freedom icons who were also detained in these centres?

What I am asking is: what is a prison in the mind of a black South African? Do we really think it is the solution to our problems given our history of incarcerations and the illustrious halls of fame therein?

To be honest, prisons have no place in modern day South Africa. It’s time we became truly reconciliatory societies – societies that deal with their problems head on instead of locking them away in overcrowded cells and expecting miracle reforms to happen.

*Unathi Kondile teaches New Media at the University of Cape Town.

**Illustration © Sasan.

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