LUKAS B was eight or nine when he was first caught for burglary. By the age of 13, he was associated with the ‘outside’ wing of the 28s gang. By the age of 16, he was serving a life sentence for murder – in an adult prison. He knew, by then, that he didn’t want to be in a gang. But he also knew loyalty was a matter of survival, so he gave it all he had. Within a few years, he would be a high-ranking member. Today, out of prison, he is HIV positive and determined live the last years of his life differently. But there’s a price: an unsheltered life on the street. This is his story, as he tells it. By DAILY MAVERICK STAFF REPORTER.
I was born to a family of five, four boys and one girl. The girl, my sister, passed away. I have a brother who also passed away. We are three brothers who are left: myself, Jacob and Matthew. Matthew is in a wheelchair. We live outside on the street. We don’t have a home but we are okay. We just live.
When we have money, we rent a house in the township. We are okay. I cannot complain. It is better than any other place, the dangerous place I was born in. Now, I know a lot of friendly people, so I am happy.
My biggest challenge is getting food, and hopefully it doesn’t rain. We all live in the same area. One is sleeping down there [he gestures]. The other is sleeping in another lady’s garden. I am sleeping down there, where my brother is, down by the fire.
We cannot go where my mother is staying anymore. I can go there, but my brothers can’t. This guy – the caretaker – has taken an interdict against them. But in any case I am HIV positive and he has a problem with that. Secondly, they were after my mum’s house. I don’t know what is happening now. She is very sick, she cannot remember much. I ask my uncle to take care of her because I can’t. I cannot trust my other brother to take care of her because he is on tik. Because I lived there, I saw what he did. It scares me sometimes when I see them. The way they are living. Maybe it is their circumstances. Some people, they abuse it [tik]. He then gets angry and takes it out on the family. If people say he is suffering I would say no, it is the family that suffers. Matthew is no candidate to care for my mother [because of his disability].
[Daily Maverick asks if Jason is abusive towards Lukas]
I would say he is scared of me. He knows me. I used to be rude. I had a past. A very bad past. Some people are still afraid of me. But I have been changing for more than 15 years. I am trying very hard to keep it like that.
Sometimes it makes me a little bit scared. I still have enemies around from my past. I used to be in a gang, one of the biggest in South Africa, called the 28s. And believe me, they are the scariest ones. Outside prison, there is still a chance of running. But inside, they are very dangerous.
I thought, when I first joined – maybe it was because nobody helped me. I thought somebody was loving me. I made the biggest mistake of my life. It was very easy to put my head in, to get in. It was very hard to get out. So I am still hunted by lots of my memories. Sometimes I still don’t want to think about it but it just comes back. I can see a small thing and it reminds me – it scares me a little bit. But otherwise I am coping. I meet a lot of people that are trying to help me, giving me good tips and advice. I learn a lot.
So I couldn’t say I am not so happy. I have been changing my life, so I am fine. It is much better than it was.
When I grew up, it was on a farm. There was nothing much in the house. We had to go into the farm to get food and so on. It was like just taking, not asking. I got used to taking stuff. Then I went into the white people’s stuff. I took stuff, selling it. It was a little bit worse. From there I was breaking in. I got caught. I got beaten by the police. I was still young. Then one day the police brought me to my mum because I had been breaking in. She said they must send me away. I didn’t go to school. So all of a sudden the social service was getting involved, and you know when the social service got involved at that time, you went to reform school. We used to call it rehab school or just reform, for people who are not so good, sent there to get right again. That was the biggest mistake of my mum’s life. I was maybe eight, nine years old. I went there not knowing what was going to happen, but when I came there I started learning stuff. It was a language I had never heard.
They didn’t speak English, Afrikaans or what. I used to call it tsotsitaal. Something you make up to keep it away from people who understand respectable languages. It was the meanest stuff that I learnt. I learnt better tricks to get into people’s houses. Better stuff to hurt and scare people. I didn’t know before but there was this thing about a toothbrush, in reformatories and in prison, they bent them to make knives, to keep one for you to protect yourself. Reform school was very rude. There were different gangs, young kids most of them: there were, how can you say? – the Born Frees, the Scorpions or CTS from Cape Town, and others from Joburg. So I was hanging out there, not knowing what was going to happen.
I thought I was sent there just for stealing. But I was sent there because my mum said she couldn’t handle me, I was too rude – I was running around in a gang, stuff like that. Then I ran away from reformatory and ended up in Elsies River, one of the worst places in South Africa’s coloured suburbs. Elsies River was one of the barest places I saw. That is where I started my life all over again. I was thinking I don’t care – to me it was fine, I enjoyed it, it was the gang, just running around, but the worst was coming out of me. I got stabbed, shot at with a gun, threatened, beaten, and I realised I must get myself a gun. So I was becoming wise on the street. I was around 13 or 14; I was still young. I thought now was my time to get back at everybody.
I started running around with the 28s. Age doesn’t matter. Even young ones can do it. To me, it looked so interesting, because you belong to a family. They care for you, they are loving for you. I thought they will protect me because that’s all promising that they make to you and you have to swear and promise that you will die for this and never turn your back on them, otherwise they will come for you. It’s like a story, but it isn’t a story. I was a little bit wise. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t go to school; I was very wise picking up and noticing things.
I noticed a little bit about the 28s and started questioning and wanted to know what I was getting into. The 28s was about assimilation … I thought here is my chance. But I didn’t know the responsibilities that was coming with it, to protect other people’s lives and to protect myself. I began to grow in myself and the 28s. I was chasing people around, shooting, stabbing. And then came the stuff. I was caught. And I went to prison.
I spent a lot of years in prison, 21 years. I was 15, 16 but I was sent to an adult prison. I went down for murder: two murders and an attempted murder. I was also sentenced for housebreaking and other crimes.
It was bad. I was getting so worse in prison. I was already a figure, I had rank.
In the 28s, there are two lines: gold and silver, for different work. Some are in it for blood and some are in it for money. I was in the gold line, the blood line.
I started realising this thing was worse because everything was just – the Cape Flats, the gangs were blooming. Preying on people, taking stuff, doing what they want. At that time I realised it wasn’t about gangsterism. It was about a history. I learnt about it. I went to the libraries. And believe me, I found a lot of stuff. Everything was not what I expected. I thought they were caring. It wasn’t that.
My father, by the way, is also a 28. He’s a drug dealer. He is still living the last time I checked but we do not talk often because we had a fight when I was in prison. He was trying to undermine my authority. He was older than me but I outranked him. We were in the same prison.
It took me years to get out of the gang. I had two attempts on my life. They were not successful but I was scared, shaken up. My own gang brothers, chasing me, because I knew too much. Sometimes you will see people from the gangs, talking on the television, and they still lie. Do you know how many people in the gang get abused? I’m talking about making them women. Sometimes they would go and get intercourse with them. Sometimes they were abusing them just between the legs.
[DM asks if this ever happened to him]
No, I was not in that line.
[DM asks if he ever participated in abuse. He pauses]
I wouldn’t say no. And I don’t mean just by that. I mean with everything. I didn’t realise it. But it still was wrong. I needed help. And I did get help. I was glad that I could get help.
It makes me so angry at myself. I have tears running many times, of thinking what I have done to other people, what I have done to me.
Abuse makes people dangerous in the gangs. Nobody wants to talk about it. I know and they know but nobody will admit it because why, because you will be told you let it happen. People will blame the victim. They will feel that to be abused, it makes them less of a man. But I do not blame them. I respect them. I do not think they are less men. Nobody can know how little choice you have in prison.
But later, that man they abuse, he will remember, he be waiting outside. Not always, but sometimes he will become dangerous, and he will be waiting for the man who abused him.
If he is given something in exchange for the abuse it is because someone wants to satisfy his guilty conscience. Here, have a entjie, have a dagga zol, it will help you relax. But everybody knows when he is doing wrong. Nobody can say he doesn’t know. Everybody is human and has got feelings. It doesn’t matter if you don’t realise it now. Believe me, later it will haunt you.
At my highest rank, I became a general. [Daily Maverick was unable to verify this independently through other sources. However, Lukas’s prison tattoos match the description of his rank and membership.] One of the things I did in my line was stabbing wardens. I was very dangerous. Today I suppose I could still be very dangerous. Not with my hands but with my mind. In those days I could talk to my soldiers and it does not matter who or where you are, something will happen to you. That power, I lost it because I did not want it anymore. There are still guys who say, “Môre, [nickname].” [Lukas’s street nickname alludes to a form of violence.] That was my street name. I was given that name because one day a friend of mine took a picture of me standing like that [with a collection of weapons] and said, that name Lukas doesn’t fit you. So he gave me that name instead.
In reality if the gang had something [a purpose] they wouldn’t be going around stabbing and hating each other. In prison you are just locked up. There is nothing to do. Maybe now they are trying. But I would say if they had something to do that can keep them busy maybe it would change. Because in prison you just lie there, sit there the whole day. You get locked up early. You don’t have nothing. Sometimes there is the library, but a lot of guys can’t read. Me, I was very good at reading books even though I never went to school.
The guys outside are the guys supporting their brothers inside. They will bring in some stuff like mandrax or tik to sell in prison. Wardens are bringing it in sometimes. Sometimes a guy will carry it by himself. If the one takes something in, he will wrap it in paper and put it in his ass. And then it goes over the searching line. If it’s knives, cellphones, they do that. Ladies visiting will put things in their private parts for their boyfriends. But also, there’s usually a warden involved.
I still greet guys from the gangs, I say “Aweh, my broe” so that they know I am not a threat, I do not wish them ill. I am friendly with everyone around here as well. A friend of mine was stabbed here in a vigilante attack in the township the other day. The people say he was involved in a gang. I was surprised. I will not say they are lying, but I will not say they are telling the truth, because I believe he would have told me. I do not know if someone will come for me again or if they realise I am not a threat. That is in God’s hands. When it is my time to go, I will go, and there will be nothing anyone can do. And if it is not my time to go, I will be safe.
Truthfully I started reforming in prison, inside myself, but I never told nobody. I knew back then if I told someone, something was going to happen. I was so scared I kept it to myself. Now I am no longer afraid.
When I was released, the first day I met Mr Simons [a resident of the area] and his wife. Then I met Miss Melissa [another resident] and Mr Samuel [another resident] about two years after. I used to call the previous resident of their house Mrs Bitterjam, because I used to beg for food from her when I was small. She always put bitter jam on the bread. I never knew her name. Miss Melissa and Mr Samuel have been so good to me. I know they are always there for me. Their family is like family to me. [He begins to cry]
Don’t mind me. I am sometimes doing a lot of thinking. These days, I cannot do much. [He is in an advanced stage of illness, perhaps another reason he is left in peace.] I cannot wash, I cannot walk much. Mrs Simons baths me. I say to her, I cannot believe this is happening. But she runs the bath and washes me, and also my clothes. I never smoked cigarettes or drank although I used to smoke a lot of mandrax. If you abuse that you cannot leave it easily. I used to buy it for R1,50 from when I was nine years old.
Before I die, I would like my own place. Just a place to rest. Maybe someone to take care of me. I always wanted a family. I did fall in love, but she got killed when I was in a gang. Afterwards, I met another girl. But I went to the clinic because I wasn’t feeling fine. I found out I was HIV positive. She lied and said she did not have it. I was angry. I was looking for someone to blame.
One day, I talked to her again and she said she was sorry. Then I wasn’t angry – nothing. I thought I was going to be angry but I wasn’t. Do you know what I felt? I was feeling sorry for her. Really. Her life came to an end a year or two after that. We didn’t talk much. I thought maybe she was going to last longer than that. Then I started my ARV [antiretroviral] treatment, and I am still around. I thought maybe the Aids was going to take me but it didn’t.
Sometimes I think a lot. Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel. I just pray a lot every time, to guide me through the day. The funniest part is, I never went to church, but since I was released there isn’t a Sunday that I miss church. I can be so sick – it doesn’t matter. I still get out of bed. Sometimes the guys carry me to the taxi. I am not a Christian, but I am a believer. I still believe in love, despite what I did.
I don’t feel lonely. I would just like a place to call home because I don’t have that anymore. I am getting older every day. I say thank you for sparing me every day, every month. I appreciate every day I am given. I have to use it wisely so that I do not regret it. I have regrets about starting my life wrong, thinking I was brave, wise, and all the time I was stupid, I threw my life away. If I could change it, I would, but I know I can’t. So I just wish the man on top guides me forward in making my past right. That is how I live day by day.
When I sit and see something beautiful, sometimes I cry. People walking by with their kids. It scares the shit out of me. It makes me very emotional. There was this thing in prison, you could not cry. Men don’t cry. I was used to not crying in prison. Now I cry all the time. I don’t mean to cry but it just – sometimes it just comes all by itself because I see something that touched me. It means something to me. That’s how it is.
There’s a lot of people on the street that know me not because of what I was, but who I am now – the guy with the dogs. The first thing I did when I got out of prison was get my dogs. I raised them since they were puppies with Mr Simons’ help. I raised them like I would have raised kids … I can still dream. DM
Names have been changed to protect privacy. This interview has been abbreviated, but was otherwise unedited. For more information on the ranking systems, initiations etc., visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Numbers_Gang.
Photo: Cape Flats at night by Derek Keats.