South Africa

South Africa

Prison break: Robertson’s mountain biking tour with a difference

The first week of April saw a great deal of bad news hitting South African headlines. But there was the odd good news story, too. In the small town of Robertson, a programme in the local correction centre is beating the odds against crime. If slowly. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

In a week of protest marches across the country, a journey of a different kind was taking place in the small Western Cape town of Robertson. In the first week of April 2017, four young offenders had earned a prison break, and were using it to undertake a physically punishing 240km mountain biking tour through the Breede River Valley. Before heading back to jail, voluntarily.

Confused? You have every right to be. The Breaking the Cycle of Crime (BCC) mountain biking tour is, to put it mildly, an unusual endeavour. And yet – if the track record is anything to go by – it’s been unexpectedly successful. Not just in raising awareness about drug abuse and crime within the area’s schools, but also in helping existing offenders stay out of prison once their sentence is up.

An hour and a half from Cape Town, Robertson is wine country. It’s hailed by tourism guides as one of South Africa’s best small towns to visit. It – like much of South Africa – battles ongoing inequality, surfacing in the news for the devastating impact of fires and other disasters on its poorest citizens, but also for labour disputes on its prominent wine farms. In 2016, Robertson winery faced public outrage after reports that its workers were earning R3,000.

This is where Eltano Jacobs, 24, grew up, and where he hopes to return when his seven-year sentence is complete. Jacobs is one of the cyclists who completed the BCC tour in 2017, and Daily Maverick caught up with him when he had just finished, shortly before he was due to return to the facility.

Jacobs is soft-spoken, polite. He speaks lovingly of his family, who visit him regularly. He became involved in the President’s Award programme when he was in his teens, and has four years remaining of his sentence.

Asked what it was like to leave prison for a few days, he doesn’t mention being out in the open. He says: “It was something very beautiful to go and speak to other young people, to go and motivate them.

They sat dead still, listening. You could see they were taking it in. They didn’t throw it away, in one ear, out the other.”

The young men participating in the Break the Cycle of Crime tour are typically imprisoned for a range of offences, and usually not for short periods; sometimes repeatedly. But they undertake the demanding tour with around 30 other people – including four correctional service officials and four SAPS officials – stopping along the way to visit schools, community centres and other locations to take what their group calls a “positive stand against crime”.

Their training ahead of the tour is rigorous. It is, almost literally, a military operation. Their trainer must take them out on nearby trails at times and locations where they will not encounter public traffic.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. Surely the potential is there, you might ask, for being taken for a bit of a ride? If one will pardon the expression.

But getting to participate is not an overnight process. Also – the surprising part – it’s not a prison-specific programme. It falls under the Adventurous Journey arm of the international President’s Award youth empowerment programme, which despite its name does not, in fact, refer to the president. Rather, it forms part of a network of 140 member countries that give recognition awards to young people aged 14-24 based on a number of pillars of personal development including service, skills, and physical recreation. The idea is that the programme should be non-competitive, but that personal development should also be progressively more challenging, so awards progress over three levels: bronze, silver and gold.

Young people participate in the same programme regardless of their background or circumstances, which essentially means whether you’re in a youth detention facility or the horsey set in a leafy suburb, you’re held to the same standards and have access to the same networks. But more importantly, says Robertson Correctional Centre Case Management Supervisor and Award Leader Kobus Swart, you’re exposed to the same variety of people and taken out of your comfort zone to the same degree. “It’s quite astonishing,” he told Daily Maverick. “It has done my heart good to see how the young people from such diverse circumstances work together, communicate, and support each other.” It is a too-common flaw in youth empowerment programmes, he believes, to “cater only for a certain group”.

To this end, the four cyclists from Robertson Correctional Centre made up just a small part of the BCC tour group, which included a number of other Gold Youth Award participants and Award leaders. But it was primarily the former who addressed schools and skills groups on how, exactly, one ends up in a detention centre.

It is very upsetting to see children at six or seven years old aware of gang signs and activities and with knowledge of drug abuse,” says Swart. “It was important to make them aware that drug abuse and gang involvement do not have advantages. It was good to see some of the things being said making an impact.” On this tour, one of the children aged six related that his dad was in the 28s. That particular child was already involved in gang activity.

Swart has been in correctional services for nearly four decades. Since 2010, when the President’s Award programme began running in the Robertson Correctional Centre, he says, 28 men have achieved gold. (Although it’s a youth programme, participants are older by the time they progress to the highest tier.) Of these men, just three have reoffended. In contrast, the national rates of rehabilitation hover at just under 10%.

South Africa, at the last count, had the 11th highest prison population in the world, and came in 35th in terms of its prison population rate with just under 300 prisoners per 100,000 people. At the same time, a 2016 poll by Afrobarometer found that around 70% of South Africa’s 20 million young people were more likely to be victims and perpetrators of assault, robbery and property theft than adults aged 35 and above. According to the PA programme, some 55,000 young South Africans aged 14-25 years old are sleeping in a prison or secure care centre.

The need to reduce rates of recidivism, in short, is acute. “On this programme, we have about 90% (success rate), touch wood,” says Swart. The results, at present, are anecdotal – no formal studies have been carried out. But he is hoping that in the future there may be, so that some of the success factors may be pinpointed with a little more accuracy.

It takes a man to stand in front of a room of children and admit your mistakes,” says Jacobs. “But nobody broke me down. It was not heavy for me, not a thing.”

Monwabisi Nteyiya (29) who successfully completed the BCC tour in 2015 and participated again this year, agrees. Nteyiya has since completed his sentence, and has avoided crime following his release. This is significant, since he had been repeatedly in and out of prison since the age of 19.

When you have been inside for a long time and you come out again, it is a challenge,” he says. “Everything is different. I cannot even pinpoint what it is. It is just foreign.” He laughs. Having a network outside of prison that is not involved in his old life helps, he explains. Otherwise, there are expectations when one returns. It’s difficult to start a new life.

Which raises the key question: is there supportive contact with his PA network? He gives a sheepish laugh. “You may find this funny if I tell you,” he says. “When I was in prison I was also training to be religious. When I came out, I stopped training. I started getting back into complaining.” He lost touch with everybody. Later, when he began reading spiritual texts again, he says, he re-established contact with Swart. For him, it was important to remain diligent with his prayer guide, “like when you are going to make a journey”. When he wasn’t doing it, the other pillars fell down.

I do not know what happened,” he offers.

It’s a little difficult to explain Nteyiya. There’s an endearing sense of gentle, self-deprecating humour that has one struggling to call to mind a decade of hard time. But talking to him, one becomes aware that – at the very least – it’s not a glib system. There’s no one size that fits all, and there’s significant work involved.

I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Nteyiya says of his rehabilitation today. “It was my first time. You don’t know what to expect – maybe they expect too much. But Mr Swart saw something in me. And then I saw something good. He had a bigger idea and it completely changed everything. I could no longer be like I wanted to.”

If there is one thing that is important to say, it is that they (the prisoners) are not all monsters,” adds Swart. “They have commitments and dreams. There is a learning curve and then there is a mistake. We hope we can turn the mistakes into learning curves.” DM

Photo: Elton Seconds, Kobus Swart (leader), Jeremy van Niekerk and Eltano Jacob – Robertson Correctional Centre just before the start of BCC cycle tour 2017