South Africa


What SA’s blood-spilling prison gangs wanted Mandela to know — ‘Our history is also one of resistance’

What SA’s blood-spilling prison gangs wanted Mandela to know — ‘Our history is also one of resistance’
Former SAPS Major-General Jeremy Vearey. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

In the late 1980s, SA’s notorious Number gangs wanted the ANC and Nelson Mandela to know their history was also based on resistance. This emerged when axed top policeman Jeremy Vearey continued testifying in a major gang trial.

From what a fictitious bugle is used for, details of imaginary uniforms involving red boots under which the number 28 is stamped, to what a “flower garden” means to some gangsters — these and more secrets about South Africa’s most notorious gangs were divulged on Thursday in the Western Cape High Court.

Jeremy Vearey, who up until last year headed detectives in the Western Cape before being controversially fired, continued testifying in a massive case centred around the Terrible Josters gang.

The case involves 20 suspected gangsters and the main accused, the suspected group leader, Elton Lenting. Together they face more than 150 charges, including several counts of murder.

Vearey started his testimony in chief, about the history of the Number gangs — the 26s, 27s and 28s — on Tuesday. During those proceedings, he explained how gangsters were recruited.

Part of the recruitment process involved a potential gang recruit choosing a banana, which symbolised a penis, or curry, which symbolised strength.

Vearey on Tuesday testified that if a potential recruit chose the banana, he was deemed a “wyfie” (female) who would serve as a wife to other ranks of gangsters.

On Thursday, at the start of proceedings, Lenting and a few other accused held up apples and waved them at Vearey — apparently showing him they chose apples over bananas and perhaps distancing themselves from his testimony about “wyfies.”

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Gangsters’ message to Mandela 

Vearey testified that in 1983 he became a member of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe — he was a commander in charge of a network operating in Cape Town’s northern suburbs that dealt with bombings, hand grenades and military equipment.

He testified that he was arrested in 1987 on terrorism charges. After a few hours of torture at the hands of an apartheid police officer, Vearey said it was decided he was “too dangerous” to be kept where other prisoners facing similar charges were.

Instead, he was the first person charged with terrorism to be held in the B Section of Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town, where “the senior leadership” of the 26s, 27s and 28s gangs were also detained.

While detained, he said a “lord” of the 27s gang who worked in the section where Mandela and anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu had been temporarily detained, explained to Vearey that in the gang’s terms, Vearey was viewed as “a soldier, a man of blood”.

“As such, in agreement with the leadership of the ANC, I became the person that the 28s ‘generals’ [as well as 27s and 26s] particularly considered as a person who can ensure that Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] and other people have the real history of the Number,” Vearey testified.

It was in this context, he said, that the 27s leader schooled him on the Number gangs “to ensure ‘their struggle,’ as they put it, is understood by the ANC”.

Vearey testified: “The Numbers gang wanted to explain their history is also one of resistance. And they wanted to explain it only to a man of blood as they saw me.”

He pointed out that he was not a negotiator between the gangs and the ANC, simply an individual conveying a message.

Vearey testified about how the Number gangs were about “order and discipline” and gangsters could not act on their own.

Issie jou ma se huisie [it’s not your mother’s house],” he said.

Gangsters could only be recruited into the Number gangs after being sentenced to a jail term; however, some gangsters bought their way in.

The Western Cape, Vearey said, was the only province in South Africa where gangsters who were on the street claimed to be part of the Number, despite not going through the proper strict recruitment processes.

Those “pretend” Number gangsters who were found out could be punished — this could be in the form of gang rape, after which they were deemed to be a “wyfie.” Vearey testified on Tuesday more broadly about the functioning of each Number gang.

‘Hacked out a heart and ate it’ 

The 26s gang represented the “economics sector” or “business people”, tasked with getting hold of money by using their brains, while the 27s were “your men of blood, they are soldiers… [who] only wage war”.

Vearey said the 27s killed in a different way — “there will be a lot of blood”. He recalled an old case involving a 27s soldier named Wolf who “cut out and ate the heart” of someone.

Meanwhile, the 28s, Vearey explained, were “a paramilitary structure”, and the “political authority” or “the parliament”. This gang was formed along the lines of the British army and 28s gangsters controlled so-called gang laws and prison kitchens, in other words, the food.

The 27s acted as a type of mediator between the 26s and 28s.

“Only the 27s can wage war to settle a dispute,” Vearey testified. “But where there are no 27s, then we have a problem.”

Vearey said if 27s were absent, the 26s and 28s could confront each other because the 26s flag had “a thin red bloodline that can be activated”.

He testified that in terms of the 28s, the highest rank was a “lord”, but that these figures had no influence or authority. This was because a “lord” was not promoted as was usual through all the ranks of the gang, but was rather foisted into a position “to get rid of him because he’s suspected to be intoxicated with blood”.

“In other words,” Vearey said, “he is the most impulsively violent member of the gang who can’t be controlled easily.”

Gangsters described someone like that — a “lord” — by saying: “Hy sit in die wolk. Hy roer die bloedpot. Hy praat bloed en sy kop is vol bloed.” (“He sits in the cloud. He stirs the blood pot. He talks blood and his head is full of blood.”)

When fighting broke out, it could be that a “lord kicked over the blood bucket”.

A ‘lord’s’ uniform 

Vearey testified about the exceptionally detailed imaginary uniforms worn by different ranking gangsters.

A “lord’s” uniform, for example, consisted of:

  • A pair of red boots with the number 28 stamped underneath each.
  • Brown socks with the stamp of the 28s outside of each.
  • A pair of khaki trousers with 28 stamped on each leg.
  • A khaki belt with a gold buckle through which a red line runs horizontally.
  • A khaki shirt with three gold buttons with the 28s stamp on each button. “The top button must be open at all times. However, when in war, all three buttons must be closed.”
  • A khaki tie.
  • A khaki cap with a vertical red line on the right side and a gold medallion with a lion’s face on the centre. The 28s stamp is on the inside.
  • A .303 rifle on the right hip.
  • A sharpened assegai on the left hip.
  • Eight gold rounds of bullets, one in the barrel and seven in the magazine of the .303 rifle.
  • An ammunition band of 20 gold rounds.

While Vearey was describing, in minute detail, the uniforms worn by different ranks of gangsters, Judge James Lekhuleni asked if these were real or imagined.

Vearey responded: “In the Number it is real… The Number is considered sacred to people. You can’t buy it. There are no shortcuts…

“That is why people who think they know the Number and try to pretend when they’re in front of the real Number will be beaten or stabbed or whatever is appropriate.”

Lawyers, flower gardens and a bloody exit 

Vearey also testified about “lawyers” within the 28s gang and recalled that when he was detained in Pollsmoor in 1987, there was an inmate with an effective law library in their cell as they were studying law and dispensing advice to prisoners on how to deal with their cases.

At the time, Vearey said, no white people had been part of the Number gangs and members had not trusted white lawyers. This changed after 1994 when SA became a democracy.

Vearey further detailed specific words, phrases and symbols used by the Number gangs. An area where “wyfies” were kept was sometimes known as a “blomtuin” (flower garden).

A gangster with a specific rank could also blow “a gold bugle” when announcing instructions or calling a specific meeting. Vearey testified about gang rapes and how sometimes they were used to try to warn new recruits to stay in line.

Asked by prosecutor Peter Damon if a gangster could leave the Number gangs, Vearey said: “There’s a saying in prison — there’s a gate in, there’s no gate out.”

When a gangster was recruited into a Number, they were told their eyes and hands would be taken and replaced by ones the gang issued.

“So, you belong to the Number in body, in sight and soul,” Vearey said.

If you wanted to leave a Number gang, you had to understand that you needed to spill the same amount of your own blood as you had previously spilt when attacking others.

“It’s a tough decision,” Vearey said, “there are rituals, and you will be beaten… you will be stabbed.”

If you were not in prison and tried to leave the Number, you would have to adopt a religion instead because the Number was an entire belief system and lifestyle and would need to be replaced with something that was the equivalent.

Vearey completed his evidence-in-chief on Thursday.

While the trial is expected to resume either next Tuesday or Wednesday, Vearey is expected back in the witness stand only around August.

When he walked out of the courtroom on Tuesday, accompanied by a security detail, an accused shouted at him: “Rule number one, you never talk about the Numbers, 26s, 27s and 28s, in a court of law.” DM

Support Caryn Dolley’s journalism and buy To The Wolves from the DM Shop. It’s the true-life story of how South Africa’s underworld came to be, what continues to fuel it today, and how the deception and lies go all the way to the top.


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