Khadija Magardie
Khadija Magardie

There’s a killer in my family

He’s doing 25 years.

Then there’s another petty thief cousin who’s been “inside” for pilfering a bottle of Panache from Clicks — for his girlfriend, when he was down and out a few years ago.

There’s also my mother’s cousin’s son, the career criminal and regular beater up of women — who spends his time between Eldos (Eldorado Park) and Sun City (Johannesburg Prison), where he practically has a timeshare.

And that’s not counting an ex-boyfriend who kept popping outside during dinner dates, coming back greasy and sweating. I later discovered he kept a jack and spanner in his rucksack so he and his friend could steal the “mags” (tyre rims) off the cars parked outside. Or an *Uncle Jakes (who wasn’t actually a relation at all) from our neighbourhood who always knew where to get a good TV or sound system “straight out of the box” — at record low prices.

Oy vey …

Thing is, there’s one in every family or wider social circle. In some more than others, though it’s not something one brags about, or a polite dinner table topic to bring up.

Of a population of nearly 50 million South Africans — 162 162 are “inside”.

And though we don’t want to admit or think about it, they came from somewhere.

So, what to do about the criminal among us? Dispatching of them seems an easy option in a country where people are fed up with crime, and have little sympathy for the offender. If he’s inside, chances are he deserved it, as the saying goes.

But locking the door and throwing away the key only suits certain cases at best. Most must eventually serve out their sentences, and be released.

Into a place where you bear the mark of Cain. You’ve got no money, no place to go home to, and if you’re lucky, will have learned in the prison workshop to make beaded dolls, or fix chairs. Or maybe, as one businessman in Mitchells Plain once told me, you just look like a criminal: because you’re covered in gang tattoos.

One thing’s for sure, getting a proper earning job with a criminal conviction is nearly impossible. Ticking the box is almost a guarantee to never being hired.

It’s no wonder that a staggering TWO-THIRDS of all adult offenders are reconvicted within two years of being released.

One man who’s trying to change this is the flamboyant (but wildly successful) businessman Sir Richard Branson. We should rest easy, Branson won’t be employing axe murderers to serve coffee on the London route just yet. But he, and his company are saying what one would have thought was obvious, and humane — that everybody deserves a second chance.

Virgin Group is one of the few promoting hiring ex-convicts, even those still inside working towards release. Branson believes that if former criminals are provided with an opportunity, they could change. South African employers already favour applicants from “previously disadvantaged” backgrounds — and by law must give preference to women, and the disabled. What about a special category for ex-offenders? What other way could there possibly be for them to get hired? Nobody would do it otherwise.

Granted, it would be a stretch, and generate huge controversy, but wouldn’t an option be rewarding businesses in some way for hiring ex-convicts?

It clearly won’t be done voluntarily. The cottage industry that has sprung up around “corporate social investment” has turned it into yet another scam for scoring BEE points. Companies are cherry picking their social causes based on the publicity value.

Smiling little black girls in pinafores is good for the brochure, not some tattooed, toothless gangster from The Flats.

But unless you’re in Saudi Arabia and have a ready supply of sword sharpeners, offenders must and should be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society.

And with many of the country’s problems like unemployment, it shouldn’t be the government’s responsibility alone.

In February the government released a report on the make-up of the prison population, said to be among the highest in the world.

Some say that’s not enough — that there should be even more behind bars. Which is good and well, if one doesn’t consider that the prisons are already 137% overcrowded. An estimated 25 000 haven’t even been sentenced yet.

Thing is, nobody’s really interested in breaking that cycle, to prevent more people landing back in jail, at the public’s expense. Barring the work of a few dedicated NGOs there’s no serious commitment to rehabilitating ex-offenders.

Branson has shown that corporations can play a role. Chances are they will need to be led to the drinking hole. Nobody’s saying that every offender can even be rehabilitated.

But a good number of inmates aren’t serving multiple life sentences. Some genuinely want to turn their lives around. And like it or not, this country doesn’t execute people.

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    • graham

      Thanks for the article Khadija. Very interesting points. However the risk of becoming unemployable is one reason why I don’t get behind the wheel after a single drink.

    • Jean Wright

      The Scandanavians have a good system (Sweden I think). Non-dangerous offenders have to work off their sentences at weekends. This keeps them in employment and still in the society while ensuring all their free time is cutailed. I believe something of the sort has been tried in South Africa, but I know from personal experience, this is not properly supervised, so the ‘offender’ may or may not turn up for the deligated work. And the authoroties merely shrug their shoulders. In the UK they have imposed similar sentences for drunk driving – not sure about other offences.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Fascinating writing…. thanks.

    • The Praetor

      I still believe, notwithstanding the trend in the world today, that if a person cannot function in society, that person must be removed from society.

      Its too easy for people to claim, I cannot get a job, but normally they arent exactly interested in finding a job, but rather want to go the easy way by begging, robbing or stealing. If jobs are scarce, use the brain that you have endowed with, and create a living for yourself. Billions of people around the world have done it, and are still doing it.

      Im way past the point of feeling sorry for people, who seek sympathy and try and excuse their beggar/theiving lifestyles by the fact that they are poor, and cannot find jobs.
      And why should society give a hoot about those who have no physical disability, but simply refuses to make an effort to help themselves and perpetually rely on the charity of others.
      By helping them, we encourage them and more people, and create a beggar culture in this country.

      The Praetor

    • John Patson

      Branson’s “idea” would not have been possible without Prince Charles’s trust which has for many years worked to give training, counselling and finally work, to tens of thousands of ex convicts.
      Not all succeed and the Prince has taken a lot of flak when some of the cons his trust found jobs for re-offended, especially when they stole or beat up the people they were working for, but overall it is one of the most successful schemes of its type in the world.
      It has to be self-selecting and the training and counselling part is indispensable.
      Maybe something for one of the South Africans richer than the Prince to consider….

    • Laureen Bertin

      Excellent article!! Telling it like it is. I worked at Sun City for many years as a volunteer with the social workers. Such an education, a humbling and huge learning experience. As you say, all those people came from somewhere. And in fact, the really bad criminals dont always get locked up because of our problematic justice system, so those inside are often petty offenders (largely from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds it is important to note) who should already have been given a second chance, but have been thrown in a prison to now become hardened criminals – using taxpayers money, and then being released into society without any kind of reasonable support. I am a huge advocate of prisoners rights, not only because its the right thing to do for them, but because proper rehabilitation is the right thing to do for all of us and our society. Thank you for publicising this cause.

    • gaya

      Thank you for this. I can only speak about female prisons, as that’s where I spent 3 years of my life, but some sort of intervention is urgently needed. Laureen Bertin is spot on. I was there because an armed man broke into my house ( I live alone) and wanted to rape me. The only weapon I could find was a Bauer pan. I hit him twice over the head with it and he died. I got a prison sentence because the judge said I did not have to hit him a second time. I suppose I qualify as a violent criminal. For parole puposes I was viewed as a violent criminal and had to do 2/3 of my sentence, instead of 1/2 as in non-violent cases. The bed on my left had a lady who stole three cheques from her ex’s chequebook (he did not pay maintenance in 8 yrs) and cashed them for R 200.00 each. She got 4 years. On my right was a lady who was arrested for being drunk in public. In her drunken stupor (she’s a neatness freak), she burnt 3 lice and urine invested blankets in the police cells. She offered to replace them and do community service by cleaning police cells over weekends, but she got a 1 year prison sentence. Also a violent crime. Her 18 mth old twins had to go into foster care seperately. Another lived in a shack with her boyfriend for 3 yrs. One night they fought, and he chased her away. It was winter,so she took a blanket. He opened a case of theft and she got 18 mths. It’s easy to catch a tame bird. The wild ones never get caught and cntine their murdering and raping…

    • Heather Auer

      @ gaya….hectic!

    • Goolam Dawood

      +1 this piece – our prison system and the legal system that feeds it is still the same old apartheid system whose punishment is meted out a lifetime after a person is sucked into the system. What’s even more shocking is how much “justice” money can buy. Blood money is paid out, corruptors and drug dealers vacation, murderers continue with their careers of petty theft and boxing … but all as long as you are of the right class, race or financial background. If you’re politically expedient, you can ride the system. If not, it will punish you before your case starts!

    • gaya

      Goolam Dawood, race has nothing to do with it anymore. Only colour. The colour of your money. I am white. The lady who burnt the blankets is white. The one who “stole” the blanket, black, and the one who stole the cheques, coloured. Class, yes, because class normally refers to having some money, and then of course money, money, money, money. And even inside prison money counts. If you have a family that can provide stuff, the warders treat you like a princess, regardless of your skin colour. Your section’s gates will be opened so you can go see a social worker, doctor, dentist, basically go anywhere in prison you please. Your toiletry parcels from your family will just receive a quick look over, providing them opportunity to smuggle food and money for you, while the rest will have one little tube of toothpaste squeesed out to ensure nothing is smuggled in it. The ones with money will get the best jobs, allowing more freedom. The list goes on and on. The thing is,without money, if you end up in prison, your life is over, and often the lives of your children too. Imagine a mother of a teenager or two living in poverty, “stealing” a blanket and going to prison. What do those teenagers do to survive? Rob you. Hijack you and whatever else it takes to put food on the table. To change things, we’d have to go back to base level, and stop giving people prison senteces for petty crimes. That would open up the justice and prison systems to deal with the serious…