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.



Khadija Magardie

Media Strategist and Communications Consultant. Former journalist gone to The Dark Side @dijamagardie

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