- Part of a Number
The ink these men wear on every inch of their bodies turns their skin into living histories of their membership of South Africa's most notorious prison gang, the Number. Symbols of death, pornography and the gang's venerated dates adorn their bodies alongside cartoon images and somber messages to families and lost girlfriends.
The Number is split into three camps-the 26s, 27s and 28s-each specializing in its own operations, but all bound by a decades-long history of bloodshed and death. Spread across the country, the membership of the gang can be measured in the thousands. From prison to prison, the Number makes its presence felt, with its current seat of power being Cape Town's notorious Pollsmoor Prison.
Neighboring one of the province's most exclusive golf estates, Pollsmoor was once home to Nelson Mandela, but is now better known for the violence the gang uses to wield its influence in the maximum-security facility. The face of David Williams, once a feared member of the 28s and a past? inmate of Pollsmoor, is adorned with tattoos. The word 'Kaffir', a derogatory term for a black South African, is scrawled along his forehead along with a hangman's noose on his neck and butterfly wings on his nose.
Williams, who is known as Face, is at once proud and ashamed of his past. "You ask anyone here in Cape Town if they know me and they will say 'yes, he spilled a lot of blood for his name'." In a moment of less bravado, he admits that being tattooed from head to toe has forced him into a life on the streets selling candy at bus stations. This prison tattooing is done in a variety of ways: from a rough imitation of professional tattooing, involving a small mobile phone battery and a makeshift needle with ink coming from the melted down rubber of cheap watch straps, to the more macabre and very painful method of cutting the skin and rubbing in a mixture of pen ink and charcoal.
Unlike most gangs, the Number did not grow out of criminality; it began as a fight against the oppression by the white minority and the crushing poverty South Africa's black and coloured people suffered. Inside the prisons, the Number morphed into an element known as the 'law hitters' as the inmates saw an opportunity to make a stand against ill-treatment by attacking the prison system and intimidating warders in an attempt to improve conditions. What was once a prison gang fighting racial injustice has since become little more than street gangsterism. This is a result of the influx of gangsters into the prison system and their ability to buy their way into the Number instead of going through the traditional initiation.
"Everything has changed because of 'benefit'; in the prison it's always about benefit. So when you come into prison and can provide something like drugs or money on the outside then they see to it that you get made a Number fast," explains gang member Bones Jumat.