Numbers Gangs
Project info

Beheadings, gang rapes, drug dealing, rumours of cannibalization and a complete disregard for the law are hallmarks of South Africa’s most notorious criminal gang – the Number. The organisation has carved out, through blood and violence, a unique niche in the country’s psyche; and such is their notoriety that they vie with gangs across the world for supremacy when it comes to sheer brutality and almost unspeakable violence. With members that numbers in the thousands, the Number’s reach dominates much of South Africa’s criminal landscape, both inside and outside country prisons. Their roots date back to the early 20th century, inspired by a powerful mythology that predates its recorded history. It is a well-oiled and highly motivated organisation with an internal structure that comprises of military, judicial and administrative arms. The Number is made up of three camps: the 26s, 27s and 28s; each with its own traditions, terminology and role, but with a shared mutual history. Blood and the shedding of it is a key element in the structure of the gang with attacks and murders carried out with ritualistic elements. Permission is requested from the gang’s generals before a stabbing can oc- cur and any blood that is shed must be balanced out by the drawing of blood from either a prisoner or ward- er, and vice-versa. When the hierarchy decides that an opposition gang member must be killed they will in- variably stab, although not fatally, one of their own members. They call this ‘blood in and blood out’. Often the first thing anyone notices about the Number gang are the tattoos that each member carries with a sense of pride and bravado. These tattoos are painful reminders of both the history of the Number and the individual’s past. Done mostly by hand or a small prison-built machine, the work varies from beautiful- ly inked images to barely more than a scribbled note. The ink used for these markings is created by burn- ing the rubber from watch straps until it forms a liquid-like substance which is then rubbed into cut skin. Some wear the names of former loves and long ago visited children, while others mark themselves with pithy quotes and angry messages directed at parents. Phrases like “don’t cry for me mom” sit alongside pornographic images which are in turn flanked by the names of their children. What the majority have in common is the name of the gangs’ spiritual founder, and almost all carry the Number of their camp - with that comes the dates that mean so much to the gangs. The dates 1824, 1836 and 1812 make their appearance on backs, biceps, knuck- les and faces, limited only by the creativity and skill of the artist. But what do these dates signify? This is where the history of the gang merges with mythology and legend. It is a story that starts with the exodus of South Africa’s black men from their rural homelands to work in mines around the country in the early 1800s. It is a tale born of rampant racism and alienation, a desire by the disen- franchised to be part of something that has meaning and take a stand against the system that oppressed them. Perhaps it’s simply a case of time and natural progression. The Number served a strong societal purpose through the years as it gave the disenfranchised a voice and a cause. It backed up its laws and rules with action which was justified by the politics of the day but post-apartheid South Africa was not something the leadership had planned for. Around the same time, street gangs, with their drugs and money, found their way into the Number. Those that for so long had made do with so little were either seduced by new wealth, or just pushed aside to make way for new leaders. Perhaps it was just time for a change. Maybe the inmate, while watching Nel- son Mandela emerge a free man from his prison sentence in 1994, was right when he stat- ed, “that was the day the Number should have ended; we had no more reason to exist.”