When 28s General Welcome Witbooi sat down for a “council meeting” in a cell in Pollsmoor Prison more than 10 years ago, he knew his request to leave the gang could cost him his life.
But he didn’t die that day – all because he had taught an illiterate “executioner” to read.
The tattooed reformed offender, who once stabbed his way up the ranks of one of the most feared prison gangs, today works with organisations which aim to divert young people from walking the road that has led to the current war on the Cape Flats.
“I was lucky to get out of gangsterism alive,” Witbooi told News24. “Like that of so many others, my story could have ended very, very differently.”
He was only 12-years-old when a gang boss and drug lord known as the “Mayor of Valhalla Park” called him to his car and told him that he saw his potential.
“My journey started that day, when this respected and feared man saw me and gave me a sense of importance. Nothing else mattered – not my father who I felt didn’t care about me, or the other kids who teased me and called me a mommy’s boy. Someone had given me what I wanted – an invitation to belong,” he said.
That day, he became a runner for The Firm, a now defunct gang. His job was to deliver packages from point A to B.
“I had strict instructions to always wear my school uniform and to put my deliveries in my school bag, because the police wouldn’t notice or search me. And I was never to look inside the bag; just drop the goods which I now know was drugs – Mandrax.”
Within a year, he had moved on to burglaries and robberies, determined to move up the ladder and no longer be seen as a “boy”.
“I wanted to be a real and prominent gang member, like those who drove the fancy cars and wore the smart clothes. I asked how I, too, could get there and was told that those were the ones who took lives. The only way I would be fully recognised as a part of the brotherhood would be to kill.”
He was 16 when he was given his first gun and bullets, before being bundled into a car with seven other gang members to be initiated.
In the leafy suburb of Durbanville, his “brothers” spotted a woman walking towards her car – a Golf V6 that they decided they were going to have.
“They told me she would be my target. I was instructed to get out of the car and shoot her. I replied that it didn’t make sense; only one among the eight of us knew what to do behind the wheel.
“I walked up to her and showed her I had a gun. She told me to take her car and money and I explained that I couldn’t drive. She got in the car and we drove.”
On their way to Khayelitsha, Witbooi had been scratching through the woman’s wallet when she – at a traffic light in Voortrekker Road – jumped out of the car and ran into a nearby video shop.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I jumped out and ran in the opposite direction. My gun was in my hand – I had been warned that if I lose my piece, I lose my life. When the police caught me at the Bellville taxi rank, I was still holding it.”
His seven accomplices were arrested shortly thereafter.
Warned to take the fall because he was a minor and a first offender, Witbooi was convicted of kidnapping, extortion, assault and robbery and sentenced to 23 years in jail.
A few months short of his 18th birthday, Witbooi walked through the gates of Pollsmoor Prison.
“When the officer pushed me into the cell, two guys approached me and asked who I am in prison. I said I was ‘Welcome’ and one of them slapped me through the face. He asked again, and the same thing happened.
“Another prisoner came in and got the same question. He replied ‘n Frans van Shonalanga!’ and that was it. So that is what I told them too, not knowing that I was saying I was willing to become a member of the 28s.”
Being a gangster on the outside didn’t give him any leverage in prison, Witbooi recalled.
“The rules on the inside are different. I started from the bottom again. I was slapped in the face, robbed of my shoes and pants.
“Those brothers who told me to take the rap never once came to visit me like they said they would. The promises of taking care of my family while I was in jail never materialised. My parents never came to see me. The only one who was there on visiting days was my grandmother. She prayed for me.”
To survive in prison, he started “stabbing [his] way up” the ranks to avoid being raped, abused or killed, Witbooi said.
‘I didn’t die that day because I had helped him’
“By the time I was 21, I had two stars on my shoulders, one for each correctional officer that I had stabbed. At 25, I had four stars on each shoulder. I was a general of the 28s, commanding 2 500 people in Pollsmoor.”
He raked in thousands of rands daily from illicit prison activities.
“After seven years, I decided I needed to quit the Number. I wanted a different life, dreaming of one day being a husband, a father. If I had a daughter, what kind of dad would I be?
“I called a council meeting and asked to leave the 28s. They questioned me, pointing out that I did good work in making money and looking after the interests of the gang. I gave them my reasons, knowing full well that I could lose my life just making this request.
“Four generals heard my matter. Two of them are called the executioners – the name says it all. When it was time for them to deliberate, one of the executioners told me that six years ago I had taught him to read and write. I didn’t die that day because I had helped him and he had never forgotten.”
Witbooi applied to be transferred to Brandvlei Prison and his move was approved.
There, he met prison chaplain Father Babychan Arackathara who assisted him in obtaining a bursary to study adult basic education and training, specialising in human and social sciences through correspondence.
“At that point, I was only eight years through my sentence. I didn’t think I would be released anytime soon, so I started teaching in prison and found positive things to do, like helping inmates and orphans with Aids through the Group of Hope initiative.”
His first parole hearing was in 2010. His application was denied, because the victim feared he had only been pretending to have changed.
After mediation through the restorative justice programme, Witbooi was released in 2012 after serving 14 years of his sentence.
“A new Welcome walked out of prison into a completely different world. I was 17 when I went in. My life froze when that door closed behind me, so being released saw me enter into a whole different era.”
While he was serving his sentence, his mother succumbed to leukemia in 2001 and his father died in a car accident in 2004. He moved back in with his grandmother in Valhalla Park, where his former brothers waited for him with money, drugs, cars and women.
“But I knew that I was done with that life. Done. I had made my decision and couldn’t accept, no matter how easy it would have been.”
Starred in movie with Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana
Father Arackathara offered Witbooi a job in his prisons programme and he soon started developing empowerment programmes with a number of organisations.
He later started Heart & Soul Foundation SA, an NPO which works with children involved in gangsterism, offers diversion programmes and encourages young people to build and not destroy their communities.
Witbooi is also involved in anti-gang programmes in both Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Only once since his release from Brandvlei seven years ago did Witbooi return to prison – to shoot The Forgiven, a film which tells a fictional account of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s search for answers during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It stars Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana. Witbooi plays himself.
“That first hour of shooting in Pollsmoor, I cried. They just let me cry. Forest and Eric understood my journey and were cool with it. I needed those moments.”
He considers himself lucky that he survived to tell his story, which he regularly shares at schools across the country as a warning to young people of the very real dangers of gangsterism.
“If I could do it all over again, I would never have gotten into that car with [that gang leader]. That moment changed the course of my life. I have regrets, but I no longer let them keep me captive. They taught me what I know today,” he said.
“I used to hide my gang tattoos; I covered my chest, back, hands and arms so that people couldn’t see. I don’t do that anymore. It’s part of my journey and helps tell my story.”
And when he walks the streets of Valhalla Park, everyone – including gangsters – show him respect.
“Because even though I have turned my back, according to them I will always be a general of the 28s.”
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