Rumor has it that it’s nearly impossible to survive as an inmate in South Africa if you’re not a member of The Numbers Gang. The vicious group has unofficially run most prisons in the country for generations. Some trace its origins as far back as 1880 and its rituals are so complex it could be considered a religion.
The gang is divided into three groups: the 26s, the 27s, and the 28s. The 28s are typically the most revered, and their group is divided in two: the warriors—who must stab an inmate or prison warden as a part of their initiation—and the men who they have sex with. The 27s are the most violent of the group, with their responsibility being to defend the gang. And the 26s are in charge of acquiring wealth for The Numbers. To join them, a person must display that they are capable of thievery.
The Numbers have a strict leadership structure and set gatherings each week. On Fridays, all inmates’ possessions are said to be gathered from their cells and then distributed among The Numbers according to rank. The Numbers also allegedly have a judicial system through which they dole out punishments.
But, truthfully, much of this continues to be unverified—including the origin story of The Numbers themselves, a complicated tale of two brothers who once were committing crimes in the name of black freedom from white oppression. To this day, each subsect of The Numbers Gang—the 26s, the 27s, and the 28s—are said to have each been led by one of the group’s earliest leaders, all of whom have mythical reputations.
And while there’s violence between The Numbers, it’s widely known among inmates that it’s better to be one of them than not to be a part of the brotherhood at all. Membership is for life.
Speech Mr. Siphiwe 36Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Starting with stints in juvenile detention, Speech bounced his way in and out of the correctional system before first being sent to prison as an 18-year-old. He went onto spend 13 years inside for housebreaking and burglary, it was during this time that he joined the Numbers as a 28. Before going into prison, Speech admits that he had heard of the Numbers and had thought he would end up as a 26. “When I got in there I saw I did not belong on that side and so I joined the 28s because my heart told me that was right for me.” While he believes in a certain purity of the Numbers, he says that today’s youngsters are simply gangsters. He is now committed to changing his life and has taken dramatic steps to keeping out of trouble. “I do not want to go be back there so I do not have friends. I used to have lots of friends but when I came out I saw I could not find a good friend who can show me a better road. For that reason, I decide no more friends. I need to look at my future, I grew up in the prison and I cannot go back.” (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn David Williams “Faces” 54 Y / (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) A well-known character in the Cape Town city center, the man they call Face spent more than half his life in prison for crimes ranging from theft to assault. A longtime member of the 28s, Williams was incarcerated during the apartheid years. “The prisons in the apartheid years were also apart, the coloreds with the coloreds, the blacks with the blacks and the whites with the whites.” He remembers how the Numbers existed to fight injustice inside the prison system. “Now in the apartheid years, we stabbed the officials, the white man. We did this to get them to hear our voices.” The respect that the Numbers has brought him is of paramount importance and he talks of how walking the streets of Cape Town many people will greet him with respect. “My name is respected because I poured a lot of blood for my name that I might be respected.” (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn Martin Afrika (real name) 33Y HL streetGang (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Running away as a child, Martin Africa soon found his way to Cape Town where he began to get involved in petty crime and drug abuse. It was as a teenager that he became a member of the notorious street gang, The Hard Livings Kids. At the age of 14, he went to jail and became a 28 in The Numbers Gang. “You see my father was a 28. He had tattoos from head to toe and he had told me a little bit about the Numbers and how to get it. For me, it was very hard and tough because I was very young.” When he emerged as a 28, Martin went back to Cape Town where he started to rob people, claiming that as a member of the Numbers he no longer feared the punishment of prison. “I am a 28 and I don’t worry. In there I know I am a father. For instance, you know that you are the father of this house so nobody can tell you what to do, you give demands.” (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn Speech Mr. Siphiwe 36Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn MANIE 20Y / Hard Livings (Street Gang) Still only 20 years of age, Manie has been in and out prison for as long as he can remember and became involved in crime at the age of 7 when he started smoking crack. Growing up in a family of people all heavily involved in criminal activities, he claims he always wanted to become a gangster. Arrested 31 times before the age of 18, Manie now talks about how becoming a gangster has ruined his life. “When you become a gangster, it’s like signing up for a lifetime of selling your soul to the devil you know,” says the young man. He admits that what he thought was fun and exciting has instead turned out to be the polar opposite. This young father of two is even more disillusioned when it comes to the Numbers and claims what it is today is simply a lie. He believes that the youngsters now being brought into the Numbers are simply used and abused. It is for this reason that he identifies most strongly with his street gang known as the Hard Livings Kids. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Babes Mr. Freddy Johnson 58Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 26) Known as Babes due to being the youngest child in his extended family, Mr. Johnson was sentenced to 13 years in prison back in 1974 for the twin crimes of murder and armed robbery. It was during that time in prison that he became a member of the Numbers as a 26. Although initially set against joining the gang, Johnson soon came to believe that being a part of the Numbers was a way of helping people. “The Numbers gives you life in the prison. The Numbers helps people.” It was in those days that the Numbers, still an exclusively black organization, began to initiate coloreds. Johnson talks of how the black gang members believed that they could control the new Numbers, but how they inevitably lost control. Long ago released from prison, Freddie still sees himself as a part of the Numbers but advises the youngsters to steer clear of what he says is a corrupted version.“The Numbers is my religion and it’s inside me. I will never forget what is in my heart.” (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn Speech Mr. Siphiwe 36Y (Member 28) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn Mr Monty / Joker 27Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Known simply as Joker but christened Monty, this well-muscled former convict lives and hustles for work on the streets of Cape Town. A prison sentence of six years on 24 separate charges saw Joker emerge as a member of the 28s. He is most proud of the impressive 28 tattoo that adorns his body. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn Speech Mr. Siphiwe 36Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Babes Mr. Freddy Johnson 58Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 26) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Tranne (Tears) Mr Owen Williams 29T (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Owen Williams is known as “trane,” which is Afrikaans for tears. When quizzed about this, the shy young 28 simply whispers that it because, “I have been crying since the day I was born.” Those tears are now permanently etched in ink on his cheeks for all who meet him to see and understand. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Bow Mr Deloray Johnson 27Y 28 (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Bones, Mr. Christopher Wesley Ymuat 33Y (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Nicknamed Bones due to his slight frame, Christopher was first arrested as a boy after being caught stealing a bicycle. In and out of juvenile detention, it was not long before he graduated to serious crimes. Burglary, theft and armed robbery are just a few of the charges that have seen him in prison. It was in prison that he became a 28 as he joined the Numbers Gang he considered the strongest. “I have heard that the 28 is the strongest gang in the world, that’s what the government says and that’s what the white man says.” Bones believes that the Numbers has given him a sense of respect and discipline and without it he would not be the man he is today. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Nambeggars Mr. Jonathan De Klan 30Y 28 (The Numbers Gang, youngest captain of 28) A close friend of Christopher ‘Bones’ Jumat, Jonathon has been on the streets since he was a child. Burglary and robbery have seen him in and out of jail and he soon became a member of the 28 gang. The three star tattoo that is inked onto his shoulders marks him as a captain in the Numbers and, according to his friends, he is one of the youngest captains ever elevated to the rank. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Chicken 34Y Mr. Ricardo Johnston (The Numbers Gang, Member 27) Chicken was 23 years old when he first went to prison and his most recent sentence saw him serve 10 years for murder. It was during this time that he became a member of the feared 27s. “The first time my sentence was too short to get involved in the Numbers and it was not yet my desire to go into it but I had an idea of what was going on.” Johnson chose to join the 27s after looking closely at all three Numbers camps. He identified with the nature and purpose of the gang and the way they go about doing their business. “I have been a gangster, I have been stabbed, I have been shot, I have been hurt like this and hurt like that. I can do this thing and that is what made me go to 27.” Many people misunderstand the 27s, according to Johnson, who says that stories of the camp simply attacking people for no reason are untrue. The 27s are only allowed to use violence as a result of the targeted party stepping out of line. He proudly declares, “in the prison we are law hitters. A law hitter is someone who fights for his rights, outside we are an organization.” (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Dog 59Y Mr. Bukhar Hassan (The Numbers Gang, Member 28) Still known as Uncle Dog by all in his Manenberg neighborhood, 59-year-old Bhaker Hussan entered prison at the age of 16 on an eight year sentence. The nickname Dog came at a young age as a result of a fiercely earned reputation for fighting. “I would see my friends in trouble and just rush in there,” Hassan said. Dog was advised to join the Numbers by an older brother who was hanged for the murder of three people in a robbery gone wrong. Before he was sent to the gallows, his brother, a 28, gave him the Numbers in order to keep him safe and so Dog took the Numbers upon his shoulders. Although he spent his time in prison as a 28, Dog believes that the Numbers abuse their power. (Photo by Philipp Engelhorn) Photo by Philipp Engelhorn