Article published on August 9, 2011.
In 1990 Nelson Mandela emerged, like a genie from a bottle, from Victor Verster prison. He went on to work his political magic, fashioning a rainbow nation that arcs, at times, above the murk of South Africa’s history. Seventeen years after Mandela’s release, years that I had spent trying to fathom the criminal violence that blights our democracy, I returned to that same prison. I was one of a group of writers invited by the Franschhoek literary festival to attend a prize-giving ceremony for poetry written by inmates and to spend an hour with them. At the end of the event, a shy young murderer asked me if I would come back. I said I would. It was quickly organised and I did, returning every Friday to teach creative writing to a group of 15 maximum-security prisoners.
The first time I drive out to the prison I am afraid. Afraid of what it will mean to work so intimately with the men who fill our newspapers with broken bodies and turn our dreams into nightmares. The guard waves me through the prison gates and I drive past the lawns, the beds of roses; the public face of the prison.
It is only when I turn past a stand of blue gums that I see the prison itself. It is made of mesh, a giant aviary, three storeys suspended between metal poles. There is bedding hanging from the steel bars. Thin brown hands extend through the bars rattling spoons against the mesh.
A gate opens and a group of men in orange surge towards me through a tunnel of razor wire.
“Your guys from maximum,” says the education officer who has made this mad scheme possible. They are tattooed and hard-bodied, bigger and tougher than the denim-clad juveniles coming towards me from the opposite direction.
I follow them into the gym. There are weights at one end, basketball hoops at the other. I have been allocated a corner and the 15 men I will be working with cluster desks around me. Other men – 50 or more, all in orange – file in after me. They pick up weights, watch me, ask the men with me what we are doing; only drifting off when the wardens insist.
Where to start unravelling the threads that twinned these men with me?
Childhood seems like the time in their lives that we can manage together. Glimpses of the boys they once were emerge in anecdotes of casual deprivation. A beating with a belt; a fishing trip on a boat with a father briefly sober; angry mothers with blackened eyes and too many children; school attempted and failed. For one man, though, there was a blue-and-yellow bike for his ninth birthday.
It is hard not to touch an arm here, a hand. Touch is a language that comes easily to me, but how does one speak it in a men’s prison? A headache pulses, twisting and lumping the muscles on my scalp, knotting my shoulders. I do not have a way to integrate the humanity of these men, what we share, with what they did that brought them to this place.
We take a break halfway through the three hours. I need the loo but there are no facilities for women. An armed warder leads me to a bathroom. He searches it. There is nobody hiding, but the door does not lock so he stands guard outside. In that moment, silence falls in the gym.
The workshops settle into a rhythm. I go out every Friday, we talk, we work, we write. We read poetry together. “My Papa’s Waltz”, a clean-lined beauty by Theodore Roethke, is about fatherhood and fear and yearning. For these men, there is an umbilical connection of form and subject matter. For the first time most of the men read their poems about absent, or feared, or longed-for fathers.
Then a tattooed gangster stands up and reads aloud for the first time. I suggest that he sends his poem home. Some weeks later, he tells me, his ex-girlfriend brought his six-year-old son to visit.
“I held him,” he points to his chest. “I can feel him in my heart.”
I think of that little boy who has a poem from his father telling him how he wanted to be a father to him, even if he failed; telling him that he loved him even if he did not know how. It is more than many boys have. It was more than the 15 men I worked with had.
One dropped stitch caught, perhaps, in an unravelling social fabric.
At the end of the year I had piles of handwritten stories and poetry on my desk. The paper carries with it the unique smell of the prison: a dusty grey hopelessness of lives turned to ash. It turns the stomach, but working with these men has helped me understand why South Africa is so violent. It also taught me to find a connection between those we discard through fear, through revulsion at what they have done, the families they have shattered, the violence they perpetrate.
The only path open to many township boys is so hard, so brutal that it annihilates the young and vulnerable self, the “bud” self, if I can call it that, that desires community, family and love.
Rashied Wewers, the oldest man in the class, wrote this for me as a farewell note:
A book with a damaged cover, but what is
Written between the lines could save a country
From a disaster.
Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist, photographer, film director, author and Fulbright scholar. Born in London, she grew up in southern Africa. She was detained as a student activist during the State of Emergency in 1985 and wrote her finals in prison. She lives in Cape Town with her husband and three daughters. Her novel Daddy’s Girl will be published this month.
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