An open letter to South Africa on Freedom Day

2012-04-28 08:54

I could lavish these pages with poetic words, praising our forefathers who fought for our freedom, which I, and many others in our prison system, abused by our criminal conduct, barbaric acts that continue to shake the very core of what’s left of our morality as a nation.

But dear citizen of this great land, I won’t take that angle, for I do trust our media to cover much of what Freedom Day is all about.

I write this piece fully aware that it won’t return loved ones who have been killed by our evilness, greed and selfishness.

I’m aware that this won’t remove the pain our stupid acts have made you live with, the trauma you suffered at our hands, the nightmares you still have to contend with when you recall our brazen actions, invading your private space and violating your peace.

This letter to you, South Africa, is as a result of just one inmate’s thoughts about missed opportunities, about the reality I see, a reality that you may see too.

The fact that I have never killed or raped anybody doesn’t make me any better than other inmates who have committed these heinous crimes.

I know, South Africa, that you look at everyone wearing this orange uniform as a murderer, rapist and every other bad thing you can think of.

We can’t blame you for that. Why should we? After all, if one commits fraud (which many consider a lesser crime), or steals something valuable from its rightful owner, the pain he leaves behind may just be so severe that it can be said that a part of the victim has been “killed” or “raped” in some way or another, even though they may still be alive or were not sexually abused.

The scars that may be left by even the smallest act of crime and corruption may well be deadly, or at least kill something valuable inside them or even alter their view of life in such a way that he or she may never be his or her normal self again.

Every person who has committed a criminal act, every person who is involved in criminal activity, can be considered a murderer or a rapist, regardless of how the courts classify the misdemeanour.

After a six-year period of deep introspection, reflecting on how I got myself in this hellhole, I can safely say that there is no way one can ever justify being involved in crime. So let’s not even go there.

Whether you’re poor, lacking the means to further your studies or simply mixing with the wrong crowd, there is always a better way to reach out for your dreams without descending into the abyss of crime.

If anything, most of what we have done has been as a result of greed, sheer stupidity, lack of discipline and an unwillingness to listen to counsel. It’s rare to find a criminal who has never heard his or her mother or another loved one say: “Stop what you’re doing!”

We have been warned against our dark ways, but because we thought we had it all figured out, we fooled ourselves into thinking we were smarter than everyone else and could get away with it like Bro Sticks and be the next don.

Alas, many of us end up behind bars, or worse, buried with our memory tarnished by disgrace, and leave behind children, lovers and parents who will forever be ashamed to mention our names in public.

What about the damage we leave in our wake? Do we ever sit back and think about it? Do we really ever understand the true sense of the effects our actions have on the victims of our callous behaviour? Do we?

I hate to be the one to break the bad news to you, South Africa, but it’s only a small percentage of us who are truly remorseful about the crimes we committed.

The culture inside our prisons doesn’t encourage remorse, let alone a time for introspection. Overcrowding is well documented, and often our department of correctional services officials are more inclined to glorify and show respect to the most barbaric prisoners and treat with overt disdain those who appear placid.

Needless to say, that encourages a gung ho attitude that results in these institutions being turned into universities of more crime. It is no wonder that recidivism is our forte.

That said, dear Mzansi Afrika, please allow me the privilege to tender a sincere apology for how we have disappointed you.

Allow me to express my regret at the fact that we have wasted our youthful days by making stupid decisions, impacting on the economy of this beautiful country, increasing the number of orphans and widows, putting pressure on your taxes to fund these counterproductive prisons, and even turning your homes into private prisons.

On behalf of the few who are sincere among us, I wish to let you know that if we were to be afforded the opportunity to play an active role in developing strategies to counter the scourge of crime in this country, we would be happy to do so while we continue to serve our sentences for the crimes we committed.

As things stand, we continue to be a tax burden on you while we deliver no real value for what you afford us, undeserving as
we are.

The so-called rehabilitation programmes we are offered, though well intended, are largely useless. Besides, the sheer volume of inmates compared with the number of social workers makes it impossible for them to have the desired effect on us.

Add to that the fact that they are offered in English, a language that many of us are not comfortable with. It’s a fact that our prisons are more than 80% African. Of that percentage, very few have just a Grade 10 certificate.

With the department struggling to keep up with the ratio of inmates to officials, it becomes nigh impossible for it to also look at producing programmes that address the official languages and demographics of each province.

As such, it becomes a matter of that particular inmate having to find the opportune time to think hard about who he is, to reflect on the legacy he wants to leave behind, to consider the impact of his actions not only on his immediate family but on the victim of his criminal behaviour and on you, South Africa, as a whole.

We are not the first young generation to occupy these guarded walls. Many of our political and business icons were once residents of these very prisons.

I’ve thought hard about how they used their time behind bars. I’ve read books that testify to the fact that many of them were able to hone their political and social responsibilities behind these walls.

It was not a time for them to learn new ways of being destructive. They used their imprisonment to develop into men of principle, activists who were ready to give up their lives for the greater good of you, Mzansi.

They used their time in here to develop themselves into useful South Africans concerned about their fellow man.

I’ve also tried to think back and investigate when was this culture lost in our prisons – what went wrong? Why is it that this generation is so self-absorbed and brutal in its outlook? Why is it that we are so ready to kill our policemen instead of helping them to keep us safe?

Why is it that we are so keen to rape instead of demonstrating chivalry towards our sisters? Why is there no visible desire among us in here today to turn our imprisonment into a force for the greater good of you, South Africa?

Why is there no desire to turn our imprisonment into something the future generations can learn from and be proud to be Africans?

Back then, in the times of political repression, the prison system was not concerned with prisoners’ rights or making it easy for prisoners to be rehabilitated. It was a highly repressive system, yet the kind of convicts that walked out are today influential politicians, businessmen and women, civil servants and social activists, among others.

Today, we have so-called correctional centres, even “centres of excellence”, that produce us – bloodthirsty rubbish.

Surely, something has to change. It will not help you, Mzansi, to bury your head in the sand, and preten

d that prisons don’t exist.

It will not help you, South Africa, to avoid having an intellectual debate about the true state of our justice system. By now you have seen that handing out heavy sentences does not help to discourage crime. It’s just a parallel welfare programme run by the department that doesn’t add any real value to your existence.

As we celebrate this Freedom Day of 2012, wouldn’t it be ideal to free our minds to think about the possibilities of using these convicted criminals to spearhead the fight against crime?

Why has our intelligence service not yet seen the need to identify inmates who could be strategic partners in the war against crime? Is it the fear of associating with known convicts that drives this ignorance?

Could it be the outcry of society at large that makes the state so flat-footed and blind to the possibilities that our prison population presents in the fight against crime and corruption? Could it be that the principal decision-makers in the justice cluster fear media scrutiny?

South Africa, we cannot undo the damage we did. We have wronged you. We have failed you and failed those who were here before us, who came out of here with a good sense of purpose and delivered freedom to all your citizens.

We may not be worth much in your estimation, but some of us see an active role that we can play in the war on crime, only if we can be given room to do so while we remain tagged as prisoners and inmates.

It is not to buy our freedom that we voice these thoughts. It is not to seek sympathy that we apologise for our criminal acts. It’s just what it is – an act of freedom for us to be human again by doing what we can to add value to you, to your loved ones.

A new ethos can arise from this citadel, if only you grant us your voice of approval. South Africa, Mzansi, you want to be able to sleep when the wind blows.

» This article was written as a contribution to Freedom Day by an inmate serving time in one of the country’s prisons 

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