Free to act – behind bars

2012-07-23 13:47

‘Johannesburg Prison: a place of new beginnings.” That’s the sign welcoming visitors to Diepkloof Prison.

How Mamosa Kok came to be in this prison is a story that starts half a world away, in Brazil, where she was being held captive by a drug lord.

In a moment of desperation, she almost escaped. “I jumped from the third floor and ran down the road. I saw a policeman and said to him in my weak state: ‘Help me! Please help me!’”

The Brazilian police officer could not understand her, and the man she claims was holding her hostage and forcing her to swallow drugs to be smuggled caught up with her.

“He spoke to the policeman in fluent Portuguese and made signs of insanity to him,” Kok explains.

The police officer then allowed her captor to take her away.

“I was beaten for trying to escape, given no food and forced to swallow some more. I eventually swallowed 130 balls. I was feeling sick and heavy with drugs. They told me if I want to go back home I must swallow.”

She was dropped off at the airport, happy to be escaping Brazil after “months of torture”.

She was arrested on arrival in South Africa.

Kok will tell her story again today: she is rehearsing before stepping out on stage at the prison.

She has an eight-year-old son and is one of the prisoners from Diepkloof’s women’s section taking part in Serious Fun at Sun City 2012. It’s a theatre production directed by Rhodessa Jones of San Francisco’s Medea Project.

The project aims to use theatre to give jailed women the chance to tell their own stories – using the stage as therapy.

Today, on a Saturday in June, the production is being staged for prisoners’ friends and relatives.

The inmates gathered in the prison’s female section recreation hall look healthy, happy and well maintained: fancy hairstyles and
carefully manicured nails are a common sight.

Once Jones has introduced herself and the performers, the show begins.

Women wearing traditional Xhosa, Zulu, SiSwati and Tswana outfits take to the stage; and one prisoner, Silindile Gumbi, recites a praise poem.

Gumbi says she wants to give her “sisters” a message about drug trafficking: avoid the deadly business of drugs.

Inmates weep as they beg their families for forgiveness, read letters to their children and try to tell their stories.

Most of the women on stage are serving sentences for drug trafficking and fraud.

One prisoner sobs as she explains how her pursuit of all things material landed her behindbars.

She thanks her mother for taking care of her children and apologises to her children for missing out on part of their lives.

A few days later, the inmates take to the stage again.

This time, their audience is made up of fellow prisoners and their stage is the prison courtyard.

The corridors leading to the courtyard ring with voices – women calling out to each other, some singing along to Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special.

Sometimes, hands snake out between the bars – but the women do not show their faces.

The atmosphere for today’s courtyard show is jubilant and excited.

Women explain that they found it more difficult to perform for their families than to show off their skills to other inmates.

It’s clear, though, that their fellow prisoners are a sort of family, too – the women chat and giggle, sitting together in little groups.

During a question-and-answer session after the show, many prisoners talk about how they must move away from their past and focus on their crime-free futures.

Celeste Campbell says: “Here, all the inmates have their story, others even more difficult than mine.

“Some are far away from home, in prison on a strange continent and have not seen their families for years. This is exile for us.”

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