Rogue mothers and deviant daughters

2009-10-31 14:20

KGOMOTSO Maine’s five- foot frame belies the heinous act of ­violence that landed her behind bars. Like many of the other women prisoners at Johannesburg Prison – commonly known as Sun City – Maine seems so ordinary, so far from the stereotypical hardened ­female ­prisoner popularised in films and television.

But in 2004 Maine, then aged 27, stabbed her 33-year-old boyfriend in a fit of rage after finding him with another woman. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison and has served six so far. “I was sober, but sometimes anger makes you do things,” she says. “Even my family couldn’t believe I had done it.”

Maine has since written letters to both her own family and her ­boyfriend’s family asking for their forgiveness. Both families have ­forgiven her and she is one of the lucky few who has a supportive ­family on the outside.

Maine is one of 30 incarcerated women who signed up for Serious Fun at Sun City, a collaborative project directed by African-American performer Rhodessa Jones, who is the founder of the Medea Project for ­Incarcerated Women in San Francisco, California, in the United States, and the Johannesburg-based Urban Voices project.

Venturing into one of the country’s most notorious prisons, it is hard not to fetishise the women and the crimes they have committed; to expect to meet monsters; to find some evidence of deviance, something that sets them apart from us.

Instead, sitting through the ­rehearsals led by Jones and her partner Idris Ackamoor, one is confronted by an array of ordinary women, some very beautiful, some painfully shy, while others love the limelight and the chance to be the centre of attention.

“No one has ever said to these women ‘You’re worth something’,” says Jones. “Most people believe that women behind bars are trifling and dangerous; that they are ­bandits and outlaws and that they ­belong in prison. They are just ­women who made bad choices doing what society expects them to do: ­taking care of their families.”

There are more than 1 000 women incarcerated in Sun City. Forty percent of these women are awaiting-trial prisoners and the rest have all been sentenced for armed robberies, drug-smuggling, fraud and murder and are serving sentences ranging from five to 20 years.

“Awaiting-trial prisoners are not part of the Serious Fun project. They are in and out of the system on a daily basis,” says Samantha Ramsewaki, the communications manager for Sun City. “They could be in the system for a day, a month or a year, so investing in rehabilitation programmes for them is just not feasible. Awaiting-trial offenders are the responsibility of the police and the justice cluster.”

Ramsewaki says prison authorities gave the go-ahead for Jones to come back for a second year based on the success of last year’s programme. “The results were dramatic. It has helped to teach restorative justice, the importance of forgiveness and has helped them to address the emotional baggage they brought with them to prison and to make peace with it. We were not able to address these issues as vigorously as the ­Medea Project. This is an ­ideal way of letting them have fun but also ­address important aspects of ­rehabilitation.”

Through song, dance and letters to loved ones, the participants weave together a show that is both compelling and entertaining. Using writing exercises such as “Me at my best” and “The last time I saw love” or “Letter to my children”, Jones ­encourages them to interrogate their own psyches.

These narratives then become the script for the play.

Joyce Chauke and Asanda Sonqwelo are two members of last year’s group who have returned to take part in this year’s show. Chauke (34) is serving 15 years for armed robbery and has served five years so far. Sonqwelo (26) has served four years of a 10-year ­sentence for drug-smuggling.

Ironically, Chauke, a heavyset woman who does all the heavy ­lifting during the ­performance, ­argues that women turn to crime ­because they are weak. “Women are weak, we allow other people to use us. Most of the women here are here because of men.”

She says her life of crime started at 23 when she began organising armed robberies at factories where she’d first secure employment, then establish if the business had a safe. She would then organise the robberies along with four male accomplices. Their last hit was a King Pie in Pretoria West, but things went wrong. Her accomplices were arrested and the trail led back to her.

Like many of the women there, Chauke says she turned to crime ­because selling vegetables at Pretoria station was not helping make ends meet and her accomplices convinced her that she had the strength to pull off serious crimes.

Since the gates slammed shut ­behind her in 2004, Chauke has used every opportunity to improve herself. She has completed her matric and successfully completed several courses at the University of South Africa, including one on HIV counseling and adult basic education and training.

Working with Jones has helped Chauke accept herself. “I can’t change the crime, but I’ve learnt to love myself and I’ve gained self- ­confidence.”

Sonqwelo and Chauke vehemently reject the idea of prison being a dangerous place where criminality flourishes.

“The hardest thing about being locked up is losing your freedom and not seeing your child,” says Sonqwelo, who was offered R40 000 to smuggle cocaine into South Africa from Brazil.

Jones says one of the objects of working with incarcerated women is to get them to start to claim things that are not about bling-bling or ­materialism, but about revisiting who they were before they went to jail. And reclaiming the hopes and dreams they had for themselves and their children before they went off the straight and narrow.

Jones says a dominant theme that has emerged over the two years she has worked at Sun City is that of the “rogue mother”.

“Many of them are beginning to admit that their own mothers were not saints. And they are trying to make sense of that. I just want them to embrace the idea that they have a right to life. Women’s lives always belong to ­other people.

“The perception of women in jail is that they broke all the rules and did all the wrong things. Nobody likes bad girls. But we should know the variables that make bad girls. We are not born bitches; a lot of stuff happens to us. It’s been reaffirmed for me in jail.”

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