Neo Mhlanga’s closest companion was once a .38 Special with which he used to terrorise people in their Sandton, Rivonia and Buccleuch homes near Joburg.
Now you’re most likely to find Mhlanga (28) with books in his hands, swotting for his matric exams.
At the height of his criminal career, Mhlanga was addicted to Mandrax and stole computers, laptops, jewellery, expensive liquor, guns, money, and TV sets for a “living”.
He was arrested in 2007 and, after being convicted of armed robbery, was sentenced to 20 years in Johannesburg Prison, nicknamed Sun City.
He had dropped out of school while in Grade 10 at Alexandra’s East Bank High School. In 2012, a few years into his sentence, he decided to try again.
The correctional services department said this week there were 102 prisoners writing their matric exams behind bars – 15 in the Eastern Cape, 35 in Gauteng, 35 in KwaZulu-Natal and 17 in Mpumalanga.
Speaking to City Press in his single cell this week, Mhlanga said he had “all the time in the world” to study.
“I’m upbeat that I will pass my matric this year.
“If I do pass, I want to do a national diploma or degree in entrepreneurship with Unisa. I’m waiting for registration to start so I can apply. I’m hoping I will also get a bursary through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.”
The prison has a formal school, but studying behind bars has its limitations.
“We start school at 8.30am and finish at 2.30pm. Shortly after, they lock the prison and this is a problem because it means we can’t form study groups,” says Mhlanga.
“Study groups are important because we don’t have enough teachers and resources. We do appreciate the fact that we have all the books, but it would be nice to have a study group as well.”
His first English paper was “okay”. “It was what I expected.” And accounting was “a bit tricky, but I did my best”, he says.
Even though Mhlanga is determined to move on from his criminal past, it still haunts him.
“I’m sorry about all the things I have done, all the people I have hurt. They do give me sleepless nights every now and then.
“But now I have realised that life owes me nothing. Most people who have anything of value have worked hard. I don’t know what made me and my friends think we were entitled to just take from people and hurt them in the process,” he says.