The Numbers Gang

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The Numbers Gang
Founding locationPollsmoor Prison, Cape Town
Years activeLate 1800's–present
TerritoryAll prisons in South Africa
EthnicityPrimarily Coloureds and Black Africans
Criminal activitiesExtortion, Rape, Inmate Prostitution, Murder, Illegal Gambling, Smuggling, Robbery, Contract Killings, Drug Trafficking

The Numbers Gang (or the Numbers Gangs and associated with different numbers in different prisons[1]) is a prison gang with one of the most fearsome reputations in South Africa. They are known to operate primarily in the Western Cape prison of Pollsmoor, however it is believed that they control most South African prisons.[citation needed]


The Numbers Gang was started in the late 1800s, supposedly to protect mineworkers. The origins of the gang remain sketchy at best. Amongst gang members, the likely apocryphal story of Nongoloza and Ngeleketshane is claimed as the gangs origin.

The Numbers Gang story holds that a man named Po became alarmed by the exploitation of miners in late 1800's South Africa. Allegedly Po befriends a young Zulu called Nongoloza who said he was on his way to the mines to look for work and Ngeleketshane, a member of the Pondo tribe. Po eventually recruits 15 young men. He teaches them a secret language and highway robbery. The men succeed in robbing travelers and colonial outposts of their goods. The gang chooses to change their habits to avoid being caught. They move from cave to cave and split themselves into two groups: Ngeleketshane with his seven men who rob by the day, and Nongoloza and his six men who rob by night. Po orders the two men to carve their daily outlaw activities on a nearby rock which is to serve as a diary.

Po then orders the two men to visit a farm, owned by a Mr. Rabie, and to buy one of his bulls called Rooiland (Red Earth). Mr. Rabie is suspicious, and he refuses to sell the two men the bull. The two youths refuse to leave without carrying out their order, and proceed to stab the farmer with bayonets and then steal the bull, and slaughter it for a feast.

Po orders the men to take the hide of the bull and press it onto the diary rock until the words have been transferred from the rock to the hide. With two copies of the gang's way, Po explains the bandits must follow the rules as they have been set out from the beginning. The two items are divided between the two men. Nongoloza receives the hide and Ngeleketshane receives the rock. The two are instructed to carry them wherever they go. The rock, however, proves to be too awkward to carry and one day it is accidentally dropped down a hill. It splits into two pieces, one of which falls into a river. This leaves Ngeleketshane's gang with only half of the gang's laws.

The first conflict of the two gangs takes place because of this incident. The two gangs decide to embark on a joint expedition. Nongoloza says he is sick and decides to stay behind. He asks one of Ngeleketshane's soldiers, Magubane, to stay behind. Upon returning Ngeleketshane finds Nongoloza engaged in homosexual acts with Magubane. Enraged, Kilikijan challenges Nongoloza to a fight. Nongoloza replies that according to the hide sex between bandits is allowed as to avoid contact with women. Kilikijan retaliates by saying that he does not trust Nongoloza, believing he added this law to the hide after half his rock went missing. The two men commence fighting until they are both drenched in blood, and Po arrives to intervene.

Po listens to both men's sides of the story. He then tells Ngeleketshane to travel to the mines to see if men were engaging in sex with one another. Ngeleketshane finds that this does indeed take place, but opinions remained divided as to whether this justified Nongoloza's act. This was to become the pivotal disagreement between the two gangs that persist to this day. Po had informed the men that at the entrance of his cave was an old assegai, and if the two men found the tip of the assegai rusted, it would mean that Po had died. Due to the death of Po, a final decision on whether sexual intercourse between men was allowed never came to pass.

This prediction had come true and the two gangs decided to go their separate ways: Nongoloza's gang with its now eight men (which included Magubane, who he decided to take with him) and Kilikijan's gang with its seven. It is said that this is where the numbers "27" and "28" originated, with the number "2" symbolising the two leaders. The gangs agree that the day would still be divided between them as it had always been. The gangs continued to roam the countryside until they both ended up in Point Prison in Durban.

It was at Point Prison that they encountered a group of six men, led by a man named Grey, who were franse (non-gangsters). The six men would sit in a circle and flip a single silver coin between them. Nongoloza demanded that the men hand over their possessions to him; he is refused. Later he is told by Ngeleketshane that these men were skilled smugglers and gamblers who had helped him in his early days in prison.[2]

Nongoloza decides to name the coin a "Spyker" (nail) while Ngeleketshane insists that they should call it a "Kroon" (crown). A fight broke out between Nongoloza and Ngeleketshane about the future of the gamblers. Ngeleketshane defended the gamblers against the 28's sexual appetites, which is what Nongoloza wanted them for.

After many disagreements it was finally decided by Nongoloza that the new group would be called the "26s". This name was chosen because they had six men but also because Nongoloza wanted to indicate their inferior status. Nongoloza informed Ngeleketshane that he and his men would have to answer for the actions of the 26s.

Finally the three camps were formed. The 26s were responsible for gambling, smuggling and accruing wealth in general. The 28s were the warriors and responsible for fighting on behalf of all three groups, and the 27s were the guardians of gang law and the peace keepers between all the gangs.

New rules and a strict code of conduct were drawn up. It was decided that when a gangster broke a rule, the blood of a warder or franse (non-gangster) must be spilled to set things right.



The 26s' duty is to accumulate wealth for all the numbers.[3] The 26s have no private line and a wyfie may not join the gang. Although a member of the 26s may take a wyfie for himself, it is strictly against the laws as set out in the book of 26s.

The gang has a very specific hierarchy and is structured as follows:

In the number 2s and the number 1s there is a twelve point ring which makes gang decisions according to their jurisdictions. Each rank has its own assigned office and duties which include training lower rank members in the duties and codes of the gang.[4]

The 26s have historically been considered[who?] an inferior gang and have lived in the shadow of the 28s; however in some prisons they have risen up against the 28s and controlled the prisons. (See "general elections", below)


The 28s are the blood line of the gang. They are divided into two lines – the gold line and the silver line. Haysom's study (1981) on prison gangs is based on Supreme Court trial records and supplemented with some interviews with ex-offenders. Schurink's paper (1989) summarises the findings of a study on prison gangs commissioned by the Department of Correctional Services. For this study, in depth interviews were conducted with sixty prisoners, mainly coloured men serving in St Albans and Brandvlei prisons. Prisoners were also encouraged to write about their prison experiences providing a number of personal manuscripts.

The gold line are the warriors, the descendants of Nongoloza. They are for fighting the gang's battles.

The silver line are the female, and are the descendants of Magubane. They are considered to be the sex slaves of the gold line, rather than the crazy stabbers.

The emblem of the 28s is the Zulu shield, whose skin is made out of the legendary Rooiland cow's remains.

Each substructure of the gang consists of four men and is named respectively the "four points of the ones", the "four points of the twos" and then "four points of the threes". These four points refer to the places in Rooiland's carcass where the legs join the body. The function of each officer in the gang is signified by a part of the bull's anatomy.Van Zyl Smit, Dirk "South African prison law and practice", Butterworths, 1992, Durban.

The magistrate is given the hooves which are his four stamps: red, green, white and black. He uses these stamps to mark a member for promotion or punishment.

The gwenza gets the legs which are his four pens: red, green, white and black. He uses these pens to note the record of every member.

The glas (binoculars), who communicates the gang's decisions, gets one of the horns which is his bugle. He uses this bugle to announce conclusions to the gang's deliberations.

The draad (intelligence officer) is given the eyes. Being given the eyes signifies that he can see all that happens.

In the 28s it is important to prove your manhood and move up in the rankings. A member moves up the ranks through the stabbing or killing of rival gangs, prison guards or disobedient members. Should a member stay in the lower ranks he will still be considered a woman and will be sexually abused until he proves his manhood.Gear, Sasha & Ngubeni, Kindiza "Your brother, my wife" Published in SA crime quarterly NO 4, June 2003.

Recruitment into the 28s[edit]

When a new prisoner is assigned a cell he will be introduced to the person in charge of that cell known as the "cell cleaner". The cell cleaner will welcome the new prisoner to the cell, and will either leave him alone for the evening, or will demand sex.

The new prisoners will be observed by a senior member of the gang known as "die glas" (the binoculars). The glas' job is to conduct gang business in die bos (the bush), the parts of the prison where the 28s are not active. The glas will then confront a potential new recruit and give him a riddle. How the new prisoner answers the riddle will determine which department of the gang he will fall under.

The glas will generally watch the way new members interact with other franse (non-gang members). He will watch how the new prisoner deals with conflict, the way he solves problems and the way he walks and talks. The glas then approaches the new prisoner and will say "I am going to ask you a question. Think very carefully before answering." The glas will go on to say, "It is raining. You are standing under an umbrella. I say to you I am getting wet; I may get sick. What are you going to do?" The new inmate's answer will determine his future in the prison. If he should say "I invite you to share my umbrella" he would become a sex slave and would not become a member of the 28s. If he should say "I will come out into the rain with you" it means that the new inmate is saying that he is prepared to live like him; they are brothers and they will live and die together.

After the glas is satisfied with the answer of the new inmate, he is given a task to become a member. This task could either be the fatal or non-fatal stabbing of another inmate or warden. The new recruit will be given a knife whose length is determined by another senior member of the gang known as the nyangi (the doctor). Should the gang want the stabbing to be fatal the nyangi will give the new recruit a longer blade, and a shorter one in the event the gang wants a non-lethal stabbing.

Once the stabbing has taken place all the gang members watching will shout "Nangampela![5] Die nommer is vol!" (The number is complete).

The new member then meets with the tribunal and is told to strip down to his underwear. The glas circles him slowly, scrutinising his skin for vuil papiere (dirty papers – the tattoos of other gangs). If he is found with the mark of a rival gang he is beaten and his recruitment halted. This ceremony takes place on a Saturday, the day the gangs consider the "day of wrongs".

On a Sunday, the "day of rights", his ceremony is performed. He is once again ordered to stand in the middle of the room; however this time he is surrounded by several people. The first person to approach him is the nyangi. The nyangi then takes a gold pipe and slaps it on the new recruit's right wrist, then takes a silver pipe and slaps it on the new recruit's left wrist. He then checks the recruit's pulse and declares either "Die man se pols klop twee keer per jaar" (This man's pulse beats twice a year) or "Die man se pols klop drie keer per jaar'" (This man's pulse beats three times a year). Should he mention that his pulse beats twice it would mean the new recruit is being recruited onto the silver line, if three times it means he is being recruited onto the gold line.

The gwenza (senior member) then places a handkerchief on the floor and slips a knife under it. He stands and says to the recruit: "From today you are no longer a frans. You are a 28. You will never swear at your brother. You will never hurt your brother. You will never do anything that reflects badly on the camp. If you leave the camp, you leave by your own blood."

The landdros (magistrate) will then come forward and take out his green and white stamps and give the new member his approval. The landdros carries four stamps – white, green, red and black, which signify the four hooves on the Rooiland.

These stamps signify promotion. When a member of the silver line is promoted he takes out his green and white stamp; if the member is from the gold line he takes out the green and the red stamps. The black stamp is reserved for the death sentence.

The landdros then steps forward and takes out his white and green pens to inscribe the new member's recruitment into the 28s' record book.

The ending of the ceremony is signalled by the new recruit being marched out of the circle. The 28s then take the new recruit to the 26s and 27s.

The new recruit will then sleep alongside different members of the 28 gang and be told what his duties are. He will also begin to learn the history of Nongoloza and Kilikijan. It will only be a brief fragment of the story, for he is still too junior to hear the whole story.

Finally he is taken to a section of the gang called the mambozas (forties). These 28s are senior but inactive due to being too old or too injured for active duty. Another reason a person could be a mamboza is because his position has already being filled by another member. A prison cannot have two active nyangis for example, and if another nyangi is transferred from another prison he is considered dormant – he sleeps in the forties.

The mambozas begin to teach the new member to sabela (speak prison language). It is a long and gruelling process. The new member has to sabela all day and night with his blackboard (teacher). The first two months being a member of the number means that a new member is not allowed to receive visits, write letters or read books. They must focus on the number. If somebody learns too slowly the punishments are severe. New members can be stripped of all their clothes and thrown into an ice cold shower until they "find the number" (get it right).

One of the last things new members learn is about a position in the silver line held by a man named Mtjoetijies. This man is dead but his place in the hierarchy is left empty. Legend has it that Mtjoetijies was a translator, for Nongoloza who refused to speak the language of the white oppressor. Nongoloza grew increasingly wary about what Mtjoetijies was saying to the white officers, and decided to take action and kill him as a precaution. The position remains open as a reminder that the 28s do not negotiate with words, they negotiate with action.

This ritual, however, has now changed. The fundamental principles remain the same; however, in modern 28 law the man who trains you is now allowed also to have sex with you. This change came along because of the war between the silver and gold lines of the number.

The 28s War[edit]

In the late '80s a decision was taken to stop bloodlines (no stabbing). The silver line complained that the gold line were now not doing their jobs. The gold line complained about the silver line being greedy with the food. In the days when the bloodlines were still open the gold line members had a very strict diet to follow as they were not allowed to get fat. They were not allowed to eat eggs for example and were never allowed sugar with the coffee and their porridge. All these items went to the silver lines instead. Upon the closing of the bloodlines the gold line demanded that they get the food they wanted since there was no longer a need to stay fit. The silver line refused, and thus the gold line declared war on the silver line.

The silver line trounced the gold line. The soldiers were beaten by the thinkers. Within months hostilities had ceased. The hospital beds were filled with soldiers from the 28 gang.

The gold line formally offered their surrender. The silver line then set out their terms. They closed down the gold line and vowed that it would never be opened again. They threw the soldiers out of their ranks and filled these ranks with silver line members. They then decreed that nobody would have to take blood to join the 28s again. They also changed the initiation rules: they stated that any person who wished to join the 28s had to have sex with their teacher.

The rule of the blood has, however, changed. Modern members are now expected both to kill upon order of their general as well as have sex with their teacher, they are also expected to know the "Number" to the extent that the new members would be waken up in the middle of the night and asked the "Number" if they get it wrong they would have to have sex with any fellow brother or be asked to kill an inmate.


Relationship between the numbers[edit]

Every night the glas and draad of the 28s meet with the glas and draad of both the 26s and 27s in a forum called the "Valcross"(ciko). Only the glas is allowed to speak at the forum. The draad remains silent. He is the one who will report the findings of the forum back to the 28s.

The two 28s are not allowed to speak directly to the 26s. They communicate through the 27s. In the event that the 28s have recruited a new member, the 28s will inform the 27s who then will inform the 26s. This is seen as a "hands off" warning to the other gangs.

Relationships with franse (non gang members)[edit]

The numbers gangs refer to themselves as ndodas (men) and refer to non-gang members as franse. The frans is stripped of his juridical personhood. He is not seen as a human to the gangs. When he receives a parcel from a visitor, he must hand it over to the ndodas in his cell and they will decide how it is distributed.

If the frans wants to conduct a commercial transaction, for example sell his watch, he has to ask the permission of the ndodas in his cell. When the gangsters sit to discuss gang business each frans must sit with his face to the wall and remain silent. Franse are also servants. They keep the cell clean and wash the ndodas' clothes.

The frans must submit everything he has to the ndodas, but the franse are protected from the numbers by being housed in different cells.

Relationship with warders[edit]

The relationship between gang members and the warders is a complex and an uneasy one. Under the apartheid regime they feared the warders. They knew that the warders would not be watched by human rights groups, so when there was a stabbing of an officer the warders would beat the gang members to within an inch of their lives.

Under the new system however the warders have become targets. The numbers gang are well aware that the consequences of their actions will not result in a beating or the death penalty, and therefore new initiates are encouraged to stab a warden or even to attempt to take his eye out of the socket.

One of the most compelling messages that the numbers gang members like to send to the warders, is by holding up a mirror toward the warden. This deviates from the traditional practice of holding up an image of an inmate. The message the numbers are said to be sending is "We are what you are. You are an army, we are an army. Where you have a head of the prison, we will have a judge. Where you have a head of a section, we will have a general. Whatever you do to us, we will do to you in turn."

The numbers network[edit]

One notable feature of the numbers gang is that it is a nationwide brotherhood that is prevalent in every prison across South Africa.

Members that betray the gang are not safe in any South African prison, as the numbers control every prison in South Africa. The secretive nature of the gang makes their system of communicating to other prisons unknown. This is what makes them probably the most dangerous prison gang in the world.

General elections[edit]

Traditionally the 28 gang has been the dominant gang. This still holds true in prisons such as Pollsmoor prison. However the balance of power now varies from prison to prison over time. When one of the number gangs feels it can take control of the prison, they declare a "general election" in which an all out war is waged, often lasting up to two years until one gang is declared the "ruling party". Two famous cases of these wars were in Belville prison (1967–1969) and in Brandvlei prison (1974–1976). In both these cases the 26s were declared as the "ruling party".

Prisoner transfer[edit]

When a member of one of the number gangs get transferred to another prison he is shown into his cell. "Who are you?" asks the cell cleaner, as a test of authenticity. If he is a 28 he must reply "I am a son of Nongoloza, that he works by night." If the cell cleaner is a 27 he will reply that he is Kilikijan, that he works by the day.

The new arrival then runs through the motions of the formulated and well-rehearsed exchange. He must use the right words and the right metaphors; everything hinges on his knowledge of prison language.

When the cell cleaner is satisfied that the new man is a genuine child of Nongoloza, he delivers him to the glas of the 28s who asks him the same question "Who are you?". Now that he is in his own camp the new arrival must describe each rank in the 28s, every rank except for his own. This means he identifies himself through omission.

Trial and punishment[edit]

Trial by the Number 28[edit]

When a member has committed a gang crime, the Twelve Points meets to decide the case. The judge is the first to speak: he argues for a conviction. The mtshali rebuts him with an argument for acquittal. Then the forum debates the two positions. The judge will then end the discussion by announcing the verdict. He will then suggest a verdict followed by a sentence. If the sentence is death the mtshali stands up and begins an argument in mitigation. The mtshali will then argue that the death sentence be commuted to a "band" (gang rape).

A vote then takes place. Every person except the general and the mtshali votes. If the vote is five for death and five for a lesser sentence, the mtshali casts his deciding vote and the accused's life is saved. If the vote for death is in the majority the mtshali registers his protest by refusing to vote at all.

At this stage of proceedings, once the accused has been sentenced to death by a majority vote, the "Goliat-one" (man of light) attempts to save the accused's life. He strips off all his own clothes and then runs around naked round the edge of the Twelve Points. While doing so, he lets out a scream in the most haunting voice he can, pleading for mercy.

Hearing the cry of the Goliat is meant to take the 28s out of the darkness (for their decision to kill one of their own) and bring them back into the light. If this does not work, if the hearts of the Twelve Points are not stirred by the Goliat-one then the accused must be executed.

The accused is not present at the trial. He will not be informed of his own fate. After sentence is passed, three soldiers will be given the order to perform the execution.


The gang have a strict code of conduct and failure to abide by these rules has severe consequences for the perpetrator.

Upon the outcome of the trial a punishment is chosen. The ultimate punishment is death. An execution squad will carry out the order. They could possibly suffocate the offender in their bed or slit their throat. The death punishment is known as a "number one".

The second worst punishment just short of death is to be raped by a prisoner that is known to carry HIV. This practice is known as "slow puncture".The offender's anus is cut open so it bleeds, thus ensuring infection. The gang holds the offender down and the HIV-infected prisoner then proceeds to rape the offender.

Less severe forms of punishment include "klappe" (hits) which involves 10 slaps to the face with an open hand, and the "beker" (mug) which involves blows on the head with a tin cup attached to a sock.

Other forms of punishment include gang rape and what is known as a "carry on" where the offender lifts up his arms and is beaten with padlocks, stick and cups.

Punishments that do not involve any harm to the offender would involve the murder of a non-gang member.


The numbers gang are known to be extremely ritualised. Three days of the week are reserved for a carefully delineated set of functions.

Friday is known as the day of rations. It is then that all possessions in the cell are gathered including the possessions of the franse and are distributed to individuals by rank.

Saturday is the day of wrongs. This is where the various judicial structures of the gang meet to pass sentence. Events which take place on this day range from the passing of sentence on an offender to a new recruit being scanned for illicit allegiances.

Sunday is known as the day of rights. This is where newcomers are recruited into the family, members are promoted and victories are celebrated.

Other numbers gangs[edit]

There are other number gangs who are not recognised by the 26s, 27s and 28s. The Desperadoes are the 29s and the Big Five are the 25s, but they are referred to as "dirty dogs" and are not given the same status or respect as members of the numbers gang. Under certain conditions it is compulsory to kill a member of the Big Five gang.


  1. ^ Cohen, Mike (September 19, 2013). "The Cape of bad dope: Gang warfare in South Africa is out of control - and set to get worse as a key leader leaves prison". The Independent. Retrieved 16 November 2014. Young people wearing hooded sweatshirts and trainers throng Manenberg’s litter-strewn sidewalks, many of them sporting tattoos that brand them members of the so-called numbers gangs, the 26s, 27s and 28s, that operate in the country’s prisons.
  2. ^ Van Onselen, New Babylon, New Nineveh, 368–397.
  3. ^ Haysom, N. (1981). Towards an understanding of prison gangs Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town.
  4. ^ Schurink, W. J. (1989). The world of the Wetslaners: an analysis of some organisational features in South African prisons. Acta Criminologica 2:2, 60–70.
  5. ^ "Nangampela" is an isiZulu word that means, literally, "There it is, indeed!"

Information sources[edit]

  • «God’s children», Heather Parker Lewis, 2006 - ISBN 978-1-920103-11-8
  • «Nongoloza's Children: Western Cape Prison Gangs During and After Apartheid», Jonny Steinberg
  • Van Zyl Smit, Dirk "South African prison law and practice", Butterworths, 1992
  • Durban. Haysom, N. (1981). Towards an understanding of prison gangs Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town.Cape Town