Age No Bar

Motlabana Monnakgotla
Published 4 years ago
hands of a prisoner on prison bars

For the many seniors in prison, the sun has already set on their lives. But beyond the forbidding grey walls of their damp cells, what rehabilitation and opportunities await them in society?

The prison walls are so high even the sun does not want to come in. The stinking corridors and cells are dark and damp; the cold, bitter world that is prison has been their home for years. In most cases, it is poverty that has pushed them to crime. There is punishment, and in some cases, repentance.

But what after life in prison? Do the state and society offer opportunities for mainstreaming senior convicts? They are taught skills at these correctional centers but how do they use them in the sunset years of their life?

I speak to three senior former convicts who served their life sentences. They find society forbidding and unforgiving, but in some cases, have moved on leading productive lives.

Themba Mkhize. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Themba Mkhize, 68, is back in his home in Zola, in the historical township of Soweto in South Africa. He was sentenced to 42 years in 1996 for murder and robbery in KwaZulu-Natal. He was 48 at the time.

During his stay in prison, Mkhize fell sick and was taken to a prison closer to specialist doctors; he was told he was going to die.

“I thought to myself, before I die; let me move closer to my family. I was moved to Johannesburg Correctional Services and that’s where I finished my sentence,” says Mkhize.

Mkhize tells me about his experience in prison and the prevailing gangsterism.

“In jail, it’s fights. Every year, there’s a fight between the numbers gangs. You can’t tell anyone that it’s safe inside [in jail]. I then formed a group to fight these gangs; it was a success because we had professional fighters in the group. It was then that these gangs would ask to be moved to other prisons because we would give them hiding. This was until one of the gang members was beaten and died in hospital,” he recalls.

Mkhize served 11 years and eight months in prison and is on parole. While in prison, he spent most of his time doing electrical work, fixing televisions and radios among other things, to earn an income. After release, Mkhize struggled to find employment and solely relies on a pension grant of R1,700 ($114) a month.

Mkhize’s eight children left him after his arrest. His is currently living with his mother and girlfriend.

“Coming out as a senior citizen has affected me a lot. People look at you strangely; you are a thief, someone that can’t be trusted. Some fear me because I killed a policeman. Even my family, some don’t like me. Prison is not okay. But now that I’m old, I don’t care about a lot of things,” he says.

He joined a rehabilitation center in Soweto, but stopped attending it because he felt it wasn’t doing much to help ex-convicts.

Simon Maqaqa. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Five kilometers away, I visit Simon Sindile Maqaqa at his home in Dobsonville, Soweto. He is 52 years old and was also arrested for murder and robbery in 1998 and sentenced to life. He was released in 2013 on parole.

“After the parole board let me out into society, the community was okay with me and they were close to me. Later, they started treating me strangely and stigmatizing me. If a crime happened around the area, I would be the first suspect,” says Maqaqa.

He joined a program for convicts called Nacham (meaning ‘repent’ in Hebrew) that helped offenders fit into society.

“Inside prison, I loved woodwork. I went to school and did furniture-making and spray-painting and got my certificate in 2015. [But] when I try registering a company, I fail,” he says.

He goes on to say that the government does not offer enough opportunities for ex-convicts like him.

“They monitor you for 24 hours and let you out for good behavior, but once you are outside, the same government suppresses you.”

Maqaqa started a small business selling sweets and cigarettes after his release. With the money he saved, he built two rooms and is renting them out.

“I built them with my own hands because I also studied construction inside prison,” he says.

But there are success stories too.

Fifty-year-old Collin Khumalo from KwaZulu-Natal is a former prisoner currently living in Johannesburg, and he employs more than 200 people.

Collin Khumalo. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

I call him and our conversation is engaging. God changed his life, he says.

Khamalo started shoplifting at the age of 14. In 1988, he moved to Johannesburg and continued with his nefarious activities.

“We committed fraud, and then moved to house-breaks, then robbery. It was like a small gang terrorizing the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg. It was then that we moved to cash-in-transit heists, until 1995, when I got arrested for murder, robbery and possession of a firearm and ammunition,” he says matter-of-factly.

In 1997, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and an additional 44 years.

While inside, Khumalo was angry he didn’t have a proper upbringing – his parents were non-existent to him. He didn’t know what the purpose of his life was. He soon became South Africa’s most notorious prison gang member and fought everyone. Khumalo was promoted from rank to rank and moved from prison to prison.

“In 2002, I was sent to a private prison in Venda. That is where my conscience and God started talking to me. I was listening to a man preach… That was the turning point in my life,” he recalls.

Khamalo broke the gangsters’ prison code by leaving a prison gang; he was promised death by all gangs for repenting.

He made a decision to get some form of education that same year and realized his purpose. By 2003, he started goading other inmates to stay away from gangsterism.

“In 2004, I started a program called Fear Free Life (inspire and encourage other men to lead better lives and become better fathers and husbands). When it started, the message was not to be vigilantes. It grew to be a very big thing, I registered it in 2009. By 2011, I was still in prison but it was given a quality assurance by the City Of Johannesburg to run the program in the whole Johannesburg Correctional Services,” he says.

In 2011, the then Minister of Correctional Services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, announced that offenders sentenced to life imprisonment before March 1, 1994, could be considered for parole after serving 15 years of their sentence.

“By the grace of God, I had already attained a diploma in Human Resources and was rehabilitating other prisoners. I did all that without any expectation of going home. In July 2013, I was released on day parole. I would sleep in prison and during the day go out, [I did this] for six months,” he says.

With the vision he had for Fear Free Life, he pushed the program at schools talking about the negative impact of crime, drugs and gangsterism. He invested in the program with funds received from family members. This led to quality assurance by the City Of Johannesburg to run the program across schools, workplaces and prisons in South Africa in 2014.

“Going to prison was for coming across my destiny; it was something that was meant to happen. My prison experience shaped the man that I am today,” he says.

Today, Fear Free Life employs ex-convicts to help clean Johannesburg streets, and have recently garnered city development projects. Khumalo also works with artists.

Men like him prove there can be a life beyond the prison walls.