The jailhouse rot

Evidence before the Jali commission has highlighted the gross dereliction of leadership in prisons.

‘It’s like a plot in a movie script,” said East Coast Radio presenter Anisa Ussuph, commenting on the alleged hiring of prisoners in KwaZulu-Natal to murder political opponents or colleagues who fell out of favour with the ruling clique in the Pietermaritzburg New Prison.

Such disclosures, emanating from the Jali Commission of Inquiry, certainly conjure frightening pictures in the public mind. But the most disturbing fact is that the rot has gone by unchecked, unprosecuted and largely unpublicised for many years.

In October 1996 the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (Imssa) recommended “shock action” to address problems at the Pietermaritzburg New Prison. In a report commissioned by the then minister of correctional services, Sipho Mzimela, Imssa noted that some prisoners obtained weapons from staff, escapes were frequent, staff were often absent and refused to perform duties, and corrupt syndicates operated.

Now, six years later, after the commission has been sitting for 12 weeks, there is no indication that anything was done to address the problems.

The disclosures about the use of convicts as hit men reveal the extent of crime at grass-roots level.
But testimony heard by the commissioners suggests the rot reaches to the very top of the Department of Correctional Services. There has been undisputed evidence that Mzimela and his jet-setting national commissioner, Khulekani Sithole, consistently tried to push multimillion-rand building contracts to the companies of their choice.

In summary, evidence already heard and still to come indicates that incidents of sedition, kidnapping, gun trafficking, drug dealing, illegal escapes, assault and murder have increased since Imssa’s report in 1996. At leadership level, nepotism, incompetence and abuse of power have gone unchecked to such an extent that all major prisons in the province have become wholly dysfunctional.

For some, a part-explanation for the institutional collapse is given in uncontested evidence that as correctional services minister, Mzimela spent no time dealing with the real problems facing the department. Instead he focused on his liaison with his chosen companies, Group Four and Concor, over his pet projects, including Kokstad’s Maximum Security Prison, while Sithole spent most of his time abroad researching the privatisation of prisons.

As a result, the new Kokstad Maximum Security Prison, with a holding capacity of 1 400, remains under-utilised because of administrative hiccups and water reticulation problems.

The hands-off approach of the prisons leadership, however, does not explain why an institution like the Pietermaritzburg New Prison degenerated into a den of iniquity.

The most probable explanation lies in the recent political history and current governance of KwaZulu-Natal and a fast-track affirmative action programme that went horribly wrong.

After receiving the Imssa report, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mzimela did recommend the temporary closure of the Pietermaritzburg New Prison. However, he was snubbed by local leaders of the African National Congress-aligned Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), headed by alleged murderer Russel Ngubo, who threatened to kill him if he dared set foot on the premises.

Why Ngubo was never sanctioned, let alone charged for such a threat, is significant. How did he and his henchmen assume such unfettered power?

From the evidence its appears the scene was set in 1997 when Ngubo and other key figures in Popcru devised a mutinous plan, dubbed Operation Quiet Storm, aimed at wresting control of leadership of the prisons and entire provincial administration of the Department of Correctional Services from the “old guard” - formerly white prison commanders and senior administrative staff - and replacing them with more “progressive people”.

The forcible takeover, which included protests, lock-ins, lock-outs and kidnapping, resulted in hand-picked Popcru office-bearers, many of whom lacked qualifications and experience in running a prison, assuming strategic control of the KwaZulu-Natal department, with powers to hire and fire at will.

The saga unfolds much like an adapted version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The “revolutionaries” jockeyed for key positions and instant promotions, mostly at provincial and national level, leaving institutions like the Pietermaritzburg Prison and Westville Prison to be run by whoever carried the most criminal and political clout.

While streetwise and quick- fingered warders soon prevailed at Westville Prison, in Pietermaritzburg the fight for supremacy was played out along party political lines. Through the use of prisoners for political hits, it extended beyond the prison walls.

A Jali commissioner noted: “At Westville Prison, a local version of the New York-Harlem-type of criminal, after a fast buck where ideology does not matter, gained the upper hand. Hence the high incidence of ‘cheap corruption’ - buying off parole and drug dealing.”

At Pietermaritzburg, however, such corruption, while clearly rife, was overshadowed by deep-seated ideological and political problems peculiar to KwaZulu-Natal.

The evidence is that on taking a senior post as the prison’s deputy director of human resources, Ngubo and Popcru stalwarts became the amakhulu (the bosses) of the prison, while senior management of the prisons and area management office represented the amancane (the small ones). The bosses had seemingly unlimited access to guns, vehicles and prisoners, which they allegedly used to murder ANC political opponents in rural areas and prison colleagues who stood up to them.

The Scorpions have disclosed that the forthcoming trial of Ngubo, charged with murdering Induna Ernest Nzimande in Impendle in 1998, could be the first in a string of prosecutions of figures in the police, prisons and other government departments.

This would be an important first step. But the larger question is of institutional reform so that administrative collapse is repaired and does not recur. While recommending reforms to the state president will be the ultimate task of the Jali commission, the old Roman question remains: who will guard the guardians themselves?

The problem appears to be that correctional services, a national competency in South Africa, is seen as a minor portfolio. Hence the ANC’s handing over of this Cabinet responsibility to IFP ministers since 1994, and virtual absence of national oversight of the affairs of the department.

Housing convicted criminals, prisons are inherently violent and corruption-prone, and their administration inevitably tends to reflect the criminal and political currents in the areas where they are located.

Hence the need for vigilant oversight - a factor missing until June last year when a member of the president’s inner circle and of the ANC-in-exile, Thuthu Bhengu, the Pietermaritzburg New Prison’s director of human resources, was gunned down in her prison residence.

Three months later the Jali commission was convened. Since then, it has mercilessly exposed the dereliction of prisons leadership at every level.

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