All words: Tom Maree
It’s a world you enter through blood and most likely leave in a coffin. The Number gangs that rule South Africa’s prisons are notoriously ruthless and secretive. For Welcome Witbooi at age 17, it was adapt or die at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. To find a way out he ascended to the highest rank within the Number, and now Welcome is starring in a movie alongside Hollywood heavyweights including Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana.
He remembers how gangsters used to make fun of him for being a top achiever at his high school, Spes Bona, in Athlone, Cape Town. But Welcome Witbooi could not have imagined that one day he would become the highest ranking General in the 28s, commanding a legion of over 2 500 men and allegedly turning over more than R500 000 a month for the gangs while inside prison.
Welcome is not the gangster caricature that movies would have you believe. He’s articulate with a calm, considered demeanor. Working at corporate events he dresses the part, covering his tattoos with collars and long sleeves. His rings are studded with bright gemstones, and his intricate pendants hang over his shirt.
“I was told that there was one way in, and one way out of the Number. Through blood. So if I wanted to leave I would have to die. So there was a constant fear of leaving. But the deeper I got the more I understood that when moving up to the highest rank, there was a way out.”
Welcome was a First Star General in the 28s, the highest rank within the dominant number. Now he’s set to make his acting debut in the 2018 film The Forgiven, starring Forest Whitaker as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Eric Bana as the apartheid-era murderer Piet Blomfield. It will be released in US theatres on Friday 9 March and will be coming to South Africa later this year.
Welcome plays the right-hand man of the main gang leader in The Forgiven. He recalls shooting a particular scene that touched him deeply because he went through the same experience in the very same holding cell in Pollsmoor when he first arrived.
“When new inmates are brought into prison it’s called the stimela which means the train. They are met by gangsters who ask them who they are. I answered with my name and got slapped. New inmates must answer that they are either workers of the 27s or the 28s or are non-gang members.”
“Now I was the guy taking prisoners off the stimela in the movie, and I almost broke down because I was reliving my own experience, and it all started in the same room.”
This is not the first movie that Welcome has been involved with. He also worked with the producers of Four Corners, a local film selected as South Africa’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2013.
Four Corners is a crime-thriller set in the Cape ganglands. It follows a young chess prodigy, Ricardo, who must overcome unbelievable odds while always staying one step ahead of the gangs in a game where losing means death.
“Four Corners gives good insight into the Number… It does really well in showing how the prison gangs are spilling over into the street gangs, which wasn’t the case before when the Number operated only in the prisons.”
The producers of Four Corners worked with Welcome to ensure the authenticity of the scenes involving the Number gangs. Real-life inmates and gang members feature in this intense film, which is available on Showmax.
“That character with tattoos all over his body, he’s real. He’s called The Book. Because if any new law is passed in the Number, or if a serious offence needs to be remembered for years to come, it will be tattooed on his skin. Everywhere on his body is covered.”
Welcome will also be releasing his autobiography this year under the title Finally Welcome. It gives you an inside look into the Number and tells the story of his ascent to becoming a First Star General within the 28s, as well as his road to redemption and being able to leave the gang with his life, which was no mean feat.
“I had to go to the head of the prison and get four generals transported from four different prisons to decide if I could leave. Two generals stood in front of me, and two stood behind me. I stood in the centre, completely naked, and gave my reasons for leaving. If I could leave they would tell me so I hear it. If not, I would feel it, because the two generals behind me would stab and kill me.
“In the end, it was my education and the things I did outside of prison that saved me. I helped one of the generals to read and write, and another with a relationship. It was this that actually saved my life.
“My message to kids who are looking at gangs is that it’s temporary. That money and respect will give you a false sense of power. And as you get it, so soon can it disappear. What you need to become in order to have that power is beyond human.”
However, losing the power and respect of being a general was one of the hardest things for Welcome to deal with on the outside.
“I wanted to make the change for my daughter. I wanted her to see me differently. She can’t bring home a gangster if her daddy is no longer a gangster… Now I can make a much bigger impact on young people’s lives, like the learners at the schools I’m invited to speak at about gangsterism.”
Welcome urges people, especially parents, to be aware of this underworld that wakes up when most people go to sleep. The dangers are real, but Welcome believes that by educating people about the Number, he’ll be able to give them a better understanding of what that life entails so that they can make better choices for themselves, and hopefully realise that knowledge is the true power.
Four Corners is essential viewing for all South Africans, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it on Showmax
The Number was formed well over a century ago to protect mineworkers from police brutality in the late 1800s. The laws of The Number constantly evolve and over time it’s become more organised and structured like a business. These are the main roles:
26s – The Sales Force
The dominant number within the gangs. They oversee the operations within the prison and ensure the steady supply of drugs and monitor cash flow and gang relations. The 28s form the leadership within Number.