Reaching Out: Voices from Groenpunt Maximum-Security Prison raw and sincere

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Title: Reaching Out: Voices from Groenpunt Maximum-Security Prison
Compiler: Angifi Dladla
Publisher: Chakida Publishers
ISBN: 9780620445009

The anthology Reaching Out (2009) has poems, short stories, interviews and polemical short prose pieces by ten men serving sentences of various lengths at Groenpunt prison, Gauteng. Facilitated and compiled by Angifi Dladla, the book is a product of Femba Writing Project (FWP). The project participates in attempts at rehabilitating imprisoned criminals through soul-searching confessional literary production. Most of the pieces are characterised by original wit, detached irony and a lack of self-pitying often found in some narratives by serving prisoners. Dladla seems to be aware that his anthology is not only located, but that it also departs from the now clearly discernible South African prison writing genre popularised “by elite, the politicians, especially the ex-Robben Islanders” (11). Making a veiled attack on some political prison narratives, Dladla insists that what makes his anthology unique is that the literary pieces are not “written at leisure – outside”, and are not biographical, ghost-written by “someone who has never been in prison” (11). One may also add that unlike political prison narratives exemplified by Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, the pieces are mostly written by incarcerated self-confessed criminals who lack any moral self-justification for their criminal conduct.

The pieces in Reach Out have various themes. Msindo Makhubela’s “My Saviour” is a direct and heartfelt expression of love for his mother. In “Father’s Love” Tshepo Ramasilo describes his late father’s selfless love for him in stereotypical but sincere terms. Capturing the debilitating prison loneliness, he writes: “I miss you dad – your love, your support” (46).

Some of the poems are a registration of tormented souls that yearn for the now impossible romantic love with sweethearts on the outside. Thokozani Dlamini’s “Love”, Ntshihlelo Stephen Masilo’s two poems, “Khaitsedi” and “Among the Multitudes with my Only One”, Theo Francis’s “Sweetheart” and Makhubela’s “Thief” all talk to this theme which never fails to excite.

Masilo’s “The Journey” is about the relentless scourge of HIV-AIDS which has left children as heads of many households.

Most of the pieces are characterised by an attempt to “reach out” and help the less fortunate members of society, or an attempt by the imprisoned criminals to “reach out” and beg for forgiveness from the victims of their crimes. For example, Abel Mokotedi’s “A Blessing”, Francis’s “Inception” and Makhubela’s “Same Clothes as Yours” all seem to be desperate pleas for forgiveness by individuals whose consciences are tormented by the atrocious crimes they committed.

Evidently, the book has many themes, with the capacity to appeal to a large audience. However, the overarching and ever pulsating themes are crime and imprisonment. For example, the first twelve pieces all seem to talk directly to crime, the South African penal regime and specific experiences of imprisonment of the writers. In the poem “Breaking the Law” Msindo Makhubela depicts his violent arrest as participating in the very crimes that it is meant to curb. He writes: “[Y]ells, boots ram you forward./ ... Barks, batons, boots ram you in./ Face crashes the bloodied floor” (14). In another poem, “Magistrate’s Prayer”, Makhubela has a speaker who satirically impersonates a self-righteous magistrate who acknowledges having usurped the godly role of judging fellow humans. Addressing God, the magistrate prays: “Will You please forgive me/ for doing the job that You chose/ no one to do, but You only” (15). Pointing out what he considers to be the unfeeling nature of magistrates and judges in general, Sipho Nduma in his poem “Winter” compares the heartless cold front to “Judge van Niekerk”, an apparent reference to the judge who sentenced him to a jail term (20).

In “Fola” and “Orange”, Tebogo Ramufifi and Makhubela respectively comment on the controlled and regimented lives of prisoners by satirising the idea that prisoners are required to file in twos whenever they are conducted to different destinations. Ramufifi writes: “For a shower, fola./ For the toilet, fola./ For food, fola” (18). Similarly, commenting on the way prisoners are treated like animals, Makhubela writes: “Fola! Two-two./ ... For immunization?/ For dipping” (19).

Francis’s “Doors” uses the metaphor of the seemingly impregnable prison doors to allude not only to his physical incarceration but also to the general psychological and emotional helplessness that the prison engenders in its inmates. Similarly, in “Prayer of an Inmate” Francis portrays prisoners as completely powerless and prays for wisdom to deal with his “[d]aily submission to warders” (23). Tshepo Ramasilo compares his reputation as a law-breaker to his situation of having been broken by the prison, since now he “can’t break away” (21). Dlamini’s “Death” and Ramasilo’s “Untitled” show that the pain of death is much more intensely felt in prison, since one dies lonely without having loving ones around one.

Percy Chepape’s prose piece, “Prison, a Hotel?”, confronts the popular view that since the attainment of democracy, South African prisons have become too comfortable and hence contribute to the escalation of violent crimes. This piece and Francis’s “Family day” show that what are popularly termed prison luxuries are, in fact, the disciplinary mechanism of power, if I may use Michel Foucault’s terminology, where these privileges lead to the intensification of the functioning of power in that prisoners enter a self-monitoring mode so as to attain them. 

Dladla’s Reaching Out is part of prison literature which has been positing the South African prison as a depoliticised space. In this regard, Dladla’s project is similar to Julia Landau’s Journey to Myself: Writings by Women from Prison in South Africa (2004) and Margie Orford’s Fifteen Men: Worlds and Images from Behind Bars (2008). However, Reaching out is also different in that the writers try largely to avoid the autobiographical genre which has become synonymous with South African prison writing. Their pieces demand to be read as creative works of art. What the pieces lack in sublime poetic style and diction is more than compensated for by their writers’ sincerity and the rawness of the prison-informed experiences they present. This book is for everyone, since in different ways all of us are affected by crime and imprisonment in South Africa.

Buy your copy of Reaching Out from Xarra Bookshop and Boekhuis in Johannesburg.

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