Changed prisoners inspire kids

Saxon Dlamini, a maximum-security
prisoner at Leeukop prison, is determined
to obtain his freedom, so he can continue
changing the lives of others.

The heavy-set steel gates, protecting
The maximum-security inmates.

Bart Ngxolwana says his time in
prison made him a better man in the end.

Since his transformation behind bars,
Rape convict Lawrence Sokufudumala,
is eager to apologise face-to-face to
the woman he raped.
(Images: Khanyi Magubane)

Khanyi Magubane

A new anti-crime programme, presented to schoolchildren by rehabilitated inmates at a Johannesburg prison, is having a profound impact not only on learners but also on the inmates involved. The Leeukop Prison in Sunninghill, northern Johannesburg, in conjunction with the Gauteng Department of Education and a faith-based organisation, Pillar to Post, are running the programme under the theme, “Don’t swap your school uniform for a uniform of shame”.

Schoolchildren from across Gauteng are bussed to the prison and take a tour, which includes motivational talks from prisoners who have gone through a process of rehabilitation. The schoolchildren also watch a 20-minute sketch perfomed by the prisoners. In the sketch, the prisoners depict the realities of prison life, discouraging the schoolchildren from getting involved in a life of crime. Part of the day’s activities includes a lunch programme where learners are divided into groups of ten and are led in discussion by a participating inmate. The discussions centre on crime and the school environment.

At the end of the tour, many learners share their stories and give testimonials. The day’s programme has such a strong impact on the students that some of them declare that because of the tour, they have been encouraged to quit gangsterism or drug abuse in their local schools. In fact, according to the website of the Gauteng Department of Education, many learners also admit to being involved in criminal activities, and some even say they now want to expose criminal activities happening at their schools. Close to 2 000 students have now participated in the crime prevention programme.

Three prisoners who are part of the Pillar to Post programme recently opened up about their lives, dreams and aspirations when they finally walk out of prison.

The maximum-security section of any prison is viewed as the home of hardened criminals who need to be isolated and kept away from society. While that may generally be true, there are always exceptions to this rule.

The towering figure of Saxon Dlamini defies the image of a hardened criminal because although he is still in Leeukop Prison’s maximum security section, the only reminder of his once hardened life is his bright orange uniform with the words “prisoner” printed all over it.

Dlamini doesn’t smile, he beams. His baritone voice bellows when he speaks and his large piercing eyes draw you in. He is larger than life. He is currently serving a 35-year sentence, of which he has already served eight. His exceptional story tells of his pain from being separated from his family, making the wrong choices in life, but triumphing through it all.

He was convicted in 1999 on double murder, three attempted murder and illegal possession of firearm charges. The crimes were politically motivated and were carried out during the political power struggle in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s. Dlamini, however, does not assume a “victim” attitude and takes full responsibility for his actions.

“The state of unrest at the time led me to doing something that I now totally regret,” he says. “A human life is exactly that, a human life. None of us can say we are proud of what we did. It’s all about the wrong choices we made. I had a choice not to get involved in the fighting, as did many other people who were not involved, but I chose to get involved, so I take responsibility for my actions.”

When Dlamini was convicted, he was initially told in court that his sentence would be 81 years. But he says he was surprised when his wife came to see him in the dock downstairs from the courtroom shortly after he was sentenced and told him that his sentence was actually going to be 35 years. He says that gave him some hope of making it out of prison.

He served the first few years of his sentence at the Bellville Prison in KZN, but in 2005 the Department of Correctional Services moved him to Leeukop.

He says his turning point was in 2001. This is when he “turned over a new leaf” and started the long road to rehabilitation, although he recalls that this journey started before he was sentenced. Back in 1986, as a young man working as a security guard in Johannesburg, he was on his daily rounds checking the offices inside the building where he was employed. He says in one of the offices, he happened to come across an inspirational message hung on the wall, which read, “I was born to succeed and not to fail. I was born to triumph against defeat.” Those words struck a chord with Dlamini, though it would only be years later that the motivational words would help him to turn his life around.

He moved on into the business sector and had a successful hair care product business which he had to close down, because of escalating legal costs during his trial. He also lost his house and all his assets when he went to jail.

What really pained him was that he could not provide for his wife and five children. “There are no words that can describe the pain of being away from your family.”

He says he really admires his wife, who has taken up the family reins and is raising their children as a single parent. This situation forced him to sober up, as he didn’t want to be a bad role model for his children. He decided that although he was behind bars, he was going to be a honourable man that his children could look up to. His family visits him once or twice a month, and each time he sees his children, he realises how much of their lives he’s missing out on.

So evident was his change in attitude and behaviour that Dlamini was given an opportunity by the Department of Correctional Services to tell his story as a means of not only deterring would-be criminals, but as a way to show that being in prison doesn’t mean having an imprisoned mind. His motivational talks have gone beyond the prison walls and he has been interviewed on national and regional radio stations.

Dlamini is looking forward to leaving prison life behind and is planning to apply for a presidential pardon. President Thabo Mbeki announced in Parliament late last year that the process for presidential pardons would once again commence. Dlamini first applied for a presidential pardon while he was still in the Bellville prison. He has a reference number and he says the Justice Ministry has acknowledged receiving his application.

From the 15th of January 2008, for a limited period of time, prisoners who committed politically motivated crimes before the 9th of June 1999 will now be eligible to apply for a presidential pardon. A panel will review and assess all the applications. Dlamini is hoping that his application will be one of the favoured ones.

“I am hopeful that my presidential pardon will be successful. I already have 22 letters from schoolchildren who have written to me after listening to my talks, and I also have nine letters from schools directed to Pillar to Post as testimonials on my character. I will be handing in my supporting documents with my application. I have really changed and I’m hopeful that the [Justice] department will see that. Everybody knows Saxon, and they know that I am a different man now.”

He is looking forward to continuing with his newfound passion of motivational speaking. He has also started writing a book about his life, which he hopes to publish soon.

There’s a saying that “bad company corrupts good character” and nobody knows this better than Bart Ngxolwana. The jovial Ngxolwana, from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, is also a motivational speaker in the Pillar to Post programme. He is based in the medium A section of Leeukop prison and is looking forward to going home at the end of this year.

Ngxolwana has served five-and-a-half years of his 15-year sentence for hijacking and robbery, which he claims he was never a part of. “In 1994, my friends came to pick me up one night and I didn’t know that it was a hijacked car and that there were stolen goods in the car because my friends had just been involved in an armed robbery.”

Shortly afterwards, police picked up the gang and Ngxolwana was arrested along with them. The case, however, was withdrawn due to a lack of suffient evidence.

Then in 2000, one of his former co-accused was involved in a similar crime and during investigations, the old case was resurrected, as police now felt they had more concrete evidence for the prosecution.

He says he was shocked when he had to go to court for that old case. “I received a call, informing me that I have to stand trial for that 1994 case. I was devastated as I didn’t see it coming.” In that time, Ngxolwana had become a prominent man in his community, leading the local church. He had also become involved in a motivational roadshow, in which he promoted the products of the company that he worked for throughout the country.

He was sentenced along with his co-accused to 15 years in jail. However, because of his stellar life and personality, he is looking forward to being released on good behaviour at the end of 2008. But he says that he doesn’t regret going to jail, because of the number of lives he has been able to touch through the work that he does with Pillar to Post.

“I’m glad that I get to tell the children that we are where we are today because of our poor choices. I’ve always wanted to tell my story and I always tell the youngsters, don’t mix with bad company. I am here today because my friends wanted too much, too soon.” He’s looking forward to being re-united with his wife and his six-year-old daughter, who had just been born when he started serving his sentence.

For 26-year-old Lawrence Sokufudumala, however, coming to prison was what really saved his life. The self-confessed former drug and alcohol addict from Alexandra, northern Johannesburg, says his life was out of control. His hard living ways culminated in him raping a young girl. He was sentenced to 10 years for rape and has served three.

It was while he was studying the Bible inside prison that he heard about Pillar to Post and decided to audition for a part in the sketch perfomed by the prisoners. He says because of his naturally charismatic personality, he got the part and has since embarked on a road to recovery for himself as well. “I’m only realising now that my life was out of control. For me, I don’t really care what people will say when I come out, because they knew me as a very different person from the one that I am now. I am ready to go back into the community, to show them that my life has changed.”

When he leaves prison one day, Sokufudumala wants to personally apologise to the girl that he raped. “I tried to contact her through a social worker here in prison, so that I could apologise, but unfortunately, the social worker who was co-ordinating that process left. So now, I will have to wait until I leave here,” he says pensively.

He hopes to continue acting and even starting a music career one day, because he has realised that he has a passion for music and the entertainment industry as a whole. But until then, Sokufudumala is living a positive and inspiring life, even with the constrictions of prison life.

The three men have displayed, through the work that they do with Pillar to Post, that it is possible to be truly rehabilitated behind bars and find a sort of freedom. Saxon Dlamini is hopeful that both he and his now close friend Bart Ngxolwana will be free men by the end of this year, while Sokufudumala is praying that he will also soon be eligible for early release on good behaviour.