The story of Kwazi Ndcanzi
As the first in a series of heavy iron gates clangs shut behind us and a guard incarcerates us in the heart of Westville Prison’s Medium D facility (Youth Centre), METRObeat Editor, Peter Bendheim and I exchange looks. We aren’t wearing cuffs and are entering the prison as guests of the Correctional Services, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of unease. Prisons are where you go to atone for your crimes against society, after all, and although, to the best of my knowledge, neither of us has committed a crime, it feels rather like waiting outside the school headmaster’s office in anticipation of a stern reprimand.
It soon becomes apparent that the changes that have swept through our country since democracy have left a profound imprint on prisons, too. Entering the office of the vivacious Mrs. Thembi Ngcobo, Head of the Youth Centre, a celebratory atmosphere prevails. There is no standing on ceremony as Ngcobo and Head of Communications, Ms. Nonala Ndlovu, discuss the reason for our visit over a cup of coffee.
Westville Prison is the pride of the National Education Department since the announcement that all 23 pupils in its Usethubeni Juvenile School, headed by Principal Mr. Dominic Zulu, passed their 2005 High School examination with flying colours. Topping this achievement, two young men – Nathi Gasa and Kwazi Ndcanzi – attained a combined total of nine distinctions.
With five of those distinctions to his credit, Kwazi has achieved the best High School results ever recorded at Westville Prison. He is the man of the moment, and a shining example of what can be achieved if an offender genuinely wishes to turn his or her life around.
Kwazi is in prison for armed robbery. Apprehended at the age of nineteen, he was sentenced to fifteen years, seven of which were suspended. Kwazi’s sentence comes up for review later this year. Everyone who has witnessed his transformation from defiant young criminal to dedicated scholar and devout Christian is hoping that he will soon be able to take up his tertiary studies as a free man. Kwazi has been offered a bursary to study towards a B.Com through the University of South Africa (UNISA).
The Youth Centre at Westville Prison contains both awaiting trial juveniles and young sentenced offenders. Their ages range from sixteen to 23. There are currently 587 sentenced prisoners and 300 awaiting trial juveniles at the facility. Crowded conditions mean that those who attend the prison school have to exercise great determination in the pursuit of their studies.
Meeting Kwazi Ndcanzi (23) is an experience that turns one’s preconceptions on their head. He has the air of a born leader, and no one is surprised when he announces: “It is a long walk to Parliament, but that is where I am heading - not as a politician, but to help with issues of education and finance.”
As a teenager Kwazi was more interested in helping himself to others’ worldly goods than he was in altruism. He and a group of friends embarked on a crime spree that culminated in the armed robbery for which he is serving time.
“Four of us went to a neighbouring house in Lamontville,” explains Kwazi. “We went in and grabbed the owner and took his possessions – video, wireless, VCR, clothes. After sixteen days I was arrested. The others were scattered all over and were not found.”
What goes through a young man’s mind when he sets out to break the law? Was Kwazi afraid that he might be caught or injured?
“At the time I did not fear anything,” he admits. “I thought I would be successful.”
Would Kwazi and his friends have used violence if the victim had fought back?
“Violence was used,” he says ruefully. “The man was beaten. I have tried to get access to him to apologise. I have failed, but I am still trying. Now I can say that I have changed. I was wrong.”
Explaining his moral and spiritual regeneration, Kwazi says, “I could have died – figuratively speaking. I didn’t, though, so I knew I had to make something of my life. I was awaiting trial for two years, and by the time my case came to court, my mindset had changed. I had a lot of time to rewind things in my head. I got into crime because I wanted a fast life and smart clothes. I smoked dagga (marijuana). But in prison I received salvation. It is my greatest achievement.”
Kwazi was abandoned as an infant. The task of rearing him fell to his grandmother, Mrs. Selena Matha (now 76.) “My father left my mother when I was two years old,” he says. “Because he was no longer supporting her, my mother left me at the security gate at my father’s work. My granny, who is a domestic worker, took a train from Durban to Newcastle to get me. After that I lived with her in Lamontville. My mother tried to contact me, but my grandmother was not willing, because of what she’d done.
“In December 2004 my mother came to visit me in prison. That was the first time I had seen her in 20 years. I didn’t recognise her, and she walked past me. I used to phone her to tell her about my progress. She’s glad. She’s very proud. My mother is disabled now, because she had a stroke.”
Although Kwazi’s father is alive, he cut ties with his son when he turned to crime. It is clear that the headmaster of the prison school has proved an important role model for the young man.
“Our Principal, Mr. Zulu, is my father,” Kwazi says proudly. “He is a very committed person. He believes in us. He used to say that each of us in the world has an assignment to complete – to find himself.”
Kwazi also sings the praises of teachers who always believed he could succeed. “When I was at school in Lamontville, I stayed out of my classes and smoked,” he says. “My accounting teacher would call: ‘Come in, Kwazi.’ I hated the subject, and finally I hated her, too.”
In prison Kwazi was initially rebellious, and on several occasions his behaviour prompted the prison authorities to consider relocating him. He recalls the efforts of a committed teacher who intervened on his behalf.
“My Zulu teacher, Mrs. Nellie Mkhize, was very supportive. When I did bad things in the early part of my sentence and they wanted to transfer me, she would go and beg, and even cry, for me to be allowed to stay at Westville Prison.
“After that I tried hard to listen. I told myself I would learn to love everything – even maths. Then I found I really was good at accounting. I got 100% for a test. I will never forget it. When I get out I want to contact my old accountancy teacher and thank her.”
How did Kwazi find the time and privacy to devote himself so single-mindedly to his studies, particularly since he shares a cell with 44 others?
“You have plenty of time in prison,” he grins. “You don’t have mobility, and you are in the open for eight hours, and then in your cell for sixteen. When the cell gates were locked I took out my books and studied. There is a lot of noise, though, and many of the youths have radios. I tried to sleep during the day and wake up when the others were asleep. A single security light is left on at night in the cell, so I chose the bed just under it.”
“Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Kwazi recites softly from 1 Corinthians, his favourite part of the Bible. He is seated on his narrow iron bed. Perhaps no place of study will ever hold more significance for him than this one does.
“I will not forget prison. It is where I reached a turning point and found salvation. I will not hide the fact that I was here,” he says.
When Kwazi returns to civilian life he is determined that he will plough back into his community the lessons he has learned in prison. He is particularly vocal about what he perceives as a ‘culture of imprisonment.’
“I am preparing myself to speak out against this big problem,” he says. “Before we received democracy in South Africa . . . how can I put it . . . prison was a habit with many black people. They would say: ‘if you are a proper man, you must go to prison.’ If you have not entered prison, they call you ‘mama’s baby.’
“Many of our fathers and brothers and uncles went to prison. They didn’t prosper; they didn’t get an education. We failed to learn from their mistakes, but those people who are outside, they must learn from our mistakes. There is no true manhood in prison.”
“My grandmother loves me very much, and I love her,” Kwazi says emotionally. “She is sick now. When I phone her I beg her not to die before I get out. I want her to live at least another ten years, to show her how I’ve changed and what I can achieve. My father went to prison, and my uncle, so my gran knows all about it. But she has not judged me. She has supported me constantly.”
Entrance to the cells, Westville Prison, Durban
Hand, Kwazi Ndcanzi, Westville Prison
A talk in the prison yard with Kwazi Ndcanzi, Westville Prison
The exercise yard, Westville Prison
Prison youth at classes, Westville Prison
Kwazi Ndcanzi's High School Result Sheet, Westville Prison
Books for studying and Bibles, property of Kwazi Ndcanzi, Westville Prison
Juvenile Prisoners, all under 23, Wesville Prison
Kwazi Ndcanzi's study desk, with a picture of Nelson Mandela, Westville Prison
A single plastic rose, Multiple prisoner Cell, Westville Prison
Exterior still life from within the Prison yard, Westville Prison
Kwazi Ndcanzi's prison bunk, middle row, Westville Prison
A moment to rest and reflect, Westville Prison
Kwazi Ndcanzi, in the Multiple Prisoner Cell, Westville Prison
Shoes not walking outside, Westville Prison
Still life with trousers, Cell, Westville Prison
Still time to serve, Westville Prison
The view of the world outside, Westville Prison
Corridors, on the way to the world outside, Westville Prison
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