Men of the number
Where do these numbers come from, and what do they mean? Jonny Steinberg has traced their origin back to a turf war between two miscreants: Nongoloza (born Mzuzephi Mathebula in 1867) and Kilikijan. His book The Number sets out the story in compelling detail.
The gangs have their origin in the all-male, mine compounds of the nineteenth century, the amaleita youth gangs in the former province of Natal, the segregated South African prisons, and the Pass Laws.
Today, their ‘chappies’ (tattoos) mark them as ‘men of the number’; members of the 28 gang. Depending on their rank, their bodies are tattooed with between 3 and 8 stars. These stars mark them as either ‘Officers’ – the bloodline: the fighters who take blood, or ‘Privates’ – the sections, the so-called ‘wives’ or catamites of the Officers. Within these two broad rankings, the 28s have devised a complicated hierarchy borrowed from colonial administration and the mine compounds of the then, Free State and Witwatersrand.
The 28s origin mythology was carved on a rock outside the cave in which they resided. According to Steinberg, these laws were transferred to the skin of an ox.
Following legend, I subsequently stencilled these images onto animal hides obtained from a Cape Town tannery.
This series of scarab beetles, in cast bronze and steel, is inspired by a scene of insects, in the guise of a daimyo procession, I saw on a Yabu Meizan earthenware vase.
The tradition of caricaturing human activities by substituting insects has a very long history in Japan, the most famous example being the Choju giga (humorous drawings of birds and beasts), a set of 13th-century picture scrolls.
A ‘daimyo procession’ is thus a set of ancient warriors serving an absent over-class.
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