An Inside Look at the Numbers Gangs and Human Trafficking in Africa

Southern Africa’s notorious Numbers Gangs are among the most feared criminal gangs on the continent.  The 28’s in particular control a vast human trafficking network that would shock most people.  But who are they?  Here is an inside look into their hidden world from a former member of the 28’s. 


On a cold, miserable night when the rain hammered at metal sheet roofs in deafening torrents that sent even the donkeys scurrying for cover, I bolted from my flooded Land Rover down a footpath of mud and muck to a small shack on the banks of the Thamalakane River just outside of Maun, Botswana.  I knocked on the wood post that served as a doorframe – the door itself was just a towel – and received a kind of grumbling acknowledgement that I willingly took as an invitation to enter.  I pushed aside the towel and quickly ducked in to find a man sitting against the back wall in a well-used, slightly lop-sided wheelchair.  It would be more accurate to say that he was half a man, since both legs and most of his left arm were gone.  What remained had the distinct features of a bushman: the slight build, light complexion, and sharp, kindly eyes that looked like he found all of life both sad and slightly amusing.  A young boy squatted on the floor beside him, attending to a kerosene lamp that cast a flickering light across the mud brick walls and sent bizarre shadows skipping about the tiny room.  As requested, I handed over a bottle of Klipdrift, a cheap but popular South African concoction that passed as a brandy, and sat town on an upturned bucket indicated by the man. 


  He called himself Tando, though he said he had many names, and that he had been a member of the 28 for over two decades.  He was originally from South Africa and had spent most of his adult life in prisons.  But after walking across the border into Botswana while on parole, he became heavily involved in the cross-border trafficking of women for purposes of prostitution. He said it was easy: the networks were already established and running smoothly, and as a 28 he was tapped to take over the territory near Maun bordering Namibia. 


“So,” Tando said, as he sipped his Klipdrift and occasionally switched to Afrikaans so he could order the boy to move an assortment of plastic drip containers around the room.  “You want to learn about the 28?  Well, I can speak about it because I am already dead.  Why should I care?  They can come kill an old dying man.  Come and kill an old cripple.  It doesn’t matter now.”  He pounded his chest with his remaining hand, “I’m 28!  And always will be!”    


I sought out Tando because I wanted to hear about the world of the 28, a fairly secretive criminal gang that operates across southern Africa with a level of coordination that would shock most people.  Organized crime in the form of sophisticated criminal networks and gangs are not topics that usually come to mind when one thinks of Africa; the image of well-coordinated groups similar to something like the Italian mafia or American street gangs is not commonly held.  You would be hard pressed to find any mention of organized crime in the popular media, most discussions are embedded in obscure reports and speculative information pieces written by high-ranking members of national justice departments or back-room policy analysts at the World Bank or other international aid agencies.  But these discussions tend to skip over the everyday realities of gang life by focusing on the less secretive, typically white collar forms of organized crime like corruption, money laundering, embezzlement, etc.  Crimes of this nature tend to exist – or at least are described as existing – at the higher echelons of government and private industry.  One is left with the general impression that sophisticated criminal networks and well-coordinated criminal activities do not exist at the local and regional level.  Simply put, it is not part of that vague notion of Africa that most of us have in our heads.


But this is one area where perception does not match reality. Across southern Africa, Namibia is part of a cluster of countries where a vast network of gang activity known as the “numbers” has taken root and flourished over the past several decades. The numbers is much more than a criminal gang, it is more like an international brotherhood that operates from within a unique and almost complete society and culture of its own making. The world of the numbers is made up of many gangs, each more or less designated by a specific number, with three being the most prominent: the 26, the 27, and the 28.  The origins of the numbers is shrouded in mystery, and what little is known is described in highly complex and elaborate creation narratives, most of which are suffused with Zulu symbolism and include characters who are essentially mythical in nature.  These narratives suggest that the numbers originated in the mines of South Africa during the Apartheid era, growing in strength since them from inside the notoriously violent and abysmal environment of South Africa’s prison system.  Today, the numbers control virtually every prison in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, and have powerful branches operating as far north as Zambia and Zimbabwe.   


Membership in the numbers includes the most violent criminals across southern Africa.  In fact, for Tando and many others, initiation into one of the gangs begins with the act of murdering a prison guard or fellow inmate.  Once they pass this initial step, they enter into a lengthy and highly ritualized indoctrination process designed to prepare them for the hierarchical society of the numbers.  It is an immense world in which each individual has a role with a specific set of responsibilities, replete with labels like “General,” “Inspector,” “Judge,” “Cleaner,” “Doctor,” “Captain,” “Sergeant,” “Soldier,” and “Slave.” There are junior and senior members as well as a council of elders who maintain an elaborate code of rules and regulations developed over many decades.   Each of these institutionalized positions are themselves intersected and connected by various departments, branches, and cells that operate with military-like precision. 


The numbers are also imbued with a specific ideology and set of meanings grounded in secret ceremonies and rituals in which few details are ever fully divulged, particularly to franseor non gang-members.  Secrecy is of utmost importance, the punishment for members who break that wall of silence is swift, brutal, and usually deadly.  One practice in particular, which has received some attention in the local media in South Africa, is known as the “slow puncture,” and entails having the guilty person’s anus cut open before being repeatedly gang raped by a group of prisoners known to be HIV positive.  Compared to this and other punishments meted out by the numbers, a quick death by having one’s throat sliced open is often more desirable. 


As the name implies, the “free numbers” are gang members who are no longer in prison, either because they have been released or escaped, the latter being a more frequent occurrence in southern Africa then prison officials like to admit.  In almost every respect, the free numbers is a parallel universe to its prison counterpart, with the addition of being financed by members through their participation in a wide variety of criminal activities.  Specific gangs tend to specialize in particular areas such as gambling, drug and diamond smuggling, auto theft, cattle raiding, poaching, and prostitution.  Leadership among the free numbers is entirely made up of “true members,” or individuals who were initiated into a numbers gang while still in prison.  A notable difference between the free numbers and their prison mates is the former’s need to rely on a large number of franse to do their dirty work and take care of day-to-day business.  Of course, many franseultimately end up in prison where their deeds on the outside make them eligible for initiation into a particular numbers gang.  It is an ideal growth strategy that incentivizes and rewards the most violent members with top leadership positions.


Of the various gangs that make up the outside world of the free numbers, the 28 have become the most proficient in the realm of sex work and prostitution.  Because of the secrecy involved, which out of necessity is more intense among the free numbers, it is difficult to find much more than whispered rumors and speculation regarding their underground networks.  However, and as Tando explained to me, the 28 control an international prostitution ring through which they move a constant stream of girls and young women.  The extent of its operations is massive, stretching across South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, and linking up with other criminal groups to the north, particularly in Angola and Zimbabwe.  It is a vast network made up of different stations, often called “kraals” (referencing the enclosure used for livestock), with each having a specific purpose.  For example, some kraals are specifically used as “capture points” where girls are either directly abducted or coerced into the network by various means of indebtedness or duplicity.  Other stations serve as “initiation centers” or simply “way stations” to move “cows” – or girls – from one shebeen to another. Shebeens are the backbone of the network since they more or less double as brothels.  Some shebeens might look and operate more like neighborhood drinking establishments than brothels while serving a modest clientele of “bulls” – or Johns – from the surrounding area.  These places are often referred to as “training kraals” or “primary school kraals” where girls are essentially trained in sex work under the tutelage of a “mama.”  From here, girls are then moved to shebeens that have an explicit and hardcore brothel component known as “secondary school kraals.”  Eventually, girls end up being moved to the most hardcore locations in cities or along the major highways of southern Africa, especially in the make-shift settlements that spring up at international border crossings, well-known truck stops, and other check points, including the inspection points located at every gate crossing along the veterinary cordon fence where truck drivers and other travellers are frequently delayed. 


Most girls who enter into the 28 network of shebeens and brothels come from all over southern Africa. But they also come from other parts of Africa and even overseas, entering into the network from Zimbabwe and moving south towards cities in South Africa like Johannesburg and Cape Town. The majority of girls are very young – less than eighteen – due in large part to fears of HIV/AIDS and the long-standing belief that the younger the girl, the less likely that she will be infected.  Young girls are also more impressionable and compliant and thus easily indoctrinated into the world of prostitution, which involves a gradual process of brainwashing aided in part by purposefully moving them further from their home areas while coercing them into financial indebtedness.


When I described Tupa’s situation to Tando, he sat back and gave me a thoughtful look.  “Soooo…” he said, “She sounds like a special package.”  He went on to explain how some girls are intended for specific individuals who literally place special orders for a particular type of girl.  As a tall, slim, English-speaking Himba girl with striking physical features, he reasoned that Tupa was a perfect candidate for such a request.  “Especially because she is from Kaokoland,” Tando said, referencing the old, colonial name for the region that includes the Kunene.  “That makes her the real deal.  You know how some rich people collect wild animals?  Like a lion or a giraffe?  You know this maybe?  It is the same thing.”  Special orders could be extremely difficult from a logistical standpoint, Tando added, because they involved moving a girl over long distances and through areas that might be controlled by different gangs or groups.  “It is like moving water through pipes from the borehole to the trough, you see?”  Tando said. “Some water gets lost on the way if the connections are not good.  Sometimes an elephant comes and rips up a section of the pipe, you see?  And the water is stolen or spilled.” 


At this point, I asked Tando if he could be more specific about the logistics involved with “special orders,” but he was lost in thought.

“Huh…a special order…” he mused, as he tapped his thimbled half fingers on the rusted metal arm of his wheelchair.  “A lion on her way to her master.”  He smiled, exposing a diamond encrusted front tooth.