I have finally read a Johnny Steinberg book!
The number tells the story of reformed gangster, Magadien Wentzel, who was high up in the 28’s, one of South Africa’s most notorious prison gangs. Steinberg spent 18 months with Wentzel, in and out of prison, and skillfully crafts the story of his shattered life into a whole narrative.
The story is fascinating as it gives insight into one of South Africa’s most militant and powerful bodies: the organised crime mafiosos of the Cape Flats. The prison gangs have a rich (albeit imaginary) history and system. The author also explores the role that apartheid played in fostering gangs and destroying the identity of coloured people as a nation.
Steinberg writes the story in an excellent way- it is circular- bringing up facts and people and incidents in Wentzels life that crop up later in the book, but Steinberg also deals with his own guilt of writing and making money off a poor-man’s story. The tropes of identity and redemption give this book a quality which sets it apart from ordinary non-fiction.
It ends hanging, and now when I step on the train and see a face of strangers, I wonder if one of them is Magadien, rebuilding his life out of the rubble of poor decisions and historical injustices.
Unfortunately (and seeing as I must be honest with you, dear reader) I gave up wine for Lent (I know!) so I can’t recommend any pairing with this book, but I can highly recommend that you read it.