Welcome Witbooi was 29 and at the top of his game. He was a four-star “general” in the 28s, one of the three feared prison gangs that make up The Number. Each star tattooed on his shoulder represented someone he had killed.
Witbooi was the king of Pollsmoor, Cape Town’s notorious prison that’s ranked one of the toughest in the world. He proved it one day, walking into the courtyard during exercise time and getting his “colonels” to command the 2500 prisoners to sit and stand on his command – until he got bored.
Now he was basking in the sun, daydreaming as he listened to his henchmen tell stories of their lives on the outside. One of them was regaling the others in graphic detail of a house he’d robbed and the woman he’d raped and killed.
It was a turning point for Witbooi.
“I looked at them and I thought, if I’m a father one day, how will I protect my daughter?”
There and then he decided to get out of the 28s, a gang he had been in since being sent to jail as a 17-year-old for attempted murder; a gang he had served loyally and whose ranks he had set out to climb, becoming the youngest one-star general at the time, aged 19 – a reward for stabbing a prison warder to death.
It was a brave decision and a tough one too, because “The Number” doesn’t let its members walk away. “As the top general at Pollsmoor, I had some loopholes I could use,” he says.
Four other “generals” had to be summoned from other prisons, a move that involved not just the regional and provincial commissioners of the Department of Correctional Services, he says, but went all the way to the Minister of Correctional Services. Two would be his judges. The other two would be his executioners.
He walked into their cell, naked but for a blanket to cover his modesty to show he was unarmed. He made his pitch standing in the centre of a square; his judges in front, his executioners behind holding sharpened shanks to stab him in the kidneys and kill him quickly if his bid failed.
“They couldn’t understand why I wanted to get out. I was making R500 000 a month for the Number through extortion, prostitution and protection. I told them I wanted to be a father one day and when I was one, I wanted to be a man of integrity. They heard me out – and they agreed, because of two random acts of kindness I had shown the judges years before, that I’d actually forgotten about but they hadn’t.”
Free of The Number, with two years of his sentence left to serve, the former A-symbol pupil turned to teaching the other prisoners, studying adult education and training through Unisa.
Released in July 2012, Witbooi returned home to his family house in Valhalla Park on the Cape Flats. His parents had died while he was inside, but his grandmother was still there. He stayed there while he pondered his next move.
“There was a lot of adoration, a lot of kids looked up to me, they wanted to be like me,” he remembers.
Witbooi was appalled at the prospect. He immediately began work with the Sonke Gender Justice Project working with offenders and helping them reintegrate into society before starting his own organisation, helping boys and girls escape from the very gangs he had been so desperate to join at their age – and which had won him a direct ticket to jail.
“After a couple of years, I wanted to grow beyond that,” he says, “so I moved to Johannesburg and changed the name of the organisation first to the Heart and Soul Foundation and then to the Bright Spark Foundation.”
He also found time to act, getting roles in films like Skollie, The Forgiven and Four Corners, but he gave it up because he was always being cast as the anti-hero villain, the polar opposite of what he was trying to achieve with the 400 children he was now mentoring from the foundation’s offices in Highlands North in Johannesburg and Ocean View in Cape Town.
He had also joined the Mankind Project.
“It’s an awesome initiative that teaches men about integrity and about taking responsibility in life. It was there that I met Jon Foster-Pedley, the dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. He’s an elder with the project and he encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to study at Henley.”
Witbooi was accepted this year to do the 12 month long Advanced Certificate in Management Practice, an NQF level 6 programme that will lead to the NQF level 7 Advanced Diploma next year – his university degree.
For Foster-Pedley, Witbooi is precisely the kind of person Henley’s unique ladder of learning was designed to assist to reach his full potential.
“Welcome is like far too many other South Africans who were denied access to tertiary education because of their circumstances. Through this journey, there is no reason whatsoever why he should not go all the way to NQF level 9 and an internationally accredited executive Masters in Business Administration degree.
“Henley Africa created the largest self-funded scholarship programme of any business school in Africa, to inspire diversity in its classes not just in terms of demographics but also to attract and further develop leaders in non-traditional business disciplines like community organisations, media, sports, music or the creative sector.
“Welcome is one of those community leaders we need to help achieve his full potential and help break the spiral of hopelessness that leads so many youngsters into the clutches of the gangs that promise them a life they cannot get elsewhere.
“Welcome is an ambassador for what can be achieved – legally – if you just get the right breaks to unlock your potential.”
Witbooi agrees: “I loved that I’ve always run my foundation from the heart, but now I have been able to start becoming not just a leader but an effective leader. We’re doing a lot of self-awareness programmes and systems thinking which is helping me look at complex things from a totally different perspective.”
And he’s achieved his other dream too. “I became a father. Of a little girl.”