The Number provides compelling insight into the remarkable parallel universe of South African prison gangs, organised around bandit mythic tales a century old and shocking to learn about - particularly because they still operate in the present. But the book succeeds as narrative non-fiction because Steinberg has gone beyond a voyeur's revelation of this secret world, opening up the life of aging gangster Magadien Wentzel with admirable balance and candor, and thereby giving the reader the opportunity to glimpse intimate and often invisible aspects of life as lived and experienced by Cape Town's 'coloured' poor underclass, from the latter decades of the apartheid era through to a decade's worth of democracy in South Africa. These are the people whose stories history books don't tell.
Because of South Africa's unique past, crime, violence, politics, speech and identity are all intertwined in complex and difficult ways. Criminals might be political heroes and political speech could land one in prison, and the boundaries between these various categories are ambiguous and fraught -- even more so for coloured South Africans: neither black nor white and marginalized (or at best, discounted) at many levels in the present as well as the past.
Steinberg tells a story that takes the reader across these boundaries both in and out of prison through the eyes and experience of gangsters (mainly Magadien), and the author's honest wrestling to uphold the principles of objective journalism serve to affirm the humanity of his subject/protagonist, flawed and horrible as he might be.
Author: Jonny Steinberg
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