Jonny Steinberg’s “The Number: One Man’s Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs”

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

On December 3, The MacMillan Center hosted a symposium on Jonny Steinberg’s The Number: One Man’s Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs, a 2004 book exploring prison life in South Africa before, during, and after apartheid. By following the life of Magadien Wentzel, a criminal and gang leader, Steinberg explores the country’s turbulent transition and the characters’ complex relationships with violence, politics, and identity. The panelists included Jonny Steinberg, author of The Number and Professor of African Studies at Oxford University; Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University; James Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University; and Elisabeth Wood, Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor of the Human Environment and Professor of Political Science at Yale University. The talk was moderated by Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University and Henry R. Luce Director of The MacMillan Center. (view discussion)

Calling The Number “one of the best books written about South African politics,” Shapiro set the stage by focusing the discussion on a few powerful themes in the book, including the influences of apartheid on social structure and different conceptions of power in political space. Shapiro also questioned the methodology of the text, noting its uniqueness as a “bioethnography,” or a cross between a biography and an ethnography.

Mahmood Mamdani observed that though the book focuses on prison life, it actually serves as a powerful commentary on South African society in general. Discussing the role of violence in the search for identity and manhood, he noted the Foucauldian idea that “power produced the subject and the subject mimics power” can be used to describe prison gangs, whose desire for control over violence ultimately allows them to play the role of the state in prison life.

“None of us chooses an identity,” Mamdani said. “We are all named by others… In South Africa, it defines you - White, African, Indian, Coloured.” Regarding the book’s “happy ending” where Wentzel undergoes a self-transformation, becoming Christian and leave behind his criminal past, Mamdani argued that “the discussion of identity as something voluntarily embraced leaves out of sight the fact that identities are in the first place imposed.”

James Scott was the next panelist to speak. He agreed with Mamdani that prisons are often run by prisoners, but Scott also noted the limitations within which prison gangs are constrained. For example, prisoners respond to limitations on violence by specifying the sharpness of blades as to not cause death. Scott then posed the question, “If [prison gangs] mimic the structure of power in the society, would we be able to look at different kinds of prison systems elsewhere in the world and infer, or deduce, the kind of prisoner society that would arise?”

Elisabeth Wood then discussed the methodology of the book, comparing it to an oral history and calling it an “intervention” in a discipline that has moved toward undervaluing the method of ethnography. She was impressed with the text’s “careful construction, chapter by chapter, of ethnographic authority” through Steinberg’s acute reflexivity, or awareness and self-reflection of his changing relationship with Wentzel.

Next, Jonny Steinberg talked about what prison gangs might illuminate about the political history of a country. Situating the book within the larger context of apartheid, Steinberg said, “prison gangs long proceeded apartheid, but apartheid emphasized everything about them—sheer numbers, what they meant and what they were trying to do.” He explained that the purpose of the book is to put the marginalized at the center of history by giving people who tell their stories “historical and political agency.”

Steinberg admitted that prison gangs do provide a sort of order, but one that is always dangerously “close to violent explosion.” He said, “It’s an unfathomably ritualized world in part to stave off the state of nature, to stave off this Hobbesian world.” One of the saddest paradoxes to Steinberg is that the storytellers’ narrative is a “reach for dignity… to be placed in a world in a meaningful way, and yet the conditions of existence in this institutional life make that impossible. They are by their nature degrading.”

When asked about Wentzel’s experiences after the book’s publication, Steinberg noted that though Wentzel took advantage of a number of different opportunities resulting from the book’s success, no opportunities worked out in the long run because the shift from the regimentation of prison life to the rhythms of civilian life was a difficult one. Steinberg said, “Other institutions were not going to contain him.”


Written by Julia Ding.