Welcome Witbooi is a former leader of notorious South African criminal organisation, the Numbers Gang. The gang is a well-known prison gang with one of the most fearsome reputations in South Africa if not the world. They are known to operate primarily in the Western Cape prison of Pollsmoor, however it is believed that they control most of the South African prisons.
Welcome Witbooi’s journey to joining a gang
Welcome grew up in the Cape flats, an area known to be one of the most violent and dangerous places in South Africa. Growing up here, Welcome was exposed to communities where gang life was and still is a prominent part of local society. The life that many young boys are exposed to in this area offers limited options for what path they will take. Welcome explains that you can either become a pastor, join a gang, go to prison, or die. As gang life was prominent in his community many young boys grew up admiring gang leaders, but they also grew up having negative opinions about the importance of education.
Before he entered the gang life, Welcome was a straight A student, a school monitor, and a school prefect. Being a studious and hardworking student in his community was rare and he was considered strange by his peers. Due to his lack of popularity in popular groups, he was not seen or treated as a ‘real’ man and was teased a lot. It was from the age of 12 that Welcome started engaging and spending time with a local gang of younger boys. Boys who had nice things and that were popular with the girls. The group of boys had a reputation for being tough and robbed people, wore different clothes, looked different, and asked people for money. Welcome says he saw a type of freedom in this life and wanted to be a part of it. A few years after joining the group he was invited to join the Numbers Gang where he eventually became a leader for the 28s Number Gang.
As years went on Welcome felt convicted to turn away from this dark life of crime and he decided to make an active change in his life. He was able to obtain a bursary and studied adult basic education and training and went on to specialise in human and social sciences. By starting a new path in life, he decided to give back to society by using what he had learnt by teaching in prison and helping other inmates. Upon his release he was offered a job in the prisons empowerment programme and later went on to found the Heart and Soul Foundation. Today Welcome has become an actor, having acted in the international film, The Forgiven. Today he is also the director of the BrightSpark foundation.
With his experience of being a leader of organised crime, Welcome’s journey has meant he is able to understand the juxtaposition between management in both corporate and criminal organisations.
Leadership in gangs versus leadership in business
How does Welcome’s experience of rising in leadership compare to the traditional working world? When working in the business world there is a journey to becoming the CEO of a company and gaining a leadership role. In a workplace environment we are given various deadlines and have those deadlines extended when necessary. The harder we work the more likely we are to be recognised and rewarded for our efforts.
In a criminal organisation, such as that of the Numbers gang, Welcome explains that there is also a similar system in place to that of an organisation with regards to seniority and rank. For example, in the Numbers gang there are the 26ths, 27ths, and 28ths. Welcome states that “within a numbers gang, you will get the 28ths which would normally be the CEO, or the director of the company, the 27ths are comparable to the HR function, because that’s the group that lets you know all the dynamics of how the number actually works and the rules and regulations.”
The way in which the Numbers Gang operates is not too much unlike that of corporate governance and policing for the 27ths. Additionally, with the 28ths they have a position similar to that of a CEO, as this group makes decisions on how operations should occur and how different situations should be handled. As for the members of the 26ths, they have a position like that of a salesperson, and are responsible for bringing money into the gang. In terms of operations and structure there are some similarities between a criminal organisation and a regular one.
Punishment in a gang vs accountability at work
In the business world the action an employee takes are accepted by the organisation while mistakes are typically not punished. That being stated, however, within a criminal organisation they don’t have a similar approach or mindset as it depends on who is in charge inside the prison.
The way in which the prison system operates depends on who is in what hierarchical position. Welcome explains that “the 26th have their own hierarchy, the 27th have their own hierarchy and the 28th have their own hierarchy.” The hierarchical system for the 26ths, 27ths, and 28ths differ from one another, however one aspect remains consistent and that is that each prison has a general who is part of the 28ths.
In prison when the gang gives a deadline, either it is met, or you are made an example of and are killed. In times of crisis when an investigation takes place, the independent sections of the gangs hold their own investigation to determine the cause of events. If an issue cannot be resolved, or if there are no other options for the gang to proceed with, then the general is called on and kills the individual to make an example of them.
The ways in which organisations in the corporate world operate holds a degree of similarity to those in organised crime. Having a hierarchical structure can be beneficial as there is a clear chain of command and leadership with the organisation and should an employee require guidance, they know who to report too. One aspect that the corporate world could adapt to is having consequences for employees not fulfilling their duties, legal ones that uphold human rights, of course. Should there be a valid reason then there can be an exception, however, as leaders we can also relate to the need for setting expectations on how a business and our teams should operate and be held accountable.