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‘18 years in prison made me’…. Zim prisoner relives ‘Sun City’ life in SA

By Robin Muchetu

SOUTH Africa is not a rosy place and is not the land of milk and honey as many imagine. It is also not a place of easy fortunes, but a land of hard work where you have to toil to eke out a living, lest you are pushed out to survive on crime and other vices.

Mr Gift Mbewe
Mr Gift Mbewe

Even those making an honest living are not spared either as they might find themselves caught up in the crossfire. This sums up the experiences of Zimbabweans who migrate to South Africa but get a reality check when they serve time in prison for serious crimes like murder, fraud and forgery.

One such person is Mr Gift Mbewe (47) of Entumbane in Bulawayo who until last month served 18 years at Johannesburg Correctional Centre and Zonderwater Prison. Johannesburg Correctional Centre is popularly known as “Sun City” and is a notorious maximum security prison which houses hard core criminals serving lengthy sentences to life imprisonment.

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Sunday News caught up with Mr Mbewe where he was in the comfort of his brother’s house in Entumbane suburb just a week after being deported from Lindela Repatriation Centre. Like many others he left Zimbabwe to seek greener pastures.

“I left Zimbabwe in 1994, when I arrived I was still young and was fortunate to find a job the second day I arrived but it was at a bottle store. During that time my life then started to evolve around alcohol, I would drink everyday, things were not very rosy every time. In 2001 I had a girlfriend that I moved in with and she framed me for Grievous Bodily Harm and I was arrested and eventually won the case and I was not incarcerated,” he said.

After that stint he decided to change his ways and live an alcohol-free life. However, as fate would have it, he relapsed one day at a party.

“In 2002 I visited a friend of mine who had a housewarming party and I was enticed into taking marijuana and alcohol during the party. I don’t know how I left the party and went back home because I was drunk. A friend followed me home and a fight ensued, in the house was my girlfriend’s child who was aged four by then. So during the fight he was injured, I only realised after my colleague had run away that the child had been hurt so I put him to bed and went out to collect his mother from work in Berea as she was about to knock off,” he said.

He went on: “I arrived 30 minutes earlier so I decided to pass time by the snooker shop near her workplace. I lost track of time and realised after a while that I was supposed to pick her up then I went home as she had knocked off already. I got home to find many people outside the flat so I was drunk and I didn’t know what the people had gathered there for.

“The people said: ‘nangu urasta’ I had dreadlocks by then and the police said they had been waiting for me and I was arrested. I complied as I didn’t understand what was happening and I remember people saying ‘urasta um’bulele’ but I still did not understand,” said Mr Mbewe.

The following day he woke up at John Foster Police Station even more confused as to why he was in a police cell.

“A policeman came, took me and asked what happened. He also said I had killed someone, I was shocked at his utterances and he left.”

Mr Mbewe said he was taken to court and one day managed to see his documents which showed that he was a murder suspect. Another inmate who had been brought in from Hilbrow then told him that he was talk of the town with his murder case.

“He then told me that I had killed my girlfriend’s son, that is when I began to try and recall what had happened. I hated myself for the next two years in prison. Somehow I never thought of suicide as a way out,” he said.

He thought pleading guilty would bring leniency.

“I accepted the charge because I didn’t know what had happened that day, I was drunk. I know for a fact that there was a fight but how the child was hurt I am not too sure, maybe he was caught in the crossfire as we were hitting each other and he succumbed to injuries. This is why I hated myself because I loved the child like my own. I was sentenced to life imprisonment on 13 June 2003.

“The judge said to me ‘Gift, you are going to prison for the rest of your life, you will never see the sun and you will never see the birds in the sky.’ That tore me apart. I was a first time offender and had never been in prison before. I had never committed any crime before. My heart broke,” he said.

Mr Mbewe was later moved to Zonderwater Prison outside Pretoria where he continued serving.

“It was not easy for me either but Gift (himself) deserved to go under; he deserved to be punished as he had been said to have killed a child. It now did not matter how it happened but the fact that an innocent child had been killed while I fought my friend tore me apart. He was someone who could not protect himself or stand for himself,” he said.

Asked on how 18 years behind bars felt, Mr Mbewe said it was hell.

“Prison was hell. There was no place to sleep, I would sleep in the toilet, others slept in the shower, passages and it was not easy. The place was always full. Worse still it was in June when I was convicted; the cold winter nearly killed me as I only had one blanket and no jersey,” he said.

He was to later on accept his fate and that he was going to be in prison for life.

“I went down for it, I had to serve time for this crime despite the difficult circumstances around it and life changed for the better,” he said.

It was one day that an evangelist gave him a Bible and he tucked it under his pillow and it stayed there for a while.

“One night I had a dream, a voice said I must read Psalms 50v15 which reads ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you shall glorify me’. I woke up wrote it down, but I did not know where to find that verse as I had never opened a Bible before but I had to find that scripture. Page by page I flipped until he found the verse. My life changed,” he said.

As the years passed Mr Mbewe was selected for the possibility of parole. It happened that he became a role model in prison, motivational speaker and pastor. He attained a Degree in Theology after years of study and graduated in October 2018.

“Lifers’ (those serving life sentences) were not checked by Parole Boards but by the Minister of Justice, so our names were taken forward, and the minister would decide if we were to be given parole or not.

“The day I was told that I was going to be released I failed to walk back to my cell, the joy was unexplainable. My feet were numb because I could not believe it even one bit, all I could do was praise God. I was finally going to be a free person yet I had been told I was going to be locked away for life.

I was at Lindela from 17 May to 6 June 2019 when I was totally released into Zimbabwe and tasted real freedom. I had been released from prison a month earlier but my paper work was not yet completed for me to be deported back home,” he said.

Mr Mbewe said his time in prison changed him a lot on the way he perceives the world.

“I want to thank God for allowing me to go to prison, as it allowed me to have a new life. I want to thank prison, not that I liked being there but because I attained all that I have by being in prison. If not I would have been wandering in the world doing earthly things but I was removed from there and jailed and made good of myself.

I am now focused, I now acquaint myself with people of correct moral standing and I am wiser now, I think first before I do things now.

“I am back home now and have started a project with a colleague I met at Lindela, GMU Missionaries, we are men on a mission and we want to see a crime free continent, we want to educate the masses that if you are to migrate to any country one must have the correct documentation so that you are not always running away from the police and again you cannot secure a formal job and this then pushes people into crime.”

Mr Mbewe said he has, however, not seen or heard from his girlfriend or friend he fought on that fateful day. Sunday News