Crossing the Threshold into the Extraordinary World

Extraordinary Day – October 2013

The function was to be held at the Correctional Facility for Offenders at Meredale Corrections Facility – commonly known as Sun City – can’t imagine why?? The purpose of the function was to bring the concept of Brand Joburg to the public, or interested parties. Brand Joburg is a gateway project to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

It was October 2013, a swelteringly hot day. For people – no let me rephrase that – for whities that live in Jozi proper, one doesn’t always know the roads or the route to places deep in the south of Johannesburg. I had been married to a Lenasia local for many years prior to this incident, so I more or less knew my way around Southgate, but not really the Meredale Correctional Services Prison. But I found my way, albeit a little nervously, and waited patiently for my contact outside the Shell Garage, which was the designated spot.

I saw several people arrive in taxi loads of shuttles, be dropped off at that Shell Garage and carry on along their merry way. Some looked a little askance at this ‘whitie’, dressed quite well, (because I was going to a function) but in a battered Nissan X-trail. I was bemused by the different codes of dress that seemed to be much more free than in the north. One would never see so many ‘I’m so sexy’ T-shirts in Fourways or even Hyde Park!

My contact arrived and a little while later we drove in to the front entrance of Sun City, the lethal, brutal Correctional Facility where its reputation preceeds it.

Getting through the security was unsurprisingly vigilant. Several trips back to the car later, I’d had to dump my cell-phone, bag, bottle of water, and was guided in through the several iron-gate structures with literally, just my car keys.

The function was a get-together of sponsors, dilitentes, delegates, or interested parties from human rights organizations, sympathetic advisers, companies or NPO’s whose humanitarian conscience had allowed them to gift products, funds or services to different causes hoping to scrape the surface of reducing crime in South Africa, or at the very least showing that they cared. Although the contributions never feel as though they are enough in the grand token of things – they still feel as though they are doing something. Personally, I was there to observe and to make contacts for my new project – teaching film writing to offenders.

We sat down at a the arranged place under a shaded covering. The 500 prisoners, offenders as is the politically correct term, are on the other side, sitting in the sweltering heat, unguarded from the harsh sun. 500 chairs squashed together, the offender’s overalls up to their chins, down to their ankles and covering to their wrists. They must have been so uncomfortable. Yet they listened, silently and well behaved, to the numerous (and lengthy) speeches throughout the day.

I was so boiling hot under the shaded area, that I was concerned about them. Several offenders had caps on, some found pieces of cardboard from … somewhere … and were using it as a rigged umbrella, and my eyes fell onto one lone white boy in the midst of this pool of darker colored-skin-tones. His face shone from the sun. His brow sweltering with sweat and yet he sat almost comatose in one position for virtually 5 hours of excruciating heat slipping further and further down into his chair. I wondered why he didn’t get up and walk away? Perhaps they were not allowed to? Is he going to collapse? The effect of his face shining with the reflection of the sun and sweat gave the illusion of an aura of light around him. I watched him sink lower and lower into his chair willing him to please get up and go inside – I know what the brutal effects of the suns rays are on our pale skins and that it can take up to three weeks to get rid of the damaging effects of burn, blisters, sun stroke, headaches, needless to say the effect of trying to sleep or even sit down with a body so tender from being burned. It’s like he was being roasted, fried by the sun. Cooked. Because that’s what it is … our bodies cook. Eventually I saw him and his buddy of color next to him get up and move indoors. I felt relieved and wondered how the rest of them outside were coping. I mean I know they are offenders, but why not just get some green car-port netting and throw it over there?

All the while the chefs team, the catering department were bringing eats outside on trays and the offenders in their orange overalls very politely served us. We had little meatballs, chicken wings, sausages, sticky meat things, potato crisps and many sweets. Later, lunch of curry and rice was served. The offenders careful to keep us plied with cool-drinks and water.

When the serving started, I had paranoiac reaction of … are they going to poison me? I caught myself having such a silly thought and with the progression of the day had to smile in disbelief that I could ever been so ridiculously prejudiced. Yes, bad things happen inside there, have happened inside there, but I had given nobody any reason to dislike me? What was I thinking? Oh, the ignorance of the unknown, the existential fear, the lack of knowledge. I had to remember the reason I was there in the first instance – to meet my liaison officer for my film writing training programme was an offender. For the sake of this article let’s say his name was Beno. Beno was the sweetest, most accommodating person. Beno had no arm. I was shocked at how he could cope in a place like that without it. But he was extraordinarily dexterous with his one appendage. He gave me the run down of how to go about my program and some tips, as did the very impressive offender chairperson of Brand Joburg, Johannes.

The offenders were ordered, gave speeches, worked in groups with an orchestrated committee chairperson and various delegated team members working hand-in-glove with people from the ‘outside’.

And the people sang … in harmony … and boy could they sang!

The prison bands played their music, several of them, each one in-between each organizations speeches. I heard offenders get up and give motivational speeches about how to conduct their lives from now on, I heard ex-offenders tell of how they they had left this very facility 25 years ago, thinking that they had a 45 year sentence, which was then miraculously reduced to only 5 short years. But – he warned – to start making arrangements for what they will do after their release – NOW! That it was just as tough outside, but in a different way, and that they must start to plan before they get outside so that do not have to rely on reactivating their lives of crime. I saw a group of impassioned offenders get up and renounce violence. They publically pledged to never more do violence or crime. It seemed absolutely genuine.

Then of course, the inevitable inspirational religious speaker. Clap. Clap. Praise the Lord. Halleleuia.

The Extraordinary Day ended. I still had to find my way back to the city sans my deep-south guide. I was tired. But so inspired that in the face of adversity these voices could stand up and pledge their commitment to a worthy cause. That within these walls of hell there is teaming life, and not always a treacherous or ungrateful life, but an inspired and persevering one.

I also felt comfortable and settled that my film writing programme was going to work. With this kind of inspiration why would it not? The thrust of the programme is to allow people to live outside of their cells, to live in their minds, instead of rotting in a cell somewhere; to use the power of the imagination to create whatever they would want to outside of their circumstances; to raise their consciousness and conscience-ness. Yes. It was going to work. By working with the underbelly of society I could help them rise above their circumstances and create something beautiful from something daunting. Provide them with skills, real skills to take back into the community when they finally get released back into the world.

Writing is a soul journey. There is nothing complicit about writing. My programme the Greenlight District Project, could help create more whole human beings, as oposed to broken and angry. By permeating the underworld in this way perhaps, just perhaps we have a chance of reducing crime and allowing people to find their emotional intelligence, come to terms with … whatever it is that they have to come to terms with … and live beyond, as well as have a potential means of profession and viable financial income that rehabilitates them back into a society that once rejected them.

In film, one needs to be able to have a balanced view of the subject matter, see both sides of the story. By writing about one character’s needs and goals, one needs to understand the adversary’s needs and goals that might be polar opposites for a complete outcome. To show love … one has to understand hate, to show betrayal … one needs to show loyalty and to show justice … one needs to show lack of justice, perhaps corruption. And so on.

Could they be potentially good students? Can I teach them to come out with a more balanced view of life? Well, we shall see … They certainly have the time to perfect their skill. And from what I saw on that first extraordinary day at the correctional services centre – they definitely have the will.

I am due to start lecturing to them in film writing, amongst other related disciplines on the 9th April 2014. I am looking forward to helping people along the path to their self-actualization process of self-discovery, and I feel privileged that this group of 50 men has entrusted me to help raise their souls from lack – to abundance of spirit.

I am certainly going to keep you guys up to date on this extraordinary journey because if I don’t write it down after every session I’m so nervous that I will forget the details.

I hope that you will be with us every step of the way too, for this pilot project in 2014. And if it works – who knows – perhaps we change the history of a nation.

Writing Blessings

Pippa Jazmine Dyer