I lie on my back. My head is aching. I think of Lwando. One of the prison warders told me he is fighting for his life in hospital. He was attacked by the parents of one of the girls raped at Nosiviwe’s party. I don’t know what happened to Mfundo. I have heard nothing about him.

All I can remember of the day after Nosiviwe’s party is a group of women from the village pointing at me as I walked to the old dilapidated house behind the village. Our spot. Then there were shouts from behind me. Police were running towards me – one of them was the father of one of the girls who was raped. No wonder they came so soon. How could we have been so stupid? That is the last thing I remember, before I came around in the back of a police van.

I had just been with Nonyaniso at home. She had been crying at the kitchen table. She did not want to talk to me. She did not want to look at me. Why hadn’t she spent the night with Sihle? Why had she come back to the party?

I had managed to keep the Black Tights away from my kraal. But now, something far worse had happened. Tat’uLudwe did not even greet me the next morning. He must have suspected that I was one of the boys that robbed him. He didn’t know the half of it, yet.

Now I am in prison, behind bars, locked away. No money for bail. Awaiting trial. The girl’s father made sure of that.

Bhantinti, prisoner, we have been calling you,” shouts one of the men in my cell. His shirtless body has tattoos everywhere. He has a big chest. Strong arms. He is missing two front teeth. From time to time his tongue slides out of that gate between his teeth. He does this just before words come out his mouth.

“Go and eat,” he says to me, again sticking his white tongue through the gap. Sies maan, he makes me sick. All the other prisoners have moved to the dining area. He is sitting and eating meat from an ice-cream container. As I walk out I can feel his eyes on my back. I am scared. I know what happens at night in prison.

In the dining area, men in orange overalls lean forward over the tables. Young men, some very ugly, and some handsome, eat greedily.

I collect my food from the counter where a skinny man stands with a big spoon, ladling it out. Phthaaa, cabbage cooked with water and rice, land on my plate.

As I sit down with a group of men I think of what my teacher said. She told me that people who are ugly inside commit crimes.

“You are beautiful inside Sabelo. Jongi nto. Don’t do this to yourself. If you are not at school at your age, the chances are that you will do crime.”

We had been talking about my school record. I had the highest number of days absent in the previous term and had made up my mind by then that I was leaving school.

I look at the men around me. The three in front of me are physically ugly to look at. All damaged. With each of them I do the same thing, clean them up in my imagination to get to what they had been before.

I remove the scar off the cheek of one, put an eye back where one had been gouged out. I look at him again and see the man he once was. I am going mad.

I take the tattoos off the face of one. I put back the missing skin on part of his nose. I see a son of some parents I do not know; I see the son he had been before.

I look at two other men. I don’t have to work so hard to make them pretty. People don’t do crime because they are physically ugly, but sometimes crime makes them ugly inside.

Mother made me ugly on the inside. She gave Nonyaniso twice the love she needed. Some of mine was in there also. I turned to our gang, for brothers, people to look up to – for love.

“You are a slow eater neh,” one of the prisoners says.

“Ja,” I reply to him.

A strike on my left shoulder sends strips of shock down to my toes. I turn and looked into the one eye of the man sitting next to me. He points to where his one eye is missing.

“This is from trying to resist,” he says. “You can’t be a free man here. You will never be, inside these walls. Those men over there are responsible for this,” he says pointing to the hole again.

I can’t reply to him. I just scoop the cold cabbage from my plate. I swallow it down without chewing.

Mama has not been to visit me in prison. She still does not care.

The next day I sit crying the whole day. I am scared, seeing how my life has turned out. I have arrived at my destination too fast. I took a one-way road. I am going to die in here I think.

* * *

Tell us what you think: Can people be rehabilitated after prison? Can they be accepted back into their communities?