In the 1990s, JOYBELLE SEPTEMBER was given a six-year jail sentence for shoplifting, which she served in Pollsmoor, the Cape Town prison where Nelson Mandela spent six years. Today she is a mother of three and grandmother of seven who volunteers in the very same prison, as well as helping rehabilitate ex-offenders once they go out into the world again. So what turned her life around? Joy, now living in the suburb of Grassy Park, told her story to KATY MACDONALD
Joybelle, from shoplifter to voluntary worker: ‘I’m a new person’. | PHOTO: Tonya Hester
‘I WAS BORN in the apartheid years and my parents divorced when I was three. My mother was a live-in domestic worker in Plumstead. I lived with her when I was young but when I got to school age, my brother and I went to live with my mother’s aunt who had 13 children of her own.
There wasn’t enough space for everyone to sleep! My mother also had another aunt with three school-teacher daughters, and my brother and I moved between the two families. It seemed that we were always packing up to go to Auntie Frances or back to Auntie June.
Money-wise, my mother provided for us and we never went hungry but she wasn’t there to comb my hair or tuck me in at night. Living with the three school-teachers, I had a bed of my own and a good life. All the daughters and their mother were very creative and could make me outfits and crochet me socks, but I was always empty inside and looking for a place to belong.
I was very rebellious. Authority and me didn’t go well together. At a very young age I rebelled, ran away, got involved with a boyfriend, started smoking… I got sent away at 15 to a place of safety, then discovered I was pregnant with twins and was put into a home for unmarried mothers. I was very naïve, I had only had sex once, and thought that babies were brought by the doctor! I still didn’t believe I was pregnant when the midwife said ‘push’. They told me one baby lived for three hours only. I got to give her a name, Rochelle, and the other twin girl was taken away without me seeing her face.
I blocked that whole episode out of my mind and was sent to an industrial school. I started using alcohol and dagga. When I was 20, I gave birth to a little girl I gave to my mother to look after. Then I had another girl who I also gave away to my mother, then another baby with that same guy who was very abusive. That baby was two months premature and died in hospital. So I’d had five girls in total. Two died, two were with my mother and one was in a foster home. I realise now that I didn’t help rear them because I just couldn’t give them mother love. I gave them presents at Christmas and on their birthdays, but I was never there to comb their hair either, just as it had been for me when I was young.
I was working in factories and shops, but I never held a job long. From dagga [marijuana], I started going onto mandrax. By this time I was 30. I needed money to feed my habit and joined a syndicate of shoplifters. It became my job. I would say ‘I’m going to work at my pa se winkel (my father’s shop).’We stole all kinds of things from every type of shop, but mostly electric appliances which we resold. We’d start in Worcester and come right down into Cape Town or fly up to Johannesburg, shoplift and sell the goods to buyers up there. Or we’d rent a car and drive the goods back to Cape Town.
Shoplifting became a thrill. If, for example, I stole liquor, I could buy a bed and wardrobe with a week’s takings. We would put on old ladies’ corsets and loose tops and stand in front of each other while we packed things into our corsets – my friend could pack 16 bottles of cooking oil into hers! It was alekker [great] feeling if the day went well and you didn’t get caught. But often by the time my boyfriend had taken his share of my money and I’d had a few drugs, I had nothing left the next morning. Then I’d have a desperate craving for drugs again, take risks and get caught.
For 15 years I was in and out of prison. The first time I was afraid of what prison would be like, but after that it became my second home. I never felt guilty because I wasn’t stealing from an individual or breaking into anyone’s house. I would tell myself that Woolworths or Pick n Pay were not going to miss the stuff I took.
I used to steal things for my kids’ birthdays and Christmas. I’d rock up at Christmas, give them the goods and go away again. But slowly I started to feel guilty about my lifestyle and wanted to change. I started living with my mother and helping her with my teenage kids. I was still abusing drugs and alcohol but I wasn’t stealing.
But then I got caught from an old case. I had always given false names when I got caught, but somehow the police found me and I was sentenced to six years in prison. I was very cross with God. I said,‘What kind of a God are you? I’m not stealing and I’m looking after my kids. Let the rapists and murderers go to prison, not me!’ I knew about church. One of my aunts was a born-again Christian, and my other aunt went to the traditional Moravian church. I was often in and out of the Baptist church, acting in plays as I grew up. When I started going wrong, those aunts said I would never come right, so I said,‘To hell with your Jesus and your church!’
In prison in those days it was compulsory to go to church but we used the opportunity to smokkel [smuggle in] illegal stuff. We also had to do devotions for half an hour in the morning and the evening. I refused to go, and was always reported. The Christians used to have bibles in their cells and pray, but I would play cards in the bathroom or do dagga instead. I felt the people leading the bible studies were more corrupt than me. I didn’t worry about the God who died on the cross because all my family members who were born again treated me the worst, so how could this God be love?
Then a girl in for fraud invited me to a bible study. I said,‘I don’t do church and you’re just doing this to get parole. I know you convert people and I don’t want to be converted. I already come from a converted background.’
But I went to the study in order to get her off my back, thinking if I did, maybe she wouldn’t bother me again. In the bible study was a white woman with a nice haircut and a coloured woman. The way they were praising God fascinated me. They looked so free. The next week, I went again. I was fascinated by these two women. The coloured woman was sitting next to me and said,‘Did you come here to give Jesus a chance?’ and I said,‘No’!
On the third week, one of the ladies I felt drawn to started to run the Alpha Course. I signed up for it for two reasons: I knew I wanted what they had and I also needed lots of credentials to get out of prison – I had already done leather-making, fabric making and a barlady course!
Joybelle with grandchildren Leon, Cindy, Rubi and Nikah. | PHOTO: Tonya Hester
Halfway through the course I committed my life to God. I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried everything in the book, I’m tired of prison and I’m going to give God a try in my life and see if it works. These two women that I love so dearly, maybe God will make me lekker like them!’
I was very connected in prison. I had dagga that my agents got for me that I used to help me get to sleep. But I was committing my life to God so I got rid of it. That night I had a peaceful sleep even without the dagga. I started going to bible study every Wednesday. You must see the change that took place in me.
I was happy! A lady prayed through things with me and prayed for my hands to be made clean. Then I went on a Restorative Justice programme in the prison. That brought a whole new perspective to my life and I had to ask forgiveness from my children and my mother. I was arrogant, I thought I never hurt anyone but then I realised I had hurt people and how my shoplifting affected the shop staff, who could lose their jobs or their annual bonuses because of me.
I didn’t pull away from my friends. There was a girl serving eight years for murder. She said,‘If Joybelle can do this, why can’t I?’ She started coming to church and gave her life to God. She had always blocked out the murder but after committing her life to God, she realised she did do it. It had stemmed from anger at being sexually abused by her brother.
When I finally got out of prison in 2002, every two or three days my shoplifting friends would call me to work with them, but I didn’t succumb. And God really provided for me. He sent people who gave me money and helped me. I started looking after my daughter’s baby and she paid me, then I bought a sewing machine on account and made scatter cushions and table mats to keep myself busy and earn a living. The temptation got less and less. But it still comes up. In the underworld, one day’s work would pay my rent! One day I was standing in a shop with R50 to buy shoes and I thought how easy it would be to steal them, but I paid for them.
Hope Prison Ministries ran a support group for ex-offenders but it wasn’t doing well and they needed to rethink it. I applied for the job as assistant to the aftercare co-ordinator and got it. Now the aftercare manager and others work for me! We don’t get a salary but we get a little support. We all live on faith as there aren’t enough funds for the staff. But God says He won’t make us beggars. Every month things are very hard but God has been faithful and He provides for me through people. I’m amazed.
I’m happy because I work with those who come out. I know the challenges and the rejection they face. The biggest problem people have is getting accepted. It’s very difficult to walk into a church after coming out of prison and ‘Christians’ still stigmatise ex-offenders. My view is that these people need to experience God soon because they’re going to get the shock of their life when they go to heaven!
I felt my change was genuine and I told everyone I had changed, but did my family believe me? Eight years after I gave my life to God, they said they saw a change! By then I had seven grandchildren. We all live together and go to church together. My eldest daughter, the twin girl I’d given up for fostering, came looking for her mother with the social worker a while back and I now look after her two children. My mother turned 90 this year and I have the privilege of helping her financially by providing her meals. My one grandson Leon will be graduating from SAPS College in December 2016.
When I think how God has taken me out of where I was! You wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to me. I had no self-worth, no dignity. God has made me new. I don’t even want to walk in the street eating or drinking nowadays! I feel He allowed me to go through all that to equip me to work in His field and identify with other people who are struggling.
In my shoplifting days I had everything. Gold jewellery, every new perfume that was advertised, good shoes, butter. But I will never go back. I am happy. And in a country where so many youngsters are on tik [crystal meths], my granddaughters are so strong that I don’t ever have to worry where they are!
I encourage people to look to God. Don’t look around, look to God!’