Judging by the artworks on offer at Constitution Hill, the need for a support system in prison is obvious. Addressing guests at the opening of the exhibition, Mzamo Ngcobo, a founding member and chairperson of the Sakhisizwe Mental Health Support Group at Durban’s Westville Prison spoke of the hardship he met when he first entered the prison system.
‘Upon my arrival in Medium C I met a guy, Mr Sam Shozi, who had suffered a great deal of mental depression. He came up with this idea to me and said: ‘Mzamo, can we start a mental health support group where we can help us and other offenders recover from their depression and stress’? Immediately, the foundation was laid, he said.
Once formed, the group was named Sakhisizwe – an isiZulu word, which means we are building a nation. It’s an inmate-initiated programme supported by Lifeline Durban, a branch of LifeLine southern Africa, a psycho-social support network. Sakhisizwe was established to help ensure the mental and emotional well-being of inmates at Westville. Barbara McLean from LifeLine was assigned to counsel and lead the group.
‘It’s not always easy working in that environment’¦ It’s a place where there’s enormous amount of pain; lives are broken; there’s the mental illness; there are just so many aspects of emptiness and brokenness’, she said.
Wearing the customary bright-orange prison uniform and new white sneakers, Mzamo told the gathering that ‘the requirement to join our group was the willingness to change, to grow and to stop criminal activities’.
Art in the form of expressing oneself through drawing and painting was one of the activities that Lifeline introduced to members of the support group to help them deal with the issues that they face. Twenty of the inmates now have their work showing at Number 4, a venue where many Africans were detained and tortured during the dark apartheid years. It forms part of the Constitution Hill precinct and is situated just a few steps away from the highest court in the land ‘ a symbol of hope and freedom.