This convict told his story to save his soul


Seated at the table that would decide his fate, John W. Fredericks pushed forward his only bargaining chip. His involvement in a street gang had landed him a two-year prison sentence at 17. Now he faced the prospect of recruitment into a far more sinister collective: the notorious Numbers gangs. Prisoners were forced to pledge their service to one faction or another, or face brutalising violence. Knowing that once in there would be no getting out, Fredericks offered something else in the place of his soul. Stories. The gateway to the outside world that his tales provided for the other inmates made him invaluable, saved his life, and later formed the basis for an unlikely career in film.

Fredericks’ susceptibility to gang life was a consequence of his environment. 1950s Kewtown was a difficult place to grow up. Situated just outside Cape Town, the area is riddled with unemployment, poverty and crime. With so much happening in people’s lives, Fredericks felt that no one had time to listen to him. Frustrated and naïve, he turned to the streets for comfort. Yet though his tumultuous surrounds played their part in the dark side of his story, they also cultivated a love for literature and stories that would save his life. Fredericks scavenged for books in a nearby dumpsite, where he one day stumbled upon an old typewriter.

At 50 Fredericks quit his job as a security guard to become a fulltime writer, and the tired keys of that rusty contraption would be the first to learn his story when he later bundled his life into a screenplay. The feature-length film, titled Noem My Skollie, was released in August 2016. Produced by an almost entirely coloured team, Fredericks’ moving work has received global recognition, having been presented to the 89th Academy Awards as South Africa’s Best Foreign Film. In the midst of this acclaim he’s still just as interested in changing the lives of gangsters, returning in particular to address youngsters awaiting trial. He tries to guide them towards a better path, sharing the message that love reaps love and hatred never heals. At 71 the gangster-turned-storyteller has finally found the right audience to listen to his stories.