Jonny Steinberg's the number and prison life writing in post-apartheid South Africa
Under apartheid, the prison autobiography enjoyed a privileged status, with the prison playing the role of the apartheid state in miniature: the penitentiary was one of the most coercive material manifestations of a racist and brutal regime. With the demise of apartheid, however, the prison autobiography has become a marginalised and depoliticised genre. The loss of status of the prison autobiography is paralleled by the endemic neglect of the penitentiary system, despite its important role in South African history. A close reading of the tropes and rhetoric of apartheid-era prison writing can provide some explanation for the abrupt marginalisation of the penitentiary as a socially important space after 1994: in particular, the line that is drawn between criminal convicts and political prisoners in apartheid-era prison autobiographies anticipates the neglect of the penitentiary under democracy. One exceptional post-apartheid reflection on life in prison, Jonny Steinberg's The Number, stands out both for asking subtle questions about the ideological boundary between the political and the criminal prisoner and for the way it perpetuates the tradition, forged under apartheid, of using the prison as a site for radical social analysis and criticism. © 2009 Taylor & Francis.