Drug mule ‘Babsie’ a hero for empowering others

Nolubabalo Nobanda appears in a video screened by the NMU chapter of Amnesty International at the university
Nolubabalo Nobanda appears in a video screened by the NMU chapter of Amnesty International at the university
Image: Zamandulo Malonde

Convicted drug mule Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda’s recent high-profile return to SA after a prolonged stretch in a Thai prison has resulted in controversy.

Some people resent the fact that she has achieved “hero” status, while in actual fact her mule activities have only resulted in disgrace and heartache for her family.

Babsie hails from the Eastern Cape and, in defending herself on national TV, she drew on an entrenched tradition of rural African activism, namely, how can I enrich my community with the benefit of my experience?

She argued that she was not a hero because of her mistakes, but that she was a hero because of the transformative value of her dramatic arrest and subsequent incarceration.

She intends to use these hard-earned insights to empower other young people to learn from her mistakes.

All societies use shame to manage deviant behaviour such as crime, but not all societies utilise it in the same way.

The Australian comparative criminologist John Braithwaite explored this essential difference in the societal management of shame in his book Crime, Shame and Reintegration (1989).

In it, he makes a distinction between two sorts of cultures, stigmatising shaming and integrative shaming cultures.

In the former, ex-offenders are stigmatised and marginalised at the end of their sentences and prevented from rejoining and sustainably integrating into their communities.

Examples of this are to be found in the US and SA.

As Braithwaite points out, stigma is counter-productive as it drives ex-offenders into the arms of criminal subcultures, since there is no homecoming available to them in mainstream society.

Four years after she was arrested in Bangkok for smuggling cocaine from Brazil to Thailand in her dreadlocks, Makhanda’s Nolubabalo ‘Babsie’ Nobanda, left, enjoyed a visit from her mother Honjiswa Mbewu at Klong Prem prison at the end of 2014
Four years after she was arrested in Bangkok for smuggling cocaine from Brazil to Thailand in her dreadlocks, Makhanda’s Nolubabalo ‘Babsie’ Nobanda, left, enjoyed a visit from her mother Honjiswa Mbewu at Klong Prem prison at the end of 2014
Image: Supplied

This hard reality is something Babsie discovered.

Predictably, SA has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world – between 86 and 94%.

In the case of the latter, integrative shaming cultures, ex-offenders are accepted back into their communities with love and understanding, and given the support needed to rebuild their lives.

Examples of these cultures are found in China and Japan, and certainly features of these are also present in many African cultures.

Having made and appreciated this important distinction, we should add that no culture is homogenous in the sense of it being entirely either stigmatising or integrating.

By way of illustration, the African idea of ubuntu has wonderful integrative potential for ex-offenders who have truly reformed and wish to be forgiven by their communities.

In China, Mao is famous for declaring, rightly, that 95% of all offenders can be completely reformed, although what he had in mind was more brainwashing [shi-nau] his ideological enemies.

No wonder then, that China has a long tradition of a very successful integrative culture where ex-offenders are accepted back into their communities with love, acceptance and a show of opportunity to get back on track.

At the turn of the century, the PRC boasted re-offending rates of a mere 6-8%.

This is something which we, in SA, with our stigmatising shaming culture, can only dream of.

Compare China’s recidivism rates with that of SA’s unsustainable crime and re-offending rates, noted above.

But sky-high re-offending rates are not the end of the story.

To complicate the picture, consider also that in most prisons in the West, and that certainly includes SA, very little, if any, rehabilitation takes place.

Ex-offenders in these jurisdictions rehabilitate, if they do, despite and not because of the prison.

In the Western world, in countries with stigmatising shaming cultures such as SA and the US, warehousing and managerialism are the paradigms which rule our correctional thinking.

With little, if any, rehabilitation taking place in our prisons and an unforgiving stigmatising shaming culture on the outside, features of our culture which feed into each other, the scene is set for high and rising unsustainable crime and recidivism rates in this country.

Another feature which complicates this state of affairs even more, is the insidious phenomenon known as the prison industrial complex – which was unearthed by prison abolition activists in the US.

In short, this means there is a lot of money to be made by private entrepreneurs from the toxic practice of incarcerating people.

By way of example, consider Bosasa’s looting of DCS’s budget while the Department battled with overcrowding, staff shortages and catching communicative diseases, such as TB and aids.

Said in another way, there are many more reasons people may end up in prison other than for the commission of conventional ‘crime’ as the public understanding of criminal behaviour is politically skewed in favour of vested interests in business (such as Bosasa) – and the rich and powerful.

Babsie’s return to SA focuses attention on an oft-neglected aspect of our culture, the unforgiving nature of our society’s attitude towards returning exoffenders.

In this respect, Babsie’s case is not unique, but hers is valuable as a case study in exploring the reasons why an alternative reality could be ours.

In many countries in the world, a de-incarceration drive has added insight to the growing realisation that imprisoning people is not the best way to deal with deviance.

Community service or fines will take the sting out of the needless stigmatisation and marginalisation of ex-offenders and benefit us all in the process.

Which is why Babsie is a hero.

In transforming her life from that of a disgraced drug mule to someone who could add value to the lives of others, she should be embraced by all with pride and love.

Despite the sly reality of incarceration as SA’s dominant sentencing regime, we can change our future and reality.

It does not have to be this way – presiding officers (judges, magistrates) should be encouraged to prioritise African integrative sentencing options instead of incarceration by default.

● Dr Casper Lotter is a comparative criminologist with research interests in advancing the project of the caring society.

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