I visited the Drakenstein Correctional Centre in Paarl on Sunday for a choral music event held by the department of of Correctional Services to honour former South African president Nelson Mandela.
He spent 16 months in the prison, formerly Victor Verster Prison, before walking out as a free man on February 11, 1991, after 27 years of
incarceration. At the prison Mandela saw a microwave for the first time and learnt to swim.
When he was brought to the prison, from the Constantiaberg Mediclinic, where he had been treated for tuberculosis, he was given a warder’s house on the grounds, complete with a swimming pool, a personal cook and a big garden, senior correctional officer Manfred Jacobs said during a tour of the “Madiba House”.
Mandela was under 24-hour surveillance at the house. When he arrived he thought he had two TV sets, not knowing what a microwave looked liked. “Prison warders had to demonstrate how he could heat up water using a microwave,” Jacobs said.
“He believed it only after he stuck his finger in a cup to feel the water.” Having been in a small cell on Robben Island for most of his jail term, Mandela felt uncomfortable in the house’s large main bedroom – which had a double bed – and on his third day asked to be moved into the smallest room.
The former president, who was 70 at the time, was taught to swim in the pool by one of the warders, but he preferred to sit beside it and admire the
mountains, said Jacobs.
Soon after his release Mandela built a replica of the house at his birthplace, Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, so people from his village could
experience where he spent his last prison days.
Jacobs, 38, who has been working at the prison for the past 18 years, met Mandela when he returned to the house in 1998 as president. “The first
thing that struck me was his humbleness. His experience has taught me never to take anything for granted.”
The prison also has a life-sized bronze statue of Mandela, with fist raised, outside the gates where he took his first steps as a free man.
At the event Roseberry Sonto, 60, described driving the Toyota Cressida with Mandela, dressed in a suit, in the back with his then-wife Winnie, shortly after his release.
“I was nervous. I was driving this great icon and anything could have happened. I was afraid a bomb would go off before we left the prison
grounds,” said Sonto,
“At the gate, he calmly told me to stop the car. And he and Winnie got out of the car and started walking towards thousands of people who were waiting outside the gate.”
This story was published at the Cape Argus newspaper (June 8 2013)