A warder and an inmate meet at The Point

The Point, in Mossel Bay

Freedom Day, on April 27, celebrates freedom and commemorates the first post-apartheid elections held on that day in 1994. MANSOOR JAFFER, a Wynberg resident, former editor of Cape Community Media and former political activist, shares an encounter with a warder who worked at Victor Verster Prison, where former president Nelson Mandela was held, before his release on February 11 1990.

We pulled into The Point in Mossel Bay two weeks ago. It was grey and cold, but the stunning coastline and the waves breaking on the rocks combined to bring calm to the mind and soul.

In the winding road behind us, there was a big walk. Groups of men and women with numbers on their chests streamed past – some huffing and puffing, others moving purposefully forward.

A small vehicle pulled up next to me as I was standing outside the car. Inside was a retired couple. The woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window smiling and rosy-cheeked.

“Wie is daai mense wat daar stap?” she said.

“Ek het geen idee, Tannie”, I replied.

She started chatting with me about this and that and everything else in between. She spoke 13 to the dozen while the husband sat quietly. It was a nonstop one-way communication about the weather, God, food, the tablets she was on, her struggles with new technology and how her husband always told her she spoke too much.

A big walk straggler came down the road. I hurried over in his direction and found out he was part of a group from Correctional Services.

“Hulle is van korrektiewe dienste, Tannie,“ I reported back to my new friend.

“Oh, Andre was met korrektiewe dienste vir jare,” she said, glancing over at her husband.

“Hy was by Victor Verster in die Paarl.”

“Hoe lank het u daar gewerk?” I asked the husband.

“Van 1971 to 1989. Nelson Mandela was daar voordat hy vry gelaat was,” he said with a clear sense of pride. Tannie started chatting some more, but I interrupted: “Ek was ook by Victor Verster, Tannie. In 1985.”

“Oh, was jy ook ‘n bewaarder?”

“Nee, ek was ‘n gevangene.”

A stunned silence ensued.

From their wary expressions, I could guess what they were thinking and quickly clarified: “Ek was ‘n politieke gevange, Tannie”.

The husband came to life and rattled off about a dozen names of people held at Victor Verster, including Terror Lekota, Saths Cooper and Dullah Omar. He had interacted with all of them.The Tannie intervened.

“Het jy vandag nog haat in jou hart vir ons Europese mense?” she asked curiously.

“Nee, Tannie, ek dink nie dis in my om hele groepe mense te haat nie. Onse struggle was teen die system, nie teen ‘n spesifieke groep mense nie.”

She seemed relieved. She looked earnestly at me and said God would bless me and that we were all children of God.

We greeted each other, and I turned away to open our car door.

The husband leaned over and got in some final words. He had a mildly pained expression on his face. “Die system was sleg, it was die system.”

“Ja, oom, dit was die system.”

He seemed comforted. We waved to each other as we drove off.