This house was once a prison

It’s been a hectic season (and not over yet) so had no time for blogging, sorry! Now I don’t know where to start so I’ll start with the one I promised on Facebook. My visit to the house that was Nelson Mandela’s last prison. To recap for those who don’t know: he was moved to this house, on the grounds of what was then Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, because privacy and utmost secrecy was needed for his meetings with a variety of people for the start of the negotiations to release him and unban the various struggle organisations. In other words, to start the process of ending apartheid, preferably peacefully.

Not even other inmates of the general prison, and very few of the staff, knew he was there. The house has a separate road entrance and is quite far from the main prison buildings. The prison is now called Groot Drakenstein, after one of the mountain ranges in the area.

It was quite a mission to organise this visit for a group of French students and some strings had to be pulled but it was finally achieved at the last moment and it was a great success. Surprisingly, we were permitted to take photos but this is the best I could do because there were 21 of us walking all over the house, and I had to do a lot of translating.

house and sep entrance

The front of the house, with the separate access gate in the distance. The front door was seldom used, it was easier to walk in through the kitchen which is typical of many South African homes. The entire prison grounds were once 4 farms and this was one of the farmers’ homes. It is, by the standards of when it was built, approximately in the 1950s, a luxurious house.

bathroom

The bathroom attached to the main bedroom is massive – probably larger than the cell that Mandela lived in for 18 years on Robben Island.

bug

Every room of the house (excluding the pantry), as well as the garden, was bugged by the authorities. Mandela found most of these bugs quite easily as no secret was made of this being done. Except for one in a bathroom which was only discovered quite recently when builders were repairing some loose tiles in the ceiling. Not this one, this is just a regular insect on the exterior wall that I snapped as a reminder of the bug anecdote – clever hey?

20140301_163249

The main bedroom. My photo of the entire room is blurred so this is all I have. The bed is massive and to the left of the bed there are about 15 people standing around – that’s how huge this room is. Mandela slept here for 3 nights and then asked to be moved to a smaller room because he couldn’t sleep in such a large room after cells for so many years.

door knob

This beautiful design is on all the doorknobs of the extensive bedroom cupboards.

living room1

All small items and some larger pieces of furniture have been removed but a few remain. This furniture is so very typical of its era!
The fireplace has a story to tell. Despite the warm summers in this region, Mandela liked having a fire and he needed the extra warmth for the sake of his health. When a stock of firewood was finished, the prison authorities spitefully refused to give him any more because it was not winter. The doctor who visited him regularly simply wrote out a prescription for ‘wood’ and the firewood was delivered without any further protest. That prescription was kept and is now exhibited in the apartheid museum in Johannesburg.

table

The dining room table around which the negotiations took place. The smiling student was at first a bit apprehensive when told that he is sitting at the exact spot where Nelson Mandela sat during those important meetings.

pool

Apparently the prison guards tried to teach Nelson Mandela to swim here but he didn’t make much progress. He liked to sit on the steps and watch the ducks that came to paddle.

reflection

All the windows have one-way reflective glass.
Yeah, that’s me so this is probably a prison-selfie.

garden

The garden was lovingly tended by Mandela but has been left to grow wild since his departure. Unfortunately, none of the rose bushes have survived, but the lemon tree that he planted is big, healthy, and bears fruit.

sleeping giant

The Sleeping Giant.
Word has it that when Mandela was depressed he would gaze out at this mountain range, the Simonsberg, and it would lift his spirits. We were made to stand in a specific place so that we could see it as he did and so that we could understand why he named it the Sleeping Giant. Look at it and you can see the figure of a man lying on his back with his arms folded on his stomach.

freedom gate

This is the main gate into the property grounds and the gate through which Mandela left as a free man. Our guide had been very explicit that we would enter as Mandela did, through the kitchen door, and we would leave the same way he did, on 11 February, 1990.

freedom gate 1

Walking through the freedom gate, as did Nelson Mandela. By the time this tour was over the students were a lot more pensive than when we first arrived.

About Francoise Armour

I run a small touring company (Tours du Cap) at the bottom of Africa, to show visitors the beauty and vibrant culture of the country I have lived in since my parents brought me here from France as a child. I enjoy taking photos and wish I had learnt to do it properly. I enjoy writing but don't do enough of it. I enjoy walking in the mountains that surround me and I marvel over the views and the flowers and the amazing rock formations. I have a small, cute, clever, black dog of indeterminable breed, named Vida, who reminds me regularly that walking and getting out is not only for when tourists want it.

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Disclaimer

A note to all accidental visitors:

I am not a photographer and do not claim to have any particular skills whatsoever in that department. I have enormous respect for those who can see the potential in a scene and can create a great photo. Good photography is an art, in my opinion.

I am just a happy snapper, I have no special lenses or accessories, my camera is very simple and it's usually best to leave the setting on auto.

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