IT'S at the gate with the naive hand-painted “Enter At Own Risk" sign with the crooked letters that I ask if they have a Just Visiting badge for me. I might be in the leafy suburb of Tokai, but this is Pollsmoor and you need to plan your Great Escape at the gate.
It was on the Facebook group Cape Town Restaurants where I read that you can have a meal in the restaurant at the prison, called Idlanathi (Zulu for “eat with us").
A panoramic view of a vineyard with the Cape Dutch gable of Jonkershuis in the background is more my type of thing, but who isn't curious about a prison?
Online feedback about the restaurant is varied. A nostalgic vintage bride recollects that her memorable reception took place there. The one-night-only highlight of her life. A man answers underneath: “Are You Crazy?" Knit one, slip one, it feels to me.
At home, I wondered whether a pie and gravy at Pollsmoor could really be my spirit animal, but the gate opens and my GPS leads me through a neighbourhood of 1960s public service houses.
The place feels morbid, like Voortrekkerhoogte (now Thaba Tshwane), but is home to 1,300 residents. The plots are large, with overgrown lawns. In a corner of a yard a damaged coral tree has been pruned unrecognisably, flowers chirping with open beaks to the grey sky like red bishops.
The houses have understated mid-century exteriors, painted in that public service terracotta which has turned into faded orange after three decades. Washed out like a flag that has hung in the sun for too long.
I arrive at the Pollsmoor mess. Rush hour it certainly isn't.
In the entrance hall there is a display case with silver trophies, a large contemporary South African flag in the middle of the room and an installation of five portraits of politicians against a clinker brick wall. Cyril in the middle.
I search in vain for a portrait of Nelson Mandela, who also spent time here. On the back wall, an “artistic" person has installed a rubber plant with a painting of a fiery Spanish dancer as a focal point behind the flag. Two paintings of landscapes with aloes in pictorial orange, white and blue hang left and right like deputy presidents.
The artworks feel like props. A remnant of the previous regime. I think to myself: this place would be the ideal home for that painting with the springbok orange sunset of an impressive rock formation just this side of Asab in Namibia. The artist, CJ Versteegh, made a killing during apartheid by painting The Finger of God over and over again. God's finger collapsed on December 7, 1988. A natural disaster that looked more like karma to sceptics like me.
For me, the fall of this rock has always had the same symbolic value as that other dramatic collapse 13 years later of the statue of the prominent apartheid leader JG Strydom in a parking lot in Pretoria. The bronze head broke in two like a skull just this side of Church Street. To me, it seemed to herald the end of the schizophrenic age of Afrikaner Nationalism.
Chips with everything
After the introduction to the Africana, the trophies, the Phala Phala president and the rubber plant, I walk into Idlanathi and sit at a black table with fake marble stripes. The only customer.
A friendly inmate places the laminated menu in front of me and immediately says only three options are available today: chicken schnitzel and chips; Russian and chips; or the chicken schnitzel, Russian and chips combination. I ask for a moment to consider my options and study the menu like a burnt-out columnist scouring Facebook for his next idea. I'm hesitant about a Russian. Look what happened to that cargo ship in Simon's Town.
I order the schnitzel and chips and rooibos tea. A mere five minutes later, a piece of flattened chicken arrives. Deep fried in crumbs with a luxurious 2cm thick Maizena cheese sauce on top. A sprinkling of cayenne pepper completes the scene of the crime. The chips are as thick as the fingers of a man of five foot six.
I drizzle vinegar over the fingers and scrape around the plate with the fork and the blunt knife.
Out of sheer boredom, I turn over a packet of Huletts sugar and read what is written on the back. Perhaps it contains a pearl of wisdom, like a Chappies wrapper: “I don't want to be frightened by the fact that a person has made certain mistakes and he has got human frailties." Robben Island's peacemaker, Nelson Mandela, I realise.
I chew on a piece of chicken as well as the wise words and ask the prisoner for the bill. I'm no cheat and here I certainly will not risk dodging payment — you don't want to linger too long at Pollsmoor.
Art in Pretoria Central
As I wait for my bill, my subconscious takes me back to the mid-1990s, to Pretoria Central prison. It is now known as Kgoši Mampuru II. I was a newly graduated art student with Paris, France in my sights. Opportunities for visual artists in Pretoria were rare and when the prison invited me to judge its arts and crafts competition, I agreed.
Two wardens led me through the gates, locking them behind me each time. It felt like Vyfster on TV with Skollie, the character I named my bull terrier after. I was escorted to a hall where I was overwhelmed by the amount of artworks. No names were indicated; I had to rate them anonymously.
Judging the ceramics section was straightforward. The biggest pinch pot got the prize. The craft section was won by the metre-long “Dromedaris Donder" sculpture of a ship constructed from matches. Just don't set it alight.
In the painting section there were copies of Huisgenoot illustrations and flights of imagination to islands, but the winner was the one with the tiny 1cm lines that repeated obsessively. A minimalist surface built up by the countdown of time. It was an honest expression of where the person found himself in time and place.
But one particular sculpture of two figures stays with me to this day: a small, realistic figure of a man with detailed features was in conversation with a second image of a large, towering figure of a woman. The woman was almost three times the size of the man. The absence of her features gave the image a ghostly quality. Was it a husband and wife or a son and mother? The anonymous victim for whom restorative justice was denied? The work was disturbing and even Freudian. I found the creepy image captivating and it won first prize.
The warden led me outside and I asked him who created the sculpture. He withheld the name with these words: “Attempted murder." I felt guilty.
Years later, I read in the newspaper how Alison Botha had written the names of her attackers and rapists, who had left her for dead, in the sand with her fingers. She crawled to the road. She kept her intestines together with a shirt that she tied around her stomach. Her neck had been slashed open with a blunt knife. There was an attack on her abdomen. Her womb. I reeled.
I paid the bill at Pollsmoor's Idlanathi. I drove through the gate at the exit and the “Enter At Own Risk" sign disappeared into the rearview mirror as I turned left. Fleeting, like a bad decision. The drive away from there felt like an escape.
♦ VWB ♦
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