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The waiter’s a thief: dining at South African prison restaurant

The Pollsmoor Restaurant — slogan: Idlanathi (“Eat with us”) — is open to the public, the waiters are prisoners, and so are most of the kitchen staff.

It is not a tourist attraction like Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail and which is now a museum.

It’s just a restaurant in one of toughest prisons in the country where anyone can go for a meal — unless they would prefer the exclusive wine estate directly across the road.

Pollsmoor, set among the upmarket suburbs of Constantia Valley, is notorious not only for Mandela’s stay there from 1982 to 1988 but for the violent gangs that rule its unsanitary and overcrowded cells.

In contrast, the restaurant was spotlessly clean and almost deserted when AFP visited for lunch, apart from a scattering of burly warders in brown uniforms and one couple from the world outside.

“The service is nice, the food is good and is very cheap,” said Arnold Daniels, a 57-year-old businessman, explaining why he and his wife Merina are regulars at the restaurant.

Did they not find it a bit odd to eat a leisurely lunch while thousands of prisoners were cooped up in nearby cells? “It doesn’t bother us,” said Daniels. “It’s not really strange. It’s very safe and we don’t feel threatened at all.”


– Worthy of Masterchef –

The decor of the restaurant, which can seat around 30 people, is, perhaps fittingly, spartan. The metal chairs have red plastic seats, the walls are bare and the floor is scrubbed tile.

But the impenetrable security gates across the French windows are partly hidden by drapes in red and brown with gold piping. And the table mats boast a colourful African mask design.

Fans turn lethargically on the ceiling and pop music is piped continuously into the restaurant. Wearing prison orange trousers under his apron, the waiter greets guests cheerfully and recommends the steak.

The menu is extensive, ranging from “traditional tripe” and ox head to chicken schnitzel, beef cordon bleu and a seafood platter — which, at 60 rand ($3.80) is the most expensive dish.

The waiter said he was given four years in jail for shoplifting. He had seven months left to serve and hoped to get a job in hospitality when he was released. The prison would help with a reference, he said.

The food is good, and the presentation worthy of a “Masterchef” contestant, with herbs and sauces drizzled around the plate.

After the meal, one of the cooks, also in orange prison gear under his apron, stepped into an enclosed courtyard alongside the restaurant for a cigarette.

He was serving five years for car theft, although he insisted he didn’t steal the car himself, simply bought it off someone else.


– Overcrowded cells –

“But I’m lucky to only get five years, because car theft is a very serious offence,” he mused.

He described working in the restaurant as “one of the best jobs in the prison”, but wouldn’t be drawn on life in the cells. “It’s prison,” was all he would say.

Pollsmoor has about 8,000 inmates — twice its capacity — living in conditions described in a report by a judge last year as “deeply disturbing” and “inhumane and appalling”.

Tuberculosis is rife — Mandela contracted TB there — and at least one inmate died last year of leptospirosis, a disease spread by rats.

The restaurant closes at 2:00 pm. Diners head for their cars and the gates, while the waiters and cooks are taken back to their cells and locked up until the breakfast service begins.

Across the road is another high-security, electrified fence, marking the borders of the Steenberg wine and golf estate, but this fence is designed to keep people out, not in.

Traditional Cape Dutch-style gabled white buildings with thatched roofs cluster among expansive green lawns and vineyards against a mountain backdrop.

At Catherina’s award winning restaurant, under umbrellas on the patio, the lunch crowd is dominated by tourists from Europe and the United States.

The menu boasts “sustainable” fish for its ecologically concerned up-market diners. The fish turned out to be hake — the same as that offered at the Pollsmoor prison restaurant, at four times the price.



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