Escapism

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South Africa: Tracing my grandfather's incarceration

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The former Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, now houses a luxury hotel and a tertiary institution. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Pandrcutts
The former Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, now houses a luxury hotel and a tertiary institution. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Pandrcutts

Prison tours are not an uncommon form of holiday diversion - Alcatraz in San Francisco, Port Arthur in Tasmania, Robben Island off the coast of South Africa. All attract thousands of visitors a year.

But the former Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, just a few minutes' walk from the rejuvenated Victoria and Alfred* Waterfront, isn't high up on the list of must-see prisons.

It's no mouldering ruin, however, but has been transformed into a luxury hotel and a tertiary institution; which is why the receptionist was a little surprised when I arrived recently, not to book in, but to see where my grandfather had been incarcerated.

I need to point out, as I did promptly to the receptionist, that my grandfather was not of the murdering, molesting or generally malevolent kind of criminal.

He was a Kiwi who'd volunteered to fight in the Boer War, setting sail from Lyttelton along with his horse. He had also lied about his age, so got to celebrate his 18th birthday in Cape Town.

Already a busy port enlivened by traffic to and from the gold and diamond mines inland, the influx of troops from Britain and its colonies would have ensured the city had all the essentials for a riotously good celebration.

No-one seem to know exactly what grandfather did to get arrested for disorderly conduct but whatever it was meant at least a one-night stay in the Breakwater Prison, which at the time was designated for white male prisoners who had committed relatively minor misdemeanours.

The walls and round towers of Breakwater are still forbidding today although their fresh paint of off-white makes the building a less depressing sight than would have confronted my hungover grandfather.

But inside, there's no hiding this hotel's origins.

There are the long inner courtyards overlooked by walls several storeys high, off which are doors into rooms that are unmistakably cell-like.

Today, the central courtyard has a fountain, trees and flowers - no doubt it looked less like a welcoming oasis more than a century ago.

The receptionist-turned-guide took us out of the main prison precinct to show us something my grandfather would not have been subjected to. Before the prison was segregated for only white prisoners, black convicts had also been housed here.

Recalcitrant prisoners were forced to spend eight hours a day on the treadmill, a cruel punishment device that has been retained at the end of what was a row of isolation cells.

It looks rather like a water wheel but instead of water powering its revolutions, prisoners were forced to spend their days treading its steps. If they slacked off, the next step would lacerate their ankles. They were given only five minutes' rest an hour.

The treadmill was constructed in 1890 but fell into disuse after the prison was gradually converted to white-only convicts. This followed an explosion in white offenders, most of whom were guilty of IDB (illegal diamond buying).

A wall beside the treadmill and the isolation cells is inscribed with the names of some of the prisoners. There was no sign of my grandfather's name - maybe he wasn't incarcerated long enough to do so.

I have no idea where he did his carousing but it could well have been around the Victoria and Alfred basins, which form part of the V and A Waterfront, now one of Cape Town's most popular destinations for visitors and locals.

If he could see it now he'd be stunned by the transformation from what was a typical working port to a precinct of upmarket restaurants, cafes and boutiques.

Some guide books are a bit sniffy about the V and A (presumably for the same reason that some critics turn their noses up at any film or book that proves particularly popular), however I enjoyed it, not least because it is still an active harbour. Sure, much of the water traffic is cruise vessels but there are also fishing boats and tugs chugging in and out.

One of the best places to watch harbour life is beside the 1883 Clock Tower, where a pedestrian bridge swings across the water on request as ships pass back and forth.

When there are no vessels on the move, watch out for the local colony of seals who sunbathe on rocks and tyres nearby, or float on their backs in the shipping basins, lazily flapping their flippers.

Near the Clock Tower is the ferry terminal for trips to Robben Island, where former president Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Keep in mind if you plan to make this journey it is one of the most popular activities in Cape Town so is often fully booked and is also subject to sea conditions. All sailings were cancelled the day we'd planned to go and there were no tickets left on our back-up day.

Although the V and A now attracts more overseas visitors than any other location in South Africa it is clearly also popular with the locals - of all hues and ethnicities. There are buskers, too, including gospel choirs and traditional African musicians.

If you visit, allow enough time to both take time to watch the world go by in the cafes and bars and to listen to the music. There are also some great shops selling African crafts and art work - if this is your only stop in Africa you'll find almost everything you could want here - from delicate bead bracelets to two-metre-tall wooden giraffes.

There's also a novel twist to experiencing African wildlife, if you're not squeamish or vegetarian.

One restaurant specialises in southern African cuisine- and that means not only great beef but also ostrich, impala and springbok.

The latter, for a passionate All Blacks supporter pre-the World Cup, was apparently especially delicious.

* It really is Alfred - it is named after Queen Victoria's second son.

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