The prisons where Nelson Mandela stayed are historic curiosities, but they did not break Mandela's spirit
CAPE TOWN – When James Ellis who worked in catering on Robben Island finally met Nelson Mandela, the feeling was indescribable, he recalled.
"He brought more calmness over me as a person," said Ellis, who met the prisoner after he was released. "I was in tears after meeting him — I was coming from the apartheid era. You never had the opportunity of meeting people like that."
Although not of his own choosing, Nelson Mandela spent much of his life in Cape Town, serving nearly two decades on Robben Island, once a prison that was a picturesque ferry ride from Cape Town's harbor. It is now one of the city's most popular tourist destinations.
On Monday, locals recalled his time there, and the moment he was released. And the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's political party, organized visits to the two lesser-known jails in the area, via a procession of black cars.
In 1982 Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, and in 1988 to Victor Verster Prison, from which he was released in 1990. Unlike Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster (now renamed the Drakenstein Correctional Centre) still hold prisoners - but not political prisoners.
In the leafy southern suburbs of Cape Town, the property surrounding Pollsmoor Prison has gone unexpectedly upscale in recent years. The U.S. Consulate's compound is less than a half a mile away, with a tony mall in-between; across the street is a luxury gated golfing community.
Locals joke about poor people being behind bars on one side of the road, and wealthy people being behind bars on the other.
Today, Pollsmoor is a maximum security prison with a reputation of overcrowding, squalid conditions, and gangsterism.
When Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor, it was an upgrade in conditions, but only just: Instead of a mat, he was given a bed.
Mandela's cell at Pollsmoor today is preserved with photos on the walls, and available for historians to view.
Locals spoke about Mandela's strong belief in an individual's capacity to change for the better.
They also remembered his tastes.
Ellis said that Mandela had a sweet tooth, and made special requests for Ellis' koeksisters (a twisted, donut-like pastry with sweet syrup that is a typical Afrikaner treat).
When Ellis' son was two years old, Mandela told him, "'Please don't let your son work like you are. Let him study.' So it seems that studies was one of the most important things in his life. And I've followed what he has said. My son is 21 years old today, and he has done that. I could not compromise his studies."
Mandela's conditions at Victor Verster, near Paarl, were more spacious and of a higher standard. The space has been maintained as it was when Mandela was there.
"Every time you go, you remember that day [of Mandela's release]," said Delekile Klaas, Regional Commissioner for the Western Cape province. "Seeing this gentle giant walking, raising his fist, saying, amandla (power)."
Klaas pointed out that Mandela reorganized his living quarters to better suit his needs. For example, he decided not to sleep in the room originally designated as his bedroom.
"When he arrived, he showed his jailers that he is in charge," said Klaas. "But I suppose in a very polite way."
"Walking into the house, you get these goose bumps. The house was the start of a new beginning of a new South Africa," said Ellis. "This is where he was kept, away from his family, away from his life. I say to myself, it's unforgivable to keep people away form their lives for such long periods."
Mandela's first public appearance was from the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall. In the past few days, thousands of people have gathered in front of the City Hall to lay flowers in his memory.
Klaas reminisced about Mandela's decision to address Capetonians first, rather than go to Johannesburg. "He said he'd spent 27 years of his life in Cape Town, and he insisted on addressing the people of Cape Town. It was his choice."