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Pollsmoor Prison Blues — Afro-soul singer and former convict Nathi Mankayi gives inmates a boost

Pollsmoor Prison Blues — Afro-soul singer and former convict Nathi Mankayi gives inmates a boost
Nathi Mankayi with inmates in Pollsmoor prison, Cape Town. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Award-winning Afro-soul singer Nathi Mankayi recently visited Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison to talk about his experience in prison and encourage inmates to prepare to be better citizens when free.

Ahead of a performance in Cape Town, ex-convict and award-winning Afro-soul singer Nathi Mankayi, from Maclear, Eastern Cape, reached out to the Department of Correctional Services to request a heart-to-heart conversation with Pollsmoor Prison inmates.

On Wednesday, 11 October, Mankayi surprised inmates with a visit and a heartfelt message in the hope of inspiring them to become better members of society when they are released from prison.

pollsmoor nathi

Nathi Mankayi with the Correctional Services staff in Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town. (Photo: Ziyanda Duba)

Welcomed by Correctional Services National Commissioner Makgothi Samuel Thobakgale, Regional Commissioner Klaas Delekile and acting Area Commissioner Eric Mfenqe, Mankayi’s mission was to be as vulnerable as possible in telling his story so that the inmates could understand that being a slave to crime only brings enemies and a heavy sentence behind bars.

Read more in Daily Maverick: As prison overcrowding rate intensifies, Popcru threatens Pollsmoor strike

Mankayi took inmates back in time, starting from the root cause of his journey into crime.

“My mother had six children and we were very poor. The six of us were so poor that we were known as ‘the children with no lunch money’ at school. My siblings and I eventually became envious of our peers because of everything they had but somehow we lacked. I had so much anger in me that I started to fight and mix myself up with the wrong crowd.”

He became a thief and a robber but was caught and imprisoned. He escaped multiple times before handing himself over to the authorities to finish his sentence.

“In order to become a better citizen when you are free, you have to start doing the work now, while you are in here. It’s all about mindset and knowing who you are and what you want.

“Many people will provoke you once you leave this place because they know where you come from. It is up to you to decide how you will react. It is way easier in here than it is in the real world,” Mankayi said.

Societal responsibility

While Pollsmoor Prison is often associated with overcrowding and violence, the Department of Correctional Services has since 1994 attempted to rebrand it as a place of rehabilitation rather than torture and punishment, to which it was linked during the days of apartheid.

Pollsmoor Prison’s communications manager, Mkhanyisi Sphendu, said rehabilitating offenders was a societal responsibility.

Sphendu said that “on our white paper, it is mentioned that corrections is not solely the responsibility of Correctional Services, it is a societal responsibility. Therefore Nathi, as part of the community, decided to come and be a part of our rehabilitation programme but moreover, he was also an offender that shows that rehabilitation is possible.”

Sphendu said Mankayi’s support for the prison’s rehabilitation programme meant a lot, especially for the inmates who “finally have someone they can identify with”. 

Inmates who attended the event were chosen because of their rehabilitation progress and their need to hear Mankayi’s message so they could “change their ways”.

“The offenders were so excited because the person who was motivating them is someone who went through what they are going through right now. Some mentioned that they really needed to hear what Nathi had to say and said that they like the rehabilitation programmes, but today’s event was the cherry on top,” Sphendu said.

Life inside

There are two entrances to Pollsmoor, the residential side, where the Correctional Services staff members live with their families, and an entrance that leads into the prison. When Daily Maverick visited, inmates in orange overalls were doing yard work under heavy supervision on the residential side. 

Close to the Correctional Service members’ homes are public telephones from where inmates under supervision communicate with their families.  

Inmates are responsible for their own cooking and cleaning of the prison.

The prison, which houses male and female offenders, offers counselling, education, a library, a beauty salon, knitting classes, a choir and other activities to equip inmates with skills for when they return to their communities.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Prison officials explain Ramaphosa’s decision to reduce sentences

Inmate Zanele Dlokweni, who has been in Pollsmoor since 2016 for shoplifting, said, “I’m really happy that Nathi came here today because there are many things that he mentioned that stuck with me and made sense. He mentioned that there are those who get into prison and manage to escape — I’m one of them because I have escaped before.

“I’ve learnt so much from him, especially when he talked about how it is up to me to mentally accept change because you can take the donkey to the river but you can’t force it to drink. Nathi is a great example to us all here. 

“Prison is no way to live. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Once you’re in here you immediately get a sense of alienation. In here there are bullies, there’s name-calling and people forcing you to do certain things in order to be accepted.

“Pollsmoor is a smoking-free zone, but there are certain people who find a way to sneak stuff in and when you dissociate yourself from those people you become their enemy or target. There is so much toxicity in here but we also create bonds and family.”

Dlokweni is due to be released on parole soon and said she cannot wait to get home to her family and nine-year-old daughter and bring about change in her community.

“I have a nine-year-old daughter who does not know that I am in prison. My mother told her that I work at sea. Here we can only call our families on Saturdays and on that day my daughter thinks that I am off-duty and finally have time to talk.

“I am going to gather all the little kids and my peers from my community and let them know about my idea of opening up a book club,” Dlokweni said. DM

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