Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Breaking out: Escape from Pretoria Prison

Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison

by Tim Jenkin


On December 11th, 1979, three white activists, Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris, escaped from Pretoria Central Prison. All of them imprisoned for underground work on behalf of the African National Congress, they were the first and only activists to escape from Pretoria Central’s ‘political’ wing. Ingeniously, they had made sets of keys in the prison workshop that opened cell-doors and each door leading them outside.

Jenkin’s account begins with his own rejection of an apartheid upbringing and his friendship with Lee, who had reached similar conclusions, while living and working in London. They rather naively presented themselves at the ANC offices and offered to do clandestine work for the struggle. On their return to South Africa, they produced ANC pamphlets and distributed them in Cape Town and Johannesburg by means of ‘pamphlet bombs’ – literally firecrackers that when detonated spread dozens of leaflets into the air. Their operation came to a halt when they captured in Cape Town and put on trial, convicted and imprisoned.

As white political prisoners they were sent to Pretoria Central, which then housed a number of white activists, including Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg and future deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party Jeremy Cronin. Jenkin and Lee were from the start determined to escape and roped a number of their comrades into the plan. For various reasons, in the end only Alex Moumbaris joined them in the actual escape. The cost for those who stayed behind was, Jenkin notes, considerable: drastic reduction of privileges and transfer ultra-maximum security, condemned wing of the prison while security in the political wing was tightened up.

When I first read this book in the late 1980s (one of the privileges of university graduate studies was access to banned books) I was struck by the audacity of the escape, the description of clandestine activity and prison life. Now revised and updated – we read of Jenkin’s subsequent career in the ANC as an exile and his return to South Africa and his role as a designer-manager of the ANC’s website – the book has lost none of its vividness and pace. Its still well worth reading, particularly as a generation have emerged who seem ignorant of their history and self-absorbed: minor though their roles may have been in the great struggle scheme of things, Jenkin, Lee, Moumbaris and their comrades’ story is one of commitment and self-sacrifice that deserves rereading.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

Former spy boss Fraser objects to Zondo’s nomination as chief...

The former director general of intelligence’s character assassination of the deputy chief justice is straight out of the Zuma playbook

Special Investigating Unit to oppose efforts to reject Mkhize report

Former health minister Zweli Mkhize seeks relief to declare the SIU’s conduct against him ‘unlawful and unconstitutional

Bird flu outbreak on Dyer Island causing mass deaths

The island hosts the vulnerable African penguins, endangered bank cormorant and roseate tern

Countries bear cross-border responsibility for harmful effects of climate change,...

The UN committee has been accused of ‘turning its back’ on the children who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint with it against five countries

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…