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Breaking out: Escape from Pretoria Prison

Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison

by Tim Jenkin

(Jacana)

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.

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