Where hardened prisoners used to sit and make shoes, there is now a fashion school. Where once convicts had to take their meals in a courtyard, there is now a good restaurant. Project Gateway of Pietermaritzburg has turned city’s Old Prison into a cutting-edge venue for community benefit.

Did you know?

The Zulu king, Dinizulu, spent two years in the old Pietermaritzburg prison.

An old prison that becomes a museum might sound like a grim place to visit, but it actually provides a fascinating insight into the society that built it. Who can forget a visit to Alcatraz, just outside San Francisco? Or a night spent sleeping in the cells of The Old Jail in Philippolis, Free State? The Old Prison in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, is a memorable heritage site. They started building the first cell block in 1862, and later added a gallows, high-security cells and what is thought to have been a torture room.

At first it was one prisoner for each cell. Then the numbers increased, and the cells had to be adapted to take a dozen convicts, all sleeping on mats.

As you tour the old cellblock, you will see all manner of graffiti on the walls. It’s interesting to stop here and try to decipher the meaning of these scratches and scribbles: were they messages to each other, prison gang turf markings, a rude sketch or the desperate last prayer of a condemned man?

Prisoners were a mix of criminals and the politically defiant, and in later years the Pietermaritzburg Prison housed anti-apartheid freedom fighters. In 1989, however, the prison was over-crowded, in a run-down condition and subsequently closed.

A new chapter began for this venue, however, when the Old Prison site was ceded to Project Gateway, a local group of churches working to uplift communities around Pietermaritzburg.

The cell blocks were renovated and prison cells that used to accommodate desperadoes and political detainees were converted into offices, workshops and training rooms.

From the Old Prison, Project Gateway runs empowerment programmes which include training in sewing. The prison workshops which once used to fashion shoes and garden tools has been turned into the Gateway School of Fashion. Its medical department provides support and vital information to those living with HIV/AIDS, and the group’s overnight shelter feeds and houses the homeless every day.

The Old Prison Café is another Project Gateway initiative and has become a popular local eatery. Crafters in need of mentoring have access to Zandla Xpressions, a highly-prized asset to local entrepeneurs.

If you would like to visit the modern facilities or the Old Prison, contact Project Gateway for a guided tour. Why not see it all? Then you can witness how a place of conflict and sadness has now been changed into a space of learning and creativity.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Project Gateway
Tel: +27 (0)33 845 0400
Email: enquiries@projectgateway.co.za

How to get here

The Old Prison stands at the corner of Pine and Burger Streets in the Pietermaritzburg.

Best time to visit

The Old Prison is a year-round attraction.

Around the area

Pietermaritzburg is rich in heritage and various layers of history. Visit the listed Pietermaritzburg Tourism website for all your options in the area. One of the most popular day drives from Pietermaritzburg is to head out to Howick in the Midlands of the province.

Tours to do

The Old Prison offers guided tours of the facility – just ensure you contact them in advance.

Get around

A self-drive to the Old Prison, and from there you embark on a walking guided tour.

What will it cost

Guided tours of the Old Prison cost R20 for adults and R10 for children. The project emphasises, however, that booking for the tour be made in advance – see Contacts.

Length of stay

Set aside at least three hours for your visit.

What to pack

Dress comfortably for a day outing. Bring your camera and memory cards.

Where to stay

Pietermaritzburg has a large variety of accommodation on offer, ranging from upmarket hotels to backpackers' lodges. See the listed Pietermaritzburg Tourism website for details.

What to eat

Have lunch at the Old Prison Café – but be sure to book in advance.

What's happening

Pietermaritzburg stages a host of different events, ranging from the Duzi Canoe Marathon to the Royal Show, with special items like the Comrades Marathon in-between. Check the Pietermaritzburg website for details.

Best buys

Check out the various crafts on offer at Zandla Xpressions, like the Zulu dolls and wooden bowls.