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.