On foot and needing to get to a border‚ fast – Daniel Radcliffe’s new role on famous ANC prisonbreak

22 May 2017 - 16:32 By TMG Digital
British actor Daniel Radcliffe.
British actor Daniel Radcliffe.

BOOK EXTRACT: On the night of 11 December 1979‚ Tim Jenkin‚ Alex Moumbaris and Stephen Lee broke out of Pretoria Central Prison.

In his book ‘Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison’‚ first published in 2003‚ Jenkin describes their first moments of freedom on a hot summer’s night:.

“We were out‚ not yet away‚ but out.

The distance to the traffic lights was only about 100 metres but the sudden ability to see that far‚ and further‚ was a most curious sensation.

For nearly two years Stephen and I‚ and Alex for nearly seven‚ had not been able to see further than the end of the prison yard. Now suddenly the world seemed so big‚ seemed to stretch so far into the distance that it would quickly swallow us up."

  • Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe to star in SA anti-apartheid prison break moviePopular British star Daniel Radcliffe will star in an anti-apartheid film based on Tim Jenkin’s account of his dramatic escape from the notorious Pretoria Maximum Security Prison in 1979. 

After jailing a cab with old cash they were relieved to find was still legal tender‚ the trio headed for the bus station in Johannesburg station before splitting up - Stephen to friends in the city while Alex and Tim head for the Swaziland border.

"We shook hands‚ wished each other luck and said we would meet again in London.

If you have no wheels the only way to get somewhere is on foot. So we set off eastwards.

To sustain us on our journey we stopped at a shop and bought some sweets‚ a large slice of cheese and two cartons of milk. After the skimmed‚ powdered ‘milk’ we’d had in prison the fresh‚ creamy milk glided down our throats like nectar.

The night was warm and calm and walking through the fresh air was invigorating after years of breathing stale wall-bound prison air. The sense of freedom was intoxicating."

After a walk of 40km‚ the prospect of another 200km to the Swaziland border was “not inviting”‚ so the pair took the risk of hitchhiking along some of the route and stopping for food supplies.

We talked very little and kept close to each other for comfort. Both of us felt desperately tired. Several times I actually fell asleep while walking.

Our food was all eaten and we began to feel progressively weaker‚ but the thought of friendly territory close at hand gave us succour.

As the first taint of dawn pierced through the misty sky we came to a T-junction where a signboard indicated 2km to the border gate. Both of us visualised the border as a high barbed wire fence‚ possibly two fences with a strip of no-man’s-land in between. Maybe there would be dogs‚ land mines‚ alarms‚ who knew? At a point where the trees ran up to the stream we stepped over it and scrambled up a steep bank on the other side that was cleared of vegetation. At the top of the bank was a rough track and along the other side of it dense bush that appeared to have been cropped so that it looked vaguely like a hedge.

We came to a small African stone hut. As we stared at it we simultaneously came to the realisation that we might actually be in Swaziland.

In Mbabane the first thing we did was to buy newspapers to see what sort of response there had been to the escape. It was headlines in all the South African papers. Most insulting of all was the offer of a R1‚000 reward to anyone offering information leading to our recapture. Was that all we were worth!

What next? In the light of no other bright ideas we took a taxi to the United Nations building in the town. At first the worker‚ a Swiss woman‚ was reluctant to believe the fantastic story but when Alex showed her his mug-shot emblazoned on the front page of the newspaper he carried‚ she hurriedly told him to summon me from outside so that she could hear more and decide what to do.

The Swiss woman made some hasty phone calls and then took us in her car to see the High Commissioner for Refugees himself‚ a man by the name of Godfrey Sibidi‚ a Ugandan citizen. He found our tale fascinating and laughed his head off when we explained how we had done it. It was good to share our victory with someone in sympathy with what we had done. He sent one of his staff to buy us some food‚ which was our first proper meal since the last midday meal we had eaten in prison two days before. Food never tasted so good.

After waiting for a couple of hours in the room the Commissioner drove us some distance out of Mbabane in his car to what appeared to be a seminary or church school of some kind. Having delivered us to the ANC the Commissioner bade farewell.

Then Alex did something for which I have never forgiven him.

The Commissioner had expressed great interest in the ‘pea’ (short for ‘pea-shooter’‚ a wooden model of a Beretta copied from old Reader’s Digest in prison)‚ which Alex still carried tucked into his belt under his shirt. As a token of gratitude Alex handed him the ‘pea’ as a souvenir. Since we possessed nothing else to offer as a gift it would have seemed rude if I had objected too loudly. That was how we lost the ‘pea’.

In the dormitories we were given soap and towels to have a shower. What luxury it was just to stand in those showers and let the water do the scrubbing. After two days’ walking and after diving into muddy ditches the night before our bodies had accumulated a great deal of sweat and grime. The warm water soothed our tired and aching limbs. Alex had trouble just standing up as his feet were massively swollen and his leg muscles so stiff that they were virtually incapable of flexing. Both of us just collapsed on the beds that were offered to us after the shower.

The trip across the border into Mozambique went awry when they were apprehended by border police with guns given to them by their ANC escort. Their release was negotiated by the ANC and they were driven at high speed to a high-rise safe apartment in Maputo.

The flat was well equipped and had an endless supply of alcohol.

After settling in‚ a nurse arrived to attend to Alex’s feet‚ which by this stage were so swollen and painful that he had difficulty in removing his shoes.

After a few hours of adapting to our new role as ‘guests of the State’ our mentor asked if there was anything special he could bring us to eat. In unison we explained that in prison our dream had been that as soon as we arrived in Mozambique we would like our first meal to be giant prawns‚ for which the country is famous. Not believing for one moment that this fanciful wish would be fulfilled‚ that evening the most incredible meal of giant prawns arrived on silver platters from the famous Hotel Polana.

Thereafter three times every day until we left the flat similar enormous meals arrived from the Hotel Polana.

Outfitted with clothes and shown the sights‚ they were flown to Luanda in Angola via Lusaka. This was where they were able to speak to their loved ones for the first time and where Stephen rejoined them. The day after addressing an ANC press conference with its leadership in Lusaka on January 2‚ they were flown to Dar-es-alaam in Tanzania and from there to London.

Alex and I were jubilant – Stephen was safe and the fact that we’d all made it meant that we had well and truly beaten our enemy. We had grown increasingly apprehensive that something dreadful had befallen him because it was then about ten days since the escape and there had been no word of him.

Stephen told us how he had holed up in Johannesburg for several days with friends and how he had been escorted to and accompanied across the Swaziland and Mozambique borders by ANC members. From Mozambique his story was much the same as ours: he had also been kept in a flat and been fattened on Hotel Polana food; he had also been bought a suitcase-full of new clothes and travel goods.

Freedom for each of us meant much more than just release from captivity. By freeing ourselves we drastically reduced our sentences: Alex by five and a half years‚ Stephen by six and a half and I by ten and a half. But‚ in our small way‚ we had proved that the apartheid regime is not invincible.