Madiba 90

'An experience of a lifetime'

2008-07-18 14:40

Special Report

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Cape Town - Inmates of the prison where Nelson Mandela took his first steps to freedom, on Friday joined in the celebrations for his 90th birthday.

The Drakenstein correctional facility near Paarl in the Western Cape was formerly known as Victor Verster prison.

It was there that Mandela was held in what used to be a warders' house on the prison grounds, in the months before his release.

Western Cape correctional services spokesperson Mark Solomons said a prisoners' choir and a band performed at the house on Friday morning for a live broadcast on SABC television.

"These guys were so eager to be part of the programme," Solomons said. "They were all ready, they were all hyped up, excited. It's an experience they will remember for a lifetime."

Prisoners who had created portraits of Mandela handed them over to Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour, who would ensure they were given to the nonagenarian.

Solomons said Drakenstein would host a dinner on Friday night, with former political prisoner Tokyo Sexwale as guest speaker, for about 1 000 guests, including prisoners.

"We are saying Mr Mandela is 90 today; he gave a lot back to the country, he united us. The old Victor Verster is where he walked to freedom, so for us it is only fitting the celebrations should be here where he left our institutions."

Solomons said prisoners at Pollsmoor, the Western Cape's largest prison, where Mandela was also held at one stage, attended an emotional prayer service on Thursday.

"In the prayer service some of them came out and apologised to the community and to Mr Mandela for the crimes they committed," he said.

Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail, was also abuzz with activity on Friday, with live radio and television broadcasts.

Members of the Ajax and Santos soccer teams were due on the island mid-morning to kick a celebratory 90 soccer balls, while two runners were to embark on a 90km run around the island.

At noon pupils of the island's primary school are to sing for Mandela, who is spending the day in his Transkei home village of Qunu.

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