Boeremag terrorist and 'master bomb maker' who tried to overthrow SA govt says Leeuwkop Prison rehabilitated him

The year is 2002 and a group of 22 extremists dubbed "The Boeremag" are in the dock of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria for the first, highly publicised post-apartheid treason trial - a trial that will drag on for years.

The group, led by Mike du Toit, Dirk Hanekom and Dr Lets Pretorius, had been found with more than 1 000kg of explosives. They claimed responsibility for bombings in Soweto and an attempt to assassinate former president Nelson Mandela.

Among the men who testified was "master bomb maker" and son of Dr Lets Pretorius, Kobus Pretorius. In 2013, Kobus was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, of which 10 years were suspended.

READ: Claims of Boeremag's links to dodgy contracts 'false propaganda' - Boervin

On Tuesday, five years into his sentence, Pretorius blamed his conservative upbringing for leading him to join the Afrikaner right-wing militia group and hailed Leeuwkop Prison in Johannesburg for rehabilitating him.

"Since then, I questioned many things about my upbringing. I have completely changed as a person and I see everybody as the same," he told media at Unit D of the maximum prison.

"I was raised in an extremist home, politically and religiously extremist. Many things I learnt about black people was not true, so I had to unlearn those things to have a love for all people in South Africa, despite their race," he added.


Pretorius spoke on Tuesday during a media tour inside the overcrowded prison.

"It is a little bit cramped in here because of overcrowding, but the prison life is what you make of it," Pretorius, who has been to six correctional facilities, told the media as he administered an engineering exam.

"I prefer this prison [Leeuwkop] because it is an open camp. The other ones were in passages. I was previously a farmer, so I like being out in the open and the fresh air," he said.

An exclusive look into South African prisons

In a bid to provide a peek into the lives of prisoners and the challenges faced in South Africa's correctional facilities, the Department of Correctional Services took the media on a tour of the facility.

"We are currently overcrowded by 38%. To be precise, our approved bed space is 118 723: Yet the inmate population is 164 129," correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said.

The department is of the view that prisons are public institutions and that society ought to know what rehabilitation takes place behind the high fences.

"We often preach about the gift of rehabilitation but as long as people do not have access to the prisons, they will never believe it. That is why society fails to accept ex-offenders once they leave our correctional facilities," Nxumalo said.


Leeuwkop faces several challenges.

The Department of Correctional Services said it ended the 2017/18 financial year with 46 260 awaiting-trial inmates while the infrastructure continued to deteriorate.

"Our focus is on managing levels of remand detainees, consideration of sentenced offenders for parole or correctional supervision, evenly spreading offenders, advocating for non-custodial sanctions/alternatives to imprisonment and optimal use of correctional supervision," Nxumalo said.

Another growing challenge highlighted by authorities was contraband - particularly the use of cellphones.

"These gadgets are used to make threats, plan escapes and in the orchestration of illegal activities even while behind bars," he said.

While 55 patients at the prison have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, they remain stable, according to operational manager, Hessie Gina.

"It is for this reason that we have made the health screening of offenders upon admission a mandatory practice, as it provides an ideal opportunity to detect and treat previously unmet healthcare needs," Nxumalo said.

The department acknowledges progress in the fight against corruption. However, it remains an objective to root out criminal behaviour from correctional facilities.

"A total of 128 staff members were dismissed from the department due to misconduct. We refuse to allow a few rotten apples to reverse the gains we have achieved," Nxumalo said.

Only 0.05% of the inmate population have managed to escape from correctional facilities, but security is seen as a continued challenge.

"It does concern the department that 50 inmates managed to escape from custody in the 2017/18 financial year.

"Inasmuch as we managed to ensure that over 90% of them are recaptured, we must make it impossible for inmates to break our security system," Nxumalo said.

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