In Cape Town, Serving Food -- and Time

Gladman, an inmate/waiter at the Pollsmoor Mess, serves at the Cape Town prison restaurant.
Gladman, an inmate/waiter at the Pollsmoor Mess, serves at the Cape Town prison restaurant. (By Barry Sachs)
Sunday, May 22, 2005

A t the Pollsmoor Prison's restaurant near Cape Town, the waiter who served us was also serving two years.

But while he graciously delivered plates of food and topped off our glasses of South African red wine, you'd never suspect that after the last diner had departed, he too went home -- to his cell, where he'd stay until the breakfast shift.

The Western Cape prison, a half-hour drive northwest of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, is recognized more for its apartheid-era significance than for its culinary charms. After Nelson Mandela spent 18 years at Robben Island, he was transferred to the mainland and locked up at Pollsmoor, until his release in 1990. But unlike the infamous island facility that has reinvented itself into a heavily touristed museum, Pollsmoor is still a working prison, with some 8,000 inmates, many of whom are in for life.

Yet, despite the lock-down status, visitors are free to come and go for breakfast, lunch and supper at the Pollsmoor Mess. And while diners initially might be drawn to the novelty of the experience (Eat like a jailbird! Don't forget to tip your inmate! Escape with a full belly!), most stay for the multiple courses of inexpensive international cuisine. A sample menu: calamari and snails for a starter, Greek salad and T-bone steak for an entree, topped off with a banana split and washed down with imported beer or South African vintages grown just beyond the razor-sharp enclosures. The lowest-priced item on the menu is a nickel for a piece of bread; the highest, $13 for a seafood platter of prawns, langoustines, linefish, calamari, mussels and brown bread. Even bottles of wine go for under $10, and you're not drinking sludge water. (By comparison, our meal for three, which cost about $28, including tip and wine, would have covered barely an appetizer and entree at a downtown harbor restaurant.)

"The food is really good and cheap, and the inmates are all qualified in the positions they are doing," says Serfontein de Kock, a 30-year-old local who was seated at a long table of boisterous diners one evening, part of his family's Friday night tradition. "People come from all over. It's not just the wardens; people come from the outside, too."

To be sure, the drive from the guarded gate to Pollsmoor Mess is stark, bleak and gray, even when the sky is brilliant blue and the outlying countryside is a healthy green. The maze of Lego-like buildings is wrapped in barbed-wire fences that stand three men tall. Prisoners' laundry hangs like misshapen flags from the bars of tiny square windows, and I could see smudgy silhouettes against the dirty panes. I reflexively locked the car doors, as if I were in a bad neighborhood.

But once we reached the restaurant, I felt as secure as if I were at Applebee's in the cafeteria-size room of tables set with pretty fake flowers and jars of sunset-colored sand.

"It's safe around here," said Jaco Van Deventer, a frequent customer who was taking a smoke break outside, near the blackboard list of daily specials. "There's no chance of anyone coming in with bombs."

The waiters are so polite and proper, with their tucked-in white oxfords, bow ties and uncreased slacks, it's hard to imagine that they once headed gangs, ran drugs and stole cars. The restaurant is part of the prison's rehabilitation program, in which inmates are taught occupational skills they can apply after they are released. At the Mess, they are taught to wait tables and cook. (Only petty offenders are allowed such freedom; the worse offenders are kept locked up.)

Our server was Gladman, who smiled shyly upon greeting our party of six and did not try to hide his gang tattoo when handing us menus. As the meal progressed, I built up the courage to inquire about his sentence (two years, out March 30), his crime (gang related) and his goals (to work in the restaurant industry).

"You can ask them questions, but don't give them money," said a guard, who was patrolling the dining room and keeping an eye on the waiters and kitchen staff dressed in orange jumpsuits.

Another waiter, who was tending to the loud demands of a table of nine--other diners on a January evening included a couple who seemed to be on a date, a family with two young kids and a large gathering of local fishermen--was more forthcoming. Peter described his crime--something involving a ripped-off car and forged registration--and said he'd been sentenced to four years, with two left.

"I live with 22 people in a cell who are in for robbery, rape and theft. I work every day, on Wednesday a double shift," he said. "I'm a waiter and I like talking to people. But I also write music." Then he fled into the kitchen, to start cleaning up before the waiters were rounded up for the evening walk to their cells.

On our way out, we dropped a tip for Gladman into a locked wooden box that had each waiter's name taped above a slot. We were told that they could use the money at the commissary, for soap, shaving cream and cigarettes. But I hoped that Gladman would save it for his new life beyond the Mess.

-- Andrea Sachs

The Pollsmoor Mess at the Pollsmoor Prison (Steenberg Road, Tokai, Western Cape, South Africa) is open for breakfast and lunch (Monday-Sunday) and dinner (Wednesday and Friday). Hours may vary, so call ahead. Prices range from a nickel for a slice of bread to $13 for a seafood platter; most entrees (even steak) are under $5. It's best to hire a driver for the ride to/from the prison. Reservations required. Info: 011-27-21-700- 1270.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company