Being part of an intensive rehabilitation programme in 10 of South Africa’s prisons would be a life-changing experience under any circumstances.
But Zara Porter’s three months among convicts of ‘The Rainbow Nation’ also coincided with the death of the legendary Nelson Mandela, which made it all the more poignant.
The trip included two visits to Robben Island where ex-President Mandela spent 18 of his 28 years in prison. Her first trip to Robben was before the great man passed away, and the second was after his death. “The initial one was a touristy type excursion as a break from our rehab project,” said Zara (22) whose home is in Richhill. “The second was even more meaningful and emotional. On the boat for the half-hour trip, were hundreds of the black population who danced and sang to celebrate the life of such a great man.
“It was especially moving that the only change to the Mandela cell was a simple candle burning brightly. That will live with me for a long time.”
Her only regret was having to leave South Africa on the day of the major memorial event at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. By then, she had been joined by her parents Lewis and Sadie Porter and by brother Adam. “We made a holiday of it for the last three weeks. It was humbling to realise just how much Nelson Mandela meant to South Africa by sweeping aside the apartheid years”, said Zara.”Dad had booked the second trip to Robben Island a month in advance - otherwise it would probably have been booked out.”
A former student of Portadown College, Zara graduated earlier this year from the University of Glasgow in history and film. Not having landed a job, she saw an advert on-line that the Andrew Murray Centre, a Christian missionary organisation in Wellington near Cape Town, wanted volunteers to assist with their intensive rehab programme. It aims are to assimilate inmates back into their communities, mainly the ramshackle townships that dot the map of South Africa. (Khayekitsha, Cape Town, for example, has a population of around 400,000, of whom 99 per cent are Black African).
With her university education and dedicated membership of Richhill Methodist Church, Zara landed the challenging post. She found herself one of a team of 10 counsellors, which included two rehabilitated inmates, one of them a black man, and the other a ‘coloured’ of mixed race and a former crystal meth addict.
“I quickly found that the blacks had benefitted by the changes, but the standing of the coloureds hasn’t followed suit,” said Zara. “It soon became clear that the population of the comprehensive jail system was overloaded by male residents of the notorious townships. You wouldn’t believe the way the women have to take so much responsibilty for running the townships.”
The team also included two Americans, there was a German and a Dutch volunteer and the rest were South African. Of the 10 jails Zara visited, four stood out in her memory, all in the greater area around Cape Town.
The biggest was Pollsmoor, with 8,000 prisoners - men, women and juveniles, with crimes as diverse as murder, rape and armed robbery. “With the use of the Bible and Christian ethos, the driving principle is not to preach, but to point out that they are needed in their communities and with their families,” said Zara. “The South African attitude is rehab rather than locking the cell door and throwing away the key.”
Even more intense was the maximum security jail at Malmesbury, where Zara was encouraged by the rapport between the team and the most hardened of criminals. “The inmates understood that the Bible could empower them, and there were many stories of successes - the prisoners also listened intently to the two ex-convicts in our party.”
At Hanequa, near Wellington, an ‘open prison’ regime pointed out that their prisoners had helped construct the town’s public park.
At Robben Island, she discovered that Nelson Mandela had spent his years in a 9’x9’ cell. “Robben Island is about the side of Rathlin”, she said. “The guides were former inmates, and some were so proud to have served with Mandela.
“ It’s very tourist orientated, with Mandela shirts, mugs and other trinkets for sale. The second visit showed the true Mandela reaction, with the Blacks singing and dancing non-stop. That candle was just right - nothing else was added in the cell.”
Her family was deeply moved by another experience. In one of the mainland jails inmates sang them a series of songs and hymns - a quartet in intricate, African harmonies, as a reward for Zara singing for them earlier in the visit.
The Porters heard of Nelson Mandela’s death in a rather bizarre way. They were staying in self-catering accommodation in a village called Noordoek (mainly White and about the size of Richhill) when Lewis received a text from Lawrence Andrews, a friend back home, asking if they would be able to go to the funeral. “We hadn’t been watching the news and that’s the first we heard of it,” said Zara. “The reaction in the village was rather muted, although they did erect ‘Goodbye Mandela’ signs and were obviously touched.
“How I wish we had been in one of the townships where they really let their feelings known with their singing and dancing. I’d been in one or two them as part of my project and they don’t hold back!”
Said Zara, “I was surprised at the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death. People thought the country would erupt. But that hasn’t happened, although there is still some way to go. Sadly, President Zuma (ANC) seems to have caught the African illness of corruption, the whites still own most of the wealth, although the blacks are slowly upwardly mobile. But the coloureds haven’t benefitted in any way. Let’s just say there are interesting times ahead.
“I fell in love with South Africa and I aim to return. It was an enriching experience I will never forget.”