Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 30 October 2010 12:01 UK

Brutal South African jail changes ex-convict's life

Sammy Matsebula
"It was a hard time, but prison was effective for me," says Sammy Matsebula

The hardships Nelson Mandela endured in prison in South Africa exposed the terrible conditions in the country's jails. Hamilton Wende met a former convict outside Leeuwkop Prison near Johannesburg who survived the notorious prison brutality to turn his life around.

The Elvis Presley tie is the first thing I notice.

"He's my role model," Sammy Matsebula tells me. "I love his music."

Sammy is neatly-dressed in a quaint, old-fashioned way with well-polished shoes, dark jacket and silver tie-clip.

We are standing in the grounds of a prison outside Johannesburg where he conducts tours for schoolchildren to teach them that "crime doesn't pay".

He was a detective who turned criminal, and in 1993 he and his accomplices ambushed a security van.

Man sitting on bucket in prison overalls in Leeuwkop Prison
You come to a point in prison, where you realise: I can be something else
Sammy Matsebula, ex-convict

Sammy blocked the van with a police vehicle while the others attacked it with automatic rifles and a hand grenade.

It was a messy, brutal affair. One of the guards was killed and a gang member wounded. Sammy was sentenced to 22 years in prison, of which he served 12 before he was paroled.

"I had never done crime before," he says.

"I was scared. It was a terrible moment after everything had happened.

"When we drove away the question was just in my head: 'Why did I do this?'"

By midnight he had been arrested.

"That first day when I came to prison," he tells me, "I saw people stabbing each other.

"I felt fear. I saw that you had to look after yourself always, when you get your food, even when you go to the toilet."

'Odyssey of suffering'

It was the beginning of an extraordinary odyssey of suffering and of courage.

"When I arrived in prison," he says, standing now outside the high fences and rolls of barbed wire.

"I had an opportunity to discover who I was. I committed a crime I am not proud of." He pauses.

"I feel bad, even though I didn't kill anyone myself, I regret it."

It is a scorching hot day and beads of sweat are forming on Sammy's forehead, but he never loses his composure.

"You come to a point in prison, where you realise: I can be something else.

Men in the maximum security exercise area of Leeuwkop Prison
Prisons in South Africa are notoriously overcrowded

"Prison makes you what you want to be. If you want to be a thug, then you will become worse, but if you are willing to change then you can become someone different."

South African jails are notoriously overcrowded. There is no privacy, and they are often violent.

Sammy had to face the demons of his past sitting on a narrow bunk bed surrounded by all the other prisoners, some of whom he feared.

"I treated the warders and the other inmates with respect," he says. "Then I asked for a transfer. I wanted to get away from my co-accused. That was when I really began to change."

There is a seriousness about Sammy that hints of the pain he has undergone.

He studied music, learning the guitar, drums and specialising in the piano.

As I came out of the hospital those same guys were coming in
Sammy Matsebula, ex-convict

One of the main elements in Sammy's changing life in prison was that his family visited him often and were very supportive.

It was a devastating blow when his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash by criminals in a car being chased by police.

"Can you imagine?" he says. "I couldn't pay my last respects to them."

Still, he persevered with his determination to better himself.

"I achieved so many things. 'It's not over,' I used to tell others. 'Keep respecting yourself.'"

Stabbed with spoon

But his positive outlook enraged the prison gang-lords. When he started a gospel choir, it was the final straw.

"Some of us met to pray. One night after praying they were just about to lock us up in our cells.

"I went out of the hall and two guys were waiting. They used a prison spoon that they had sharpened.

"They stabbed me in the back. I fought to defend myself and the warders rescued me. They took me to hospital."

But prison morality is simple, and brutal.

Juvenile section at Leeuwkop Prison
Sammy tells youngsters that the road to prison can begin at school

"I never realised until then," he says, "how many people liked me."

Other prisoners retaliated on Sammy's behalf.

"They stabbed those two guys. As I came out of the hospital those same guys were coming in."

Still, his stance angered many in the prison.

"In 2006 I was poisoned. I had to spend a month in hospital. They even had to operate on me. To this day I don't know who did it."

Finally the day came that he will never forget.

"On 11 July 2008 I was released. Looking back it was a hard time, but prison was effective for me."

He didn't return home, but moved to another township where he could start again.

"I didn't feel shame that I was an ex-convict. I let the young people know about my experiences.

"Many of them think that prison is just for animals.

"But I tell them prison can be for anyone, that the road to prison can start at school, with stealing a ballpoint pen, or even bullying another kid.

"I don't want the youth to waste their lives."

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Country profile: South Africa
21 Jun 11 |  Country profiles

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