Restaurant is toast of the prison that held Mandela

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The Independent Online

The waiter is a convicted thief, the chefs dress in orange prison jumpsuits and guards patrol the restaurant grounds. Bon appetit from the Western Cape's most unlikely restaurant.

While most eating establishments in South Africa's renowned Winelands area around Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch have to fight to retain their best staff, Drakenstein A La Carte in the grounds of Drakenstein prison has to keep a permanent watch to prevent its workers fleeing.

Customers can choose from snails, mussels and mushroom melt starters to burgers, chicken schnitzel, sirloin steak and the present favourite, the chicken and rib combo. There's even a Victor rump on the menu, a reminder of the days when the prison was called Victor Verster, and Nelson Mandela was its most celebrated inmate.

And if you have room, there are desserts including cheese cake, malva pudding or ice cream all washed down with a beer or local vino from Franschhoek, Stellenbosch or Paarl.

The restaurant supervisor, Jacques de Villiers, 40 and the manager, Noel Francis, 51, say the venue offers the inmates a chance to learn a trade and, more importantly, the discipline of working. "We don't have maximum-security prisoners working here, murderers or rapists because it would be too risky and people would not like it," Mr de Villiers said. "We just have petty thieves but they have to go through a long assessment before they are allowed to work."

The restaurant accepts cheques and, rather surprisingly given the staffing arrangements, cash. Alas, any tips have to be handed over to the management.

"A lot of the people we get coming to us have had very hard backgrounds," Mr de Villiers said. "Some have never had a mother or father and have not learnt anything before they leave school. They're very disadvantaged. It's a chance to be in a working environment, learning some discipline, having to get here on time."

Unlike normal restuarant managers, the pair do sometimes have to intervene physically to stop prisoners from leaving.

"You're always counting in your head how many there are. In your mind you're counting them," Mr de Villiers said. "There have been a few escapees over the past two or three years.

"There was one time when I could not see one prisoner. I asked the others where he was and they said he'd gone to the toilet. I walked around looking for him but he'd gone. He was caught a year later in Johannesburg."

The prison, set among picture-postcard wine estates surrounded by mountains under clear blue skies, holds up to 2,000 inmates and 900 officers. Most inmates in maximum security are members of gangs, notorious for brutality.

Drakenstein A La Carte caters for between 60 and 80 "ordinary" customers a week with the remainder of the clientele made up of prison staff or "members" – some of whom live on site – and visiting workers using nearby training facilities.

Guards and managers share banter with the prisoners as they prepare the day's food. Siyabulela Wanda Ntombela, 31, who is three years and eight months into a five-year sentence for burglary, stirs a tray of barbecued chicken, dressed in his orange suit emblazoned with the words "Corrections".

They used to be labelled "Prisoner" but that, the manager, Mr Francis, said with a shrug, was deemed to contravene human rights.

Mr Ntombela, his heavily scarred face betraying a tough life, said he enjoys cooking: "I've worked here for a year and eight months and I'd like to do the same job on the outside."

Alongside him Loren Oktober, 27, two years into a four-year term for stealing cars, was busy organising trays of mixed vegetables and potatoes.

Tall and handsome with a gap-toothed smile, he sports a tattoo with the number of his gang – 28 – on the back of his neck, his arms covered with gang insignia. "I enjoy the smells in a kitchen," he said.

The restaurant has had its successes: one inmate now works in a Cape Town restaurant, another in a Shell petrol station. But there are failures too, with many ex-cons ending up back inside.

"It is very hard for them when they leave because they don't have anyone," Mr de Villiers said. "They have tattoos over their arms which people see and then say, 'We don't want you because you've been to prison'.

"They walk out of here with nothing and they throw a brick through a window somewhere to get money or food and they're back in prison.

"A lot of them go back to gangs who operate outside as well as in here. They are their 'family'."

And what do the customers think? "We get a lot of people coming back so they must think it's OK," said Mr Francis. "They like the chicken and rib combo and Russian [a spicy sausage] and chips.

"We've never had a problem with the prisoners and customers. It's good for people to come in and see how we work."

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