Anyone who’s grown up in Durban will be very familiar with the mural that’s painted on a free-standing wall on the outskirts of the city’s CBD. What many people won’t realise though, is the significance of this wall, which once painted with bright colours, now stands a little dilapidated, having been exposed to the elements for the past twenty-four years. There’s a reason though that the city doesn’t paint over the somewhat tired artwork, and that’s because of what it represents. The wall is one of the last remaining elements of the building that was known locally as ‘Sentele’, the Durban Central Prison, with the nickname coming from the Zulu pronunciation of ‘Central’. Sentele was Durban’s main lock-up facility before Westville Prison was built, and it was here that criminals lived alongside political prisoners, many of whom were held without trial. Petty criminals and people arrested for disobeying the city’s pass laws were housed next to the likes of Mac Maharaj, who was transferred to Sentele after leaving Robben Island in October 1976. In his possession would have been a copy of the manuscript of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which the two had been working on whilst in prison together. Maharaj had transcribed the original manuscript into his own writing, with the original manuscript in Mandela’s handwriting having been buried in plastic coco containers in the prison garden – the original manuscript was found about a year later by workers who were digging up a part of the garden to build a new wall.
So the next time you pass this wall on the corner of Walnut Road and Dr A.B. Xuma Street take another look at it, and maybe you’ll see it in a new light. It represents a dark part of the city’s history, but also a time when people were looking towards the future, whilst trying not to forget the past.
Images courtesy of kznpr.co.za