His eyes are red and heavy from a lack of sleep since his arrival at OR Tambo on Saturday morning.
His brown-blond hair, which he cut himself, is long and messy. And his hands are surprisingly soft for a man who spent the past 18 years in Thai prisons.
“I need gentle hands because I’m an artist,” said Alexander “Shani” Krebs, showing off illustrations of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and fellow prisoners.
“With my art, I didn’t feel the time. I was there physically, but my mind wasn’t in prison. But I never saw the stars or the moon for 18 years. Or watched the sunset. You don’t have a window.
“Prison’s a very lonely place. All men crave for a bit of intimacy, even just a hug,” he said. “If you take a bird and clip its wings, I think it would feel the same.”
The biggest lesson he learnt: “No money is worth your freedom.”
Krebs explained: “I was writing a novel, but basically an opportunity came up, lucrative at the time. I went for it and it backfired on me.”
Then aged 34, Krebs was arrested the day before SA’s first democratic elections on April 26, 1994 in possession of 1.2kg of heroin at Bangkok’s international airport. He returned to a different SA the day after Freedom Day, last Friday.
Krebs was sentenced to death, but that was later commuted to 100 years, then 40. He received amnesty on December 5 as Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej was celebrating his 84th birthday.
“South Africa is similar to before, just the roads are a bit more potholed than before,” said Krebs, 52, laughing. “It’s incredible to see people from different races together. We have become a very impressive, integrated society.”
He said the first thing he had asked for when he left prison was KFC and a Pepsi, followed by a bubble bath at his sister’s home in Orange Grove, Joburg, where he now lives.
He tried to sleep on his new king-size bed, but struggled. “The bed threw me off. I slept on a concrete floor for 18 years with a bed made of blankets.” He is trying to make his new bedroom as much like his old cell as possible. “I feel more comfortable locked in a cell… I’m so used to having lots of people around me,” said Krebs.
When he goes to bed he instinctively finds places to hide his cellphone.
He sips on a glass of water, having been clean from drugs and alcohol for 17 years. “If I drank it would numb my brain and I wouldn’t appreciate the beautiful moments,” he said. “I was a mandrax and cocaine addict,” said Krebs.
He said it started with dagga in school, and then, after his two years of military service, he experimented with LCD, mandrax and finally cocaine. “I was more of a drug addict than a dealer. I sold drugs to support a habit,” he said.
His advice to prospective drug mules: “I wouldn’t advise it. Before they get involved in anything, see what the consequences are. The Thai judicial system is very tough on drug trafficking.”
Krebs served in five prisons over 18 years. He said there were no other South Africans in his prisons.
“The last year was probably the toughest,” he said, having spent six months of it in solitary confinement without his paintbrushes. They didn’t give me a reason, but suspected I had a cellphone and could be dangerous.”
Describing the period, he said: “There were three suicides in solitary confinement, and I almost crossed the threshold between sanity and insanity.
“I was taken out of my comfort zone,” he said, meaning an ordinary Thai cell, which he described as “the size of a stall at the Rand Show… You could cook and had a television.”
Krebs says language was initially difficult, but he soon learnt Thai.
“The guards speak English. There was a fair amount of violence in there… it’s do or die in prison, you have no choice. The fittest survive.”
Krebs said that having grown up on the streets and in gangs, “I had the mentality that I was a tiger among tigers”.
He recalled being at a police station in Thailand when Mandela became president. But he said he didn’t follow the news and current affairs much. “It’s a different world that doesn’t relate to you anymore.”
Yet he recalled one of his better memories when he joined a British inmate to make a satellite dish, smuggle in a decoder, and had access to the BBC and CNN for a few months until they got caught.
He also said he had his fair share of chances to escape with other inmates who made it out.
“There were a few escapes over the years, which I knew about, but I wouldn’t have gone because I was hoping South Africa would sign a treaty with Thailand… For a foreigner to escape, it would be difficult. You need help and lots of money on the outside,” he said.
His sister visited four times over the course of his sentence, but he said it didn’t help.
“I didn’t really enjoy it and preferred if they didn’t come. It was too emotional and I couldn’t settle down for months after she visited,” he said.
Krebs enjoyed an eight-year-long relationship with a missionary in Thailand, until she fell in love with his best friend in the cell, a German prisoner on death row.
“After eight years, if you can’t express yourself physically, it’s difficult,” he said.
The wedding was in the visiting area of the prison, but Krebs wasn’t invited.
He has had another girlfriend for the past three years, and they are trying to keep a long-distance relationship going since he returned to SA.
“She bought me art supplies and sent paintings home,” he said.
Her nickname, “Zibs”, is tattooed on his right bicep. “It was love at first sight… and it makes life in prison a lot easier. They used bamboo sticks and needles to do all my tattoos in prison,” he said.
Along his arms and back are tattoos of butterflies and dragons, all done during his time.
“They are symbolic of my time in prison and represent the good and dangerous side of me,” said Krebs. “Prison had made me more understanding and patient and humble… And dangerous if I have to be.
“The real rollercoaster of emotions started when I exited the airport. I’m still reeling. It’s too much to process,” he said.
Krebs’s sister bought him an electronic tablet and an iPhone on his return.
“All this technology is very overwhelming. It’s a new era of people multi-tasking, and this internet is amazing. But I’m learning to type,” he laughed. - The Star