081209. Annanias Mathe under heavy security leaves the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg after being sentenced to 460 years. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Durban - Notorious criminal and serial escapee Annanias Mathe was just a few bricks away from breaking out of one of the country’s most secure prisons last week.

Mathe, dubbed the “Houdini of C-Max” after his daring escape from the Pretoria correctional stronghold in 2006, used a hammer and chisel to break through the wall of his maximum security cell on the third floor of the Ebongweni C-Max facility in KwaZulu-Natal.

The prison houses 1 440 of the country’s most hardened criminals, including convicted serial killer Thosamile Taki and Nigerian terrorist Henry Okah.

Working at night for over four months, Mathe persistently chipped away at the concrete wall of his cell, and is said to have created a 30cm-wide hole and used toothpaste and dust as makeshift plaster to conceal his handiwork.

According to sources in the prison system, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals, the breakout was uncovered on Tuesday after a warder on duty heard noises coming from Mathe’s cell.

“This guy had been using tools to make a hole in his cell, and was just days away from making it big enough to squeeze through.

“He told the warders that he had been digging since June, and that every morning he would use toothpaste, water and the concrete dust to make plaster to cover it up,” one source said.

“Mathe spends 23 hours a day in his cell, and during the hour in which he is allowed to exercise and have a shower, his cell is meant to be thoroughly searched.

“The fact that his escape attempt stretched over four months speaks volumes about the level of security in what is supposed to the highest in the country.”

National Department of Correctional Services management confirmed that the incident had taken place but directed all queries to KZN Regional Commissioner Mnikelwa Nxele, who, despite numerous attempts, could not be contacted for comment.

Mathe was sentenced to 54 years in prison in 2009 after being convicted of a range of crimes, including rape, attempted murder, fraud and armed robbery, after two successful escapes from high-security facilities while awaiting trial.

Fearing another escape after the guilty verdict was delivered, he was flown under heavy guard to Kokstad’s C-Max Prison. - Sunday Argus