In the heart of the Constantia valley, Pollsmoor Prison sits on 2.5 square kilometres of land with an estimated value of a minimum of R100 million ... prime land now at the centre of uncertainty and controversy. Feasibility studies are presently under way to ‘inform the best and highest use of the property’, but as yet no decisions have been made in terms of its sale. But that’s not the whole yarn. The land, which is now home to Pollsmoor Prison and surrounds, has a story all its own. REBECCA JACKMAN digs up the past.
IT once belonged to one of the first female land owners in South Africa and hundreds of years later would go on to house famous inmates like Nelson Mandela and other Struggle stalwarts.
But the land was not always home to prisoners.
A document detailing the history of the land and how Pollsmoor Prison came to be was issued by the Department of Correctional Services.
It was compiled based on information from prison staff, old newspaper articles, books and Tokai locals.
Situated between luxury homes, golf courses and wine estates, the real story begins in 1662 – 10 years after Dutch colonialist Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape.
It was the year that 22-year-old German widow Catherina Ustings arrived in the Cape, a place she found to be “wild and full of danger”. Her only salvation? To remarry for safety.
But this was easier said than done and Ustings was forced to remarry three times after three of her husbands died. Her first marriage was to a soldier who was killed by a lion. Her second marriage was to an unknown man “murdered by a Hottentot” while her third husband was “trampled by an elephant”.
Unlucky in love, Ustings then married German Matthys Michelse and turned her attention to property, acquiring a piece of land from Governor Simon van der Stel.
This made her the first female land owner in South Africa of the first grape farm in the Constantia valley, which later became Steenberg farm and still borders Pollsmoor today.
In 1795 the Cape was taken over by the British and the “Tokai estate” was established.
It was in 1834 when Hendrick van der Poll bought the land bordering Steenberg and established “Poll’s Moor” farm, where he grew vegetables. Today, vegetables are still grown on a piece of land at Pollsmoor and used to feed offenders.
Van der Poll’s wife Johanna Kirsten’s family inherited the land after the couple died.
Today, the couple’s graves are behind the old Pollsmoor police office.
Kirsten’s family sold off parts of the estate, including a section to then-owner of Steenberg Nicolaas Louw to expand his estate. Pollsmoor Prison today stands on the piece of land purchased by Louw.
It remained part of Steenberg for many years before the section was sold off to become a motor racing track in 1936, owned by a “Mr Edwards”. The Grosvenor Grand Prix Circuit was built, but people called it the Pollsmoor race track. Despite attracting world champions, the track was closed after a couple of years with poor ticket sales to thank for bankruptcy. Parts of the track can be seen on the land where vegetables are now grown.
In 1940 the land was sold to the Cape Command to be used as a military base during World War II.
The land took on many uses including officer’s quarters, a hospital, camps for soldiers and a military prison.
After the war, surrounding farms required prison labour and as prisoners were being brought in from Roeland Street Prison, they established a system in 1948 where they took prisoners to the farms from Monday to Friday, with a guard to watch over them.
The system was not deemed safe and an outpost for prisoners was established at Pollsmoor. At that time there were 20 prisoners, three cooks, four cleaners and 13 workers, and in 1949 a further 200 prisoners were moved there. Now Pollsmoor has 7 952 offenders at the facility and 1 448 staff.
In 1956, the Cape Times’s sister publication, the Cape Argus, reported that the land would become solely a prison and by December 1959 it had become official.
Public Works media spokesman Thami Mchunu said the department was still conducting feasibility studies to “inform the best and highest use of the property”.
“No conclusions have been reached and no decision has been taken on the disposal of this property,” he added.