By David O'Sullivan

Once one of South Africa's most brutal killers, former Vlakplaas security policeman Almond Nofomela says he's a changed man. Now serving a life term for murder at Pretoria Central Prison, Nofomela is relaxed and friendly - a far cry from the surly, haunted figure who blew the whistle on hitsquad activities 12 years ago.

On the evening of October 19 1989, Nofomela made a dramatic confession from his death row cell just hours before he was to go to the gallows. He told horrific tales of torture and murder at the notorious Vlakplaas police farm, which backed up earlier statements from renegade captain Dirk Coetzee, and saved him from the hangman's noose.

Nofomela is well known among the murderers, rapists, robbers and hijackers at Pretoria Central, whose lives he is now trying to change.

"I was duty bound (to make the confession about Vlakplaas) and I regret that I was involved in such activities. Now that I'm in prison, I've undergone numerous rehabilitation programmes. If I was given the chance, I believe I would lead a very positive life outside prison."

Speaking in a rare interview in the prison courtyard, Nofomela openly reflected on how his life has changed. "Prison has been a blessing in disguise," he said. "I'm remorseful, but my eyes have been opened. I appeal to all those I've wronged to forgive me."

It has been a long road to rehabilitation for Nofomela, but not one he has had to walk alone. He has a soulmate in prison, convicted armed robber Lucky Khumalo. "Lucky is a brother to me," said Nofomela. "He motivates me, and together we are trying to bring about structures in prison to help inmates get away from gangsterism and do something positive."

Nofomela and Khumalo have organised activities such as amateur dramatics in the prison. They are particularly proud of their traditional Zulu dance group. They have also started discussion groups on Aids, and help to spread information on computer courses and business management courses among the inmates.

"We are seen as role-models," Khumalo said. "We need to keep the inmates busy, and away from negative things. At times there's a lack of support, but we do it from our hearts and we persevere."

Nofomela is aware of the impact his hitsquad confession had on future political developments in the country. He said prayer had guided him the night he told the awful truth.

"It was a very stressful time. (The gallows) were like a big, black cloud in front of me. I sometimes think I should have been dead.

"I'm very different now. I focus on positive things. I want to make a difference in people's lives. We try to make this place a better place, even though we encounter problems."

He's frustrated that the prisoners aren't allowed to use football fields outside the prison walls, but are forced to use a dusty courtyard.

Nofomela refuses to speculate on a possible early release. "That's in the hands of Correctional Services," he said.