Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency/ANA

Cape Town - Suspected car thieves fleeing police in South Africa drove straight into the grounds of a notorious maximum-security prison that once held Nelson Mandela, police said Monday.

A police patrol spotted the car on Sunday as it was being driven in the Tokai suburb of Cape Town after having been reported stolen from the affluent area of Hout Bay.

As police gave chase the four "fled into Pollsmoor prison", city police spokesman Wayne Dyason told AFP.

The suspects -- whom the local media have dubbed the country's "dumbest criminals" -- were arrested in the prison grounds.

According to a prison official, the men accessed the complex through an entrance that leads to the wardens' residential area, and then abandoned the car before heading off on foot.

"They entered through the gate where the officers live, and that is where they were caught," Correctional Services spokesman Singabakho Nxumalo told AFP.

Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison holds some of the country's most notorious criminals and gangs.

Former president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor in 1982 after serving 18 years at Robben Island. He was transferred to Victor Verster prison in 1988, before being released in 1990.

Last year, an average 146 cars or motorcycles were stolen across South Africa each day, according to police figures.