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We know now that they were following us for about a month prior to our arrest, we did notice strange things happening. But when you're working underground, you are for most of the time, you're a bit paranoid. You kind of imagine that everyone is looking at you, knows what you're doing. And looking back after the arrest, we realized that they were following us for quite a while.
In 1978, 29 year old Tim Jenkin was active in the political efforts of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. The country had been operating under apartheid for 30 years, a system that institutionalized racial segregation. The word apartheid means apartness, and the government was controlled by a white minority. Tim Jenkin is white. He grew up in Cape Town.
So I grew up under this situation where everything was divided. So, um, especially cities and towns were divided. They were white areas and there were black areas. So we went to white schools and black schools in the black areas. Everything was separated. Even buildings had separate lifts for white people, for black people, Talk said pensions for white people and black people and certain beaches were designated for black people. But most of the beaches with white people.
So I just accepted apartheid because I didn't know any better. I just assumed that's the way things were.
And then when he was 21 years old, he traveled to the UK. He says everyone he met there asked him what he thought about the fact that he lived in a country that was so racially segregated. He says he was actually confused, but then he started seeing programmes on TV shows that would never have been broadcast in South Africa about the consequences of apartheid. And at first, I didn't believe these these films that I was seeing. I thought it was all propaganda.
But after a while and after reading books that I couldn't obtain in South Africa, I began to realize that this apartheid thing is something quite terrible. And I had been living part of it and really maintaining it in the sense and not understanding that what black South Africans were suffering.
He returned to South Africa and started studying sociology at the University of Cape Town. There he became friends with another white student named Stephen Lee and started sharing books that he had brought back from the UK anti-apartheid books and political histories that were censored in South Africa. At this time, the most prominent anti-apartheid organisation was the African National Congress, also known as the ANC. Nelson Mandela was a member of the ANC. By the 1970s, the organisation was banned in South Africa that had been declared unlawful, seen by the white minority as a threat to public order.
They operated underground and Tim and Stephen had heard that if you wanted to get involved, you could try contacting their office in London.
So the two of us travelled to the UK and simply went and knocked on the door. And it was quite an amusing incident because the person who received us said, please just sit down there. And we waited and he went into his office and he tapped something on a piece of paper.
The piece of paper said, You should not come here, please meet me at the cafe around the corner in half an hour. So that's what we did.
Tim and Stephen met with members of the ANC several times and they asked to be put to work back home in South Africa. They said, OK, you can go back and set up your print shop and we need to teach you various things like security matters, how to conduct yourself in the underground. And it showed us a few other innovative, um, devices for for distributing leaflets and information. And one of these was what became called the leaflet bomb.
And it's not really a bomb. It was really just a kind of exploding device that would have hundreds of leaflets up into the air and then they would rain down on a crowd, target crowd somewhere.
So we went back to South Africa with this knowledge and set up shop, they worked undetected for two and a half years, distributing thousands and thousands of leaflets all over the country until March of 1978. So how were you? Tell me about how you were caught.
And they just arrived one night, two a.m. in the morning. Loud banging on the door. There's not much you can do. We looked out of the window to see if we could jump out the window, ran away at the place, was surrounded with police cars and flashing lights.
He says he still doesn't know how exactly they were caught, but they were both charged under South Africa's terrorism act and in a sense, they they saw us as traitors to our race because we are whites.
And they expected all white people to kind of back the system or which they did. Of course, most whites supported apartheid. Even those who said their anti-apartheid. But in practice, they weren't. They were happy to live their lives in South Africa and reap all the benefits that they could being white.
So they call us terrorists and all kinds of horrible names.
They were held in Cape Town to await their trial. They weren't allowed out on bail, but they could receive visitors. During one visit, Stephen's father brought them a copy of Poppea, a book written by a Frenchman who escaped from prison not once, but twice.
And this book was written in such a way that it was really a manual of escape, what to do and what not to do and how to pull off a successful escape. Even before his trial had begun, Tim says he knew he would be going to prison. He saw no way around it. And so we started taking notes from Pappe on. He learned he should have money on him at all times to make sure that once he escaped, he could actually move as far away from the prison as possible.
He couldn't just ask his family to send him money, but he could ask for food and clothing.
And in that way, we were able to smuggle out messages. We could write on bits of toilet paper, sew them into the hands of clothing. And one of those messages was to to send us money. And we explained how to conceal money inside groceries. And we requested also that they send us some cigars inside cigar tubes, little aluminum cigar tubes, which they did. And then they concealed this money inside the cigar tubes. And insert them, you know, don't want to go into detail within a certain body cavity to hide them and walked around with this money for three months inside our bodies.
Tim Jenkin and Stephen Leeb were both convicted. Tim was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Stephen to eight. Tim says he didn't mind the sentence. He'd already collected his travel money and didn't plan to be there long. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
Tim and Stephen were both sent to a small prison in Pretoria, eight hundred miles away from home, although the prison was small, it was within a larger prison complex. Guards were everywhere. They were led through door after door, many of them made of thick steel and all locked tightly. There were only eight other men in prison at Pretoria prison besides Tim and Stephen, all white men who had been involved with the ANC prison, I wouldn't say was five star conditions.
But compared to the black prisoners, conditions were five star. So, for example, none of us in that prison had been physically tortured, whereas that was very common amongst black prisoners when they got arrested. And they speak to us as human beings were definitely wasn't like that with black prisoners. They had a very, very hard time indeed. And our situation was pretty relaxed during the day.
They worked in a carpentry workshop making furniture for other prisons. And then in the late afternoon, they were locked back in their individual cells all along one long corridor.
So from four thirty, you were faced with this. Door in front of you, so each cell had two doors and in a grill door, which was just a bar door and an artist, solid metal door. The inner door, the lock was right there and you could get your hand right around the other side of it through the bars. So my first thought was, well. How do you open this lock? The keys that were used at Pretoria prison in the late 70s were huge metal, sort of blunt objects.
Tim decided he'd try to make a key out of wood by sneaking supplies out of the carpentry workshop, but first he'd have to figure out what shape and size to make the key.
A lot of people think, how on earth could you possibly work out the dimensions of a key? But if you think about it, if you look at the actual lock, as I said, the lock was right, that the keyhole itself gives you some clues about the size of the key. He stuck pencils inside the keyhole to determine the length of the key and attempted to make impressions of the Keys unique cuts by pressing pieces of paper against the interior of the lock that gave me the outline of a blank.
Next, he had a few scraps of wood, a file and some sandpaper from the carpentry workshop and a thermos and smuggled them back to a cell. He worked at night filing and sending three pieces of wood to try to create a key that would open the door in front of him. And the very first time he tried, it worked. Were you amazed? Were you amazed that it had actually worked? Well, I made it work, but it just worked so smoothly that it worked so easily and so smoothly.
I thought it hadn't worked and they would have broken off on the inside. Then I realized it hadn't. And so I opened it and reluctant. And there it was, Tim. It successfully opened the inner door, but he was still locked in a cell by the steel outer door. So that was the next problem is how to open the door when you're inside yourself and the keyhole is on the outside. It's like being locked inside a safe with no access to the lock.
How do you open it?
That was our next puzzle. There was the door that came in and alongside it was a very small window opening into the corridor that you couldn't put your hand out of that window with a key and open the door because it was quite far away. And suddenly it occurred to me that why couldn't I just fix the key to the end of the room if I made some kind of little crank mechanism hanging off the end of the broomstick amount of the key in that.
Then I could use the broomstick to guide the key into the keyhole and then simply crank it around. Everything was trial and error. He spent months trying to get the second key right, working four hours each night while listening closely for the night guard. And then one night it finally worked.
And then, of course, that changed everything, because now, for the first time in the history of that prison, we could actually come out of our cells, then begin to tackle the other barriers. Tim Jenkin was working with his friend Stephen Lee and one other man, Alex Limberis. Tim says all of the incarcerated men at Pretoria prison knew what was going on, but that he was never afraid anyone would tell on them.
Some of the prisoners felt that simply by being in prison, in other words, prisoners of conscience was sufficient, that we were making a statement that everyone knew they were political prisoners and that we just simply had to make the best of our time in prison.
But the three of us felt somewhat different. We felt it was more important to see ourselves as prisoners of war and that we had a duty to get out of the prison. Now that Tim had made keys to get them out of their cells, he and his two friends quietly started planning out the next steps. At first, they thought escaping through the prison yard would be the most direct way out, but they eventually realized that simply walking out the front door might be safer than trying to sneak past searchlights and dogs and up and over the high walls of the prison yard.
But to walk out the front door meant that they would have to unlock a lot more doors along the way. They didn't know how many, but they remembered there were a lot. They knew that there was only one guard on duty at night, and if they could get a hold of his keyring, the problem of the locked doors would be solved. And then with further investigation, we realized that he was actually locked into the prison himself. When the day staff left and he took over, he was locked into the prison and his keys.
He didn't have the keys to get out. And the keys that he did have were simply to allow him to move around the sections and he couldn't even, in fact, open the cells.
The usual night guard was Sergeant Francois Vermaelen. He was on duty almost every night of the week. Tim says he preferred Sergeant Vermaelen to other guards because his movements were so predictable. Two tours were done and the next door Tim needed to get through was at the end of a long hallway of cells. He tried the keys he'd already made and the key for door number one, open door number three, he and his friends kept moving forward.
Tim tried the existing keys on door number four, but no luck.
They'd have to make a new key.
He made himself a key for the carpentry workshop so he could sneak in to get tools when guards weren't watching.
He made a key for everything, for the kitchen, the library, any lock he could study. He made a key for between two or four and five was the prison administration office. If anyone saw them in that section would be immediately obvious that something was going on. Tim says that if they were caught, they'd be placed into solitary confinement. So they made a plan to attempt to open door five at night when only the one night guard, usually Sergeant Vermaelen, was present.
So the secret was to come out of our cells at night at eight o'clock in the evening when he did, um, a tour of the prison just to check that everybody's safe and everything's locked up and it's no problems. And we had a small window of about 15 to 20 minutes where he'd come out, hide somewhere else so he would go upstairs, walk around and chat with the prisoners and so on. And we could come down out of our hiding place and then enter the admin section and work on the next door.
Sergeant Vermaelen played records over the prison loudspeaker system every night, the same records always in the same order. It was a way of telling time when Tim, Steven and Alex heard the Blondie record parallel lines, they knew that it was time to move. They hid in a small cupboard underneath the staircase. They had to try to hold the door closed from the inside, which Tim remembers wasn't easy. They waited to hear the guard leave his office and walk right over their heads up the stairs to check the cells as part of his rounds.
We put dummies in our beds, which was really just our prison overalls, stuffed them with socks and other clothing, books and items and things, and put them under the blankets just to make it look like the prisoner had gone to sleep.
They practiced this many nights. One night they lost their grip on the cupboard door and it creaked open just as the guard passed by. Tim says he was sure they'd be caught, but somehow the guard didn't notice. As soon as the guard had gone upstairs where the cells were, they'd come out of the cupboard and continue their work on door five and then door six, they had about 15 minutes each night to work. They counted a total of 10 doors from their innermost cells to the front door of the prison.
How many nights did you think do you think that you were out of your cell working on this before you actually decided today's the day?
Many, many. Sometimes we would go down. We just couldn't get it right. But we just kept doing it until we got through that door sticks. And then that was the big breakthrough, because then we got to do a seven out of sight of him. And those seven was, again, just a grill so we could dismantle that lock, take the dimensions from the inside and simply make a key for it. Though it was an electronic door and we knew where the button for that was.
So that was easy. That left nine and 10. And fortunately we found that keys for nine worked so we didn't ever really test or 10 like the final door. But we didn't take it very seriously because it wasn't it was just a sort of window. Um, and we thought that we would easily be able to pick it. They thought of everything, even putting together a version of civilian clothes, tailoring their prison uniforms, dyeing shirts, different colors, they made hats for themselves out of surplus prison shirts.
On December 11th, 1979, they were finally ready to escape. They've been preparing for 18 months. They'd always practiced at night when they heard that blondy record and knew that Sergeant Vermaelen would leave his post. But they plan to begin the actual escape in a small window of time in the late afternoon, around four thirty immediately after the day staff left.
They turned off all the electricity in the prison to get Sergeant Vermaelen away from his post early.
We had a key to the switchboard and simply turned off all the power and then hid in this small cupboard under the stairway. And then the prisoners are shouting for the night, guards come and turn the lights on again to inspect what was happening, and then when the guard went upstairs, he walked right over our heads.
We came out of our hiding place through the door into the admin section, opened everything and closed it behind us. We opened seven, eight of the nine, got to 10.
And we're very confident that we'll open it immediately, dried out all our keys and to our disbelief.
We couldn't understand why we couldn't open it. And we tried all our picks and we tried all the keys we had and we just couldn't open this thing.
They knew there wasn't a guard outside right then, but they also knew that a guard was scheduled to come on duty any minute.
So they just started hammering at the final door. And we're getting very close to the time when the guard came on duty outside and just had to wait until eventually we were able to force the door open.
And we had our civilian clothing and there were a lot of guards going home from duty, from other prisons in this prison complex, and we walked right past the guard. He was just sitting there in his car and he didn't bat an eyelid, just walked and walked right past till we got to the main road outside. Then we crossed over that road and we had a vague idea where we were going, we're heading for the Victoria Railway Station, where we.
OK, we'll get a taxi. They asked to be driven to the Johannesburg airport when you were when you were in that taxi, were you thinking to yourself, I can't believe this has worked?
Or were you being were you nervous? Were you trying? Think, you know, if I can just get to to an airport, if I can just get away from here.
Strangely, we were nervous, we were just so elated, the feeling of coming out of the prison, pulling off an amazing escape and getting away, and here we are sitting in this taxi and, you know, we haven't seen a tree for several years.
And the third guy had been in there for like seven years, really, and even had trouble crossing the road. He hadn't seen anything further than that far end of the prison yard. So he spacially was kind of a bit confused. And there we were, just three of us in this taxi sort of laughing to each other and doing high fives and stuff and just congratulating.
I don't know what the taxi driver thought. Maybe he thought we just drunk and bitter partisan. They got to the airport, but they didn't get on any airplanes. They split up taking trains and buses out of town.
Meanwhile, the prison guards and South African police couldn't figure out how the three men had managed to escape when they inspected the interior doors in the prison. They found them undamaged, just closed and locked like nothing had ever happened to.
Our own soldiers were still locked to where they'd been locked the evening before. It was no breakages. There was no damage. There is no evidence. They had no clue. The only thing they could think of was that the night God had let us out, we bribed him or something like that. So they went and went around to his place. And of course, he was asleep already because he'd been the night guard and he slept during the day.
But they brought him to the police station and they started questioning him.
And of course, he said he didn't know he was just as surprised as them and they didn't believe it because they needed a scapegoat.
Stephen Lee sent Sergeant Romulans lawyer a written statement confirming Sergeant Vermaelen had nothing to do with the escape and he was eventually acquitted. But not before he'd spent nearly a month in prison in the same prison he'd guarded for 11 years. On January 2nd, 1980, the African National Congress held a press conference in Zambia, Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex members appeared together and spoke about their escape.
We feel that we committed no crime. And in the eyes of the majority of the population, the criminals within the apartheid courts and the prison guards and so on, said and the many, not many escape stories where the prisoners get away completely and embarrass their captors like this. And it was a very technical escape and there was no violence involved.
And the apartheid regime presented itself as invincible. And there's no point in struggling against it because they had the security situation tied up and they boasted about how secure their prisons were and all that. And we embarrassed them. Yes, it had an impact all around. Tim Jenkin lived in exile in London for 12 years. He remembers the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison February 11th, 1990. Tim says he gathered with thousands of people in London's Trafalgar Square.
There's Mr. Mandela, Mr. Nelson Mandela, a free man taking his first steps into a new South Africa.
And the apartheid regime was dismantled over a period of time from 1991 to 1994, when it was in 1994 that Nelson Mandela, as a member of the ANC, became the president of South Africa. Tim Jenkin was part of his election campaign and. A criminal is created by Lauren S'pore and me, Nidia Wilson is our senior producer, Susanna Robertson is our assistant producer, audio mix by Rob Byers.
Special thanks to Katie Davis. Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them at This is criminal dot com, where we'll also have a link to Tim Jenkins book, Escape from Pretoria. We're on Facebook and Twitter at criminal show. Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina Public Radio WNYC, where a proud member of Radio Topia from PUREX, a collection of the best podcasts around.
I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
And radio to me from your ex.