The Last Warder - Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
“Warrant Officer Swart baked bread, made home-brewed ginger-beer and assorted other delicacies. When I had visitors, which was increasingly often, he would prepare gourmet meals. They always praised the food and I dare say my chef was the envy of all my visitors.”
Long Walk to Freedom, p65
On 7 December 1988 Nelson Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl to help facilitate a transition to freedom and to allow him to more easily meet with visitors. He was there for 14 months in a cottage until he was released from prison on 11 February 1990.
While at Victor Verster Prison he had several regular warders, including James Gregory, Charl Marais, and Jack Swart. Of these three, it was Jack Swart who was chosen by the Prison Service to look after Mandela daily: to prepare meals, clean the house, and monitor visitors.
An essay on Mandela's warders by journalist and writer, Mike Nicol.
In October 1965, after nine months of prison service training, Jack Swart graduated from Kroonstad Training College. In this photograph he is shown being given a dictionary from Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, who is standing by an instructor and a commanding officer from the college. Upon graduation Swart worked at Robben Island until 1971. He then worked at Pollsmoor Prison and later Helderstroom Prison, before being transferred to Victor Verster Prison in 1980.
Jack Swart had been working at Victor Verster Prison for ten years when, on a Sunday morning, he was pulled out of a church meeting by the prison’s Commanding Officer and told that he would be transferred from his current position as Head of Catering to instead look after Nelson Mandela. He was given no choice and received no details of how long he would have to be there. To Swart, this transfer was a demotion; to him Mandela was just another prisoner.
Nelson Mandela was placed in Victor Verster Prison because it was close to doctors and hospitals. The private cottage where he stayed was originally privately owned. Once it became part of the prison it was used to house officers, who were moved out to make space for Mandela.
Each day Jack Swart would arrive at the cottage at 7am, say hello to Nelson Mandela, prepare his breakfast and lunch, and clean the house. When Swart left at 4pm he would lock the doors since Mandela was not allowed to go outside without someone else there. However, because the doors could be unlocked from the inside, Mandela would often go the garden, read outside, or go swimming on his own.
There was no telephone in the cottage, and Nelson Mandela received very few calls. While in the beginning he was not allowed to make phone calls, he eventually could occasionally call people from the prison office. These lists of telephone numbers were kept in Major Marais’s office and include a wide variety of contacts from the ANC office in Lusaka to an electrician to South African pop singer Brenda Fassie. The lists were for the prison service alone; they were not used by Nelson Mandela.
While he was at Victor Verster Prison, Jack Swart did Nelson Mandela’s banking and once a month would go shopping and buy groceries. Money taken out of the bank would be kept in the cottage in a safe with two locks. To protect the safe’s contents Mandela kept the key to the inner lock and Major Marais kept the key to the outer lock.
Nelson Mandela would often leave short notes near the stove for Jack Swart. Written in Afrikaans or English, most of them were requests for certain meals.
Nelson Mandela is well-known for his love of animals. One day while watching television Mandela spotted a mouse. Without telling him, Jack Swart set up a trap and killed it. The next day the mouse was gone, but soon Mandela saw another one. He left this short note to Swart saying “Our old friend, Mr. Mouse is back” without realizing that it was a different mouse.
"Despite their many differences, Jack Swart and Nelson Mandela shared one thing in common: both were loving fathers and family men. Neither discussed politics or current events with one another but rather their conversations often centred around each other’s family and children.
This math exercise, made by Jack Swart’s daughter Alet while playing “school” with a friend, was brought to Nelson Mandela by him at her request. Proud of her results, she wanted her father to show it to him. In a touching gesture, Mandela wrote a small note to her in Afrikaans."
On this particular day, in addition to the usual list of visitors and menu, a question was jotted down in the diary: “Why don’t you let the poor man go free.” This question was actually asked by Dr. Nthato Motlana to Jack Swart as he was leaving after visiting Nelson Mandela. Despite not having an answer to the question, Jack Swart found it interesting and jotted it down.
During his time at Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela received many visitors. Jack Swart would often make note in his diary of the people who visited Nelson Mandela in addition to the day’s menu. Jack Swart’s diaries offer insight into Nelson Mandela’s final year in prison and his daily routines.
After having spent 14 months interacting with one another on a daily basis, this brief farewell letter marks the end of a chapter in the lives of both men and demonstrates to what extent Nelson Mandela and Jack Swart did not have an ordinary prisoner-warder relationship.
On the day of his release from prison, Nelson Mandela wanted to give all the remaining items in the house that he did not want to take with him, like groceries, to Jack Swart. Hesitant to accept due to protocol, Swart wanted to make the donation official, and as a result this short note was produced, in which Mandela gives his permission. The goods were then shared amongst three of the prison staff (Swart, Gregory, and Marais).
Upon his release from Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela’s belongings were gathered up, inventoried, and signed over to a member of his release team. Notably included on the list is a surf board. Nelson Mandela took great pleasure in being allowed to go swimming. However, every time Mandela went in the water, Jack Swart had to go in with him. Not being an adept swimmer, Mandela requested a “boogie-board” to try-out that could help him. However, within minutes he became frustrated with it, and the boogie-board was relegated to storage, never to be used again.
Upon Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Jack Swart returned to his previous position as Head of Catering and he remained with the prison service until 1997. In this undated letter from former Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee (most likely from 1993, shortly after a reunion at Victor Verster Prison) Swart is thanked for his loyal and dedicated commitment to his job.
In 1993, a reunion between the two men and the other former warders was held at Victor Verster. In the picture by the pool, photographer Benny Gool is encouraging both men to smile for the camera. In 2012, looking back on his time as Nelson Mandela’s warder at Victor Verster Prison, Jack Swart remembers his time with Mandela fondly and the unique bond they shared.
Contributor: Research and Curation—Emily Sommers, Kelsey Duinkerken and Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Staff