Xhanti would save a morsel of bread for his sole visitor, the little bird who perched faithfully between the bars of his cell during his solitary confinement in the Armed Struggle.
Now Xhanti is as free as a… and spending his weekends chasing birdies on a golf course. And his days showing tourists around the sprawling township of New Brighton on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.
He invites us to join him in South Africa’s national pastime, no, not rugby, nor cricket, the traditional African sports although one local is proudly donning a Springboks stop, or soccer, the blacks’ sport.
No, everything stops for food in South Africa, and more specifically a braai (barbecue). On game reserves, in parks, in back yards, on beaches, and in KK’s ‘butchery’ or bar.
We are laden down with meats: mutton, beef, chicken, and corn on the cob… the salad is just dressing.
We place ourselves in the hands of the masters of the braai, who fire up the furnaces and deliver a table mountain of food to tackle. Which can only be truly savoured with a Castle beer or three.
Everywhere we go in the township and the ramshackle Red Location, its oldest and poorest part where barefoot toddlers trod dusty dirt tracks we are greeted with a warm smile, a handshake and an invitation to share their story.
It has been a long road to freedom for Xhanti and his fellow Freedom Fighters but looking around the dirt-poor corrugated roofed sheds which look no better than outhouses but house whole families you sense there is a long way still to go.
The billboards remind us that a general election is around the corner and the country is looking to President Cyril Ramamphosa to continue to try to heal the wounds left by Jacob Zuma.
Of course, one man looms larger than anyone else in the Eastern Cape or anywhere in South Africa and we spend our last hour in Port Elizabeth on Route 67, a pictorial tribute to the 67 years of Nelson Mandela’s journey before he retreated from public life.
The Great Man stands at the end of a 38 metre metal Voting Line sculpture in the Donkin Reserve on the bayfront, his fist aloft in that iconic salute.
Everyone vies for a photograph of him.
More than five years after his death, Nelson Mandela is still leading.
And we are following still.
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in April 2019.