The morning after Nelson Mandela’s death, in the windswept gloom, one man made a solitary journey to the former maximum security prison on Robben Island. There, in what has become a monument to the anti-apartheid struggle, he said a silent prayer.
Christo Brand, a white prison warder who locked up Mandela and his political comrades nightly for four years, enjoyed an unlikely friendship with the man who went on to become South Africa’s President. They remained close until the end.
Their unique friendship was sealed on the stormy day that, 33 years ago, Mandela’s wife Winnie arrived on Robben Island with their baby granddaughter Zoleka.
Now for the first time, Christo reveals the extraordinary story of how he smuggled the baby past his fellow guards in an act of mercy unprecedented in Mandela’s 18 years on Robben Island.
One of the cruellest rules there was that prisoners should never touch or see a child, not even one from the warders’ families – something that was particularly hard for African prisoners from traditional extended families.
It is well-recorded that Mandela felt crippled by the lack of communication with children.
In 1980, during the harshest regime on the island, he received a visit from Winnie. She was a ‘banned’ person under the Apartheid government, forced to live in a township on the outskirts of Pretoria, a day’s drive from Cape Town and its prison island.
On a rainy day, she made her way to the ferry to see her husband for the 30-minute visit that they were allowed just once every three months.
White people went inside the weatherproof cabin. Winnie and the other black visitors were directed to the top deck, exposed to the wind and rain. She took her place uncomplaining, wrapping herself in a blanket.
When she arrived on the island it was discovered she had smuggled a baby with her – the four-month-old granddaughter Nelson Mandela had never seen.
Christo remembers it well. ‘Of course, we could not allow her to take the baby in to see her husband,’ he says. ‘She had to leave the child in someone’s care in the waiting room. She pleaded with me to allow Mandela to see her but I had to refuse.
‘As usual they sat either side of the glass screen, their hands touching on the glass. I stood behind Mandela. He said, “Please Mr Brand, let me at least see the baby as my wife carries her away after the visit”.
‘I spoke to the warrant officer, my superior. We both knew it was impossible. But at the end of 30 minutes I told Mandela to wait. I went into the waiting room and told Winnie I’d like to hold the baby.
‘I told her I had never held a black baby. She let me have her and I walked back to Mandela behind the security screen.
'I called Mandela and put the baby in his arms, unexpectedly. I told him he must keep quiet about it or we could lose our jobs.
'He just said: “Oh” and held the child, and kissed her and there were tears in his eyes. I had to take the baby and give her back to Winnie and not even tell her what had happened.
‘Nobody could know that Mandela had ever seen the child. He kept it a secret from everybody and so I was very pleased he did that.’
It seems Mandela never forgot that kindness. Many years later after his release, in the midst of the worldwide fanfare of publicity, he called Christo and invited him to Parliament.
He offered him a job in the Constitutional Assembly, entertained Christo and his wife to tea at his presidential residence, and invited the former warder to his birthday celebrations for the rest of his life.
Christo was just 19, a raw prison service recruit, when he was sent to the island to join the security team guarding South Africa’s most demonised freedom fighters.
He was warned that they were a band of dangerously ruthless men dedicated to overthrowing the government. Their leader was a powerful, thoughtful Xhosa tribesman who immediately astounded Christo with his politeness and humility.
‘He was 60 years old, I was just a boy from the farm,’ says Christo. ‘I saw the sometimes brutal way other guards treated the maximum security prisoners. I saw the way that Mandela responded.
‘He would kneel down, uncomplaining, to sweep up the dust and dirt outside his cell when there was going to be an inspection.
‘He had a quietness and a mental discipline I’d never seen before. I was a teenager and he called me “Mr Brand” with what seemed like real respect.
‘I was prepared to hate this man trying to bring us all down and ruin our country. Instead I was won over by him very quickly.
‘I saw his suffering and near-desperation when we censored every word going to him or coming from him, and recorded every conversation he held.
‘I used to stand behind him during the few visits he was allowed and I could see the anguish in him when his beloved wife Winnie was there, on the other side of a glass screen. I read all his letters to her and her replies to him.
‘He was the clear leader of all the political prisoners and he never stopped trying to get their messages out to the rest of the world. But he also missed his wife and children, and their family life.’
Christo began to realise that Mandela’s humanity was psychologically reversing their roles. Impressed with the unwavering regime that Mandela imposed on himself – the morning exercise; the tending of a vegetable patch he nurtured outside his cell; the reading and studying when he was allowed an electric light; the interminable passing of notes to his comrades through ever-more ingenious means – Christo found himself continually on the receiving end of overwhelming sympathy from the older man.
‘You had to respect him, the dignified way he accepted the rules and regulations, the way he never asked for any favours or showed anything but respect for me and my job,’ Christo says. ‘Soon he was giving me advice and telling me I should study and achieve a better education and career. He seemed to want the best for me.
‘Once, when he had been moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, I came into his cell and saw a small container had been lowered into it through the slated windows. Other prisoners were communicating with him in this way.
‘He looked at me and said, “You need to report this.” He knew that I couldn’t bend the rules without losing my job. New secure windows were fixed and they had to find another way to communicate.
‘I was often wired for sound when I entered his cell. When he offered to make me coffee or started to chat, which was not allowed, I would make a gesture to show we were being recorded.
‘We had a bond that way. I wanted to help him, I liked him and believed in him, and for his part he wanted to help me.’
Christo was relieved for Mandela that he had died peacefully at home. ‘His home and family meant everything to him,’ he says. ‘We talked a lot about those values, but I’ve watched him fading over the years. Now I’ll never hear his voice again or see that bright smile. Last time we met he teased me about my weight and said I should do more exercise.’
They also shared bleaker moments. Like Mandela, Christo suffered the loss of a son who died in a car accident. ‘He was the first to call me and try to comfort me,’ he says. ‘Mandela always had time to show he cared, he was always concerned about family matters even when he had the great weight of State affairs to deal with.’
He says that Mandela would have enjoyed the scenes of dancing and singing in the streets that followed his death on Thursday evening.
‘I wish I could have seen all the love coming to him from all over the world.’ Christo has written his own life story around his relationship with Mandela, with the old man’s blessing and encouragement. Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend, will be published next March.
For the two of them it was the natural continuation of a solid friendship, built in the grim surroundings of a maximum security prison and lasting well into the final years of Mandela’s long life.
The black freedom fighter prepared to die to liberate his people from a cruel regime, and the Afrikaans farm boy born into that same regime.
‘Through him I saw many human moments,’ Christo says. ‘That was our relationship, a series of small human moments that I now treasure more than ever.’
Today he still takes the ferry daily to Robben Island where he supervises supplies to the tourist shops and runs the busy cafeteria.
Last Friday he described how the island felt empty now Mandela had gone. ‘I’ve always felt he was still here in spirit,’ he says.
‘I could still hear his voice sometimes and remembered all those painful times we shared when he was fighting for freedom and we were there to deprive him of it.
‘Now we’ll never see him here ever again.’
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