How I Smuggled A Baby Into Nelson Mandela's Jail...

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.