Nelson Mandela

Christo Brand, ex-prison guard to Nelson Mandela, describes their close relationship

Anti-apartheid revolutionary's former jail guard tells how their relationship grew within detention walls to a long-lasting friendship

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 10:41am

He was with Nelson Mandela during all the years the anti-apartheid icon was imprisoned on Robben Island.

And, like millions of people around the world, he has been hit hard by Mandela's death.

Yet this South African was not one of Mandela's fellow prisoners. Christo Brand was his jailer.

The two men - the black political prisoner and the white Afrikaans warden - forged an unlikely but enduring friendship.

"It's like a father I lost," said Brand. "It means a big loss for the country and we will really miss him. I miss him myself personally, but always I will have him in my mind."

They last met about two years ago when Brand, now in his 50s, brought his wife, son and grandson to see Mandela in Cape Town in a Sunday afternoon visit that lasted nearly three hours. They had "nice chats" about the past, about his family.

"He wanted to pick up my grandchild, to hold him. He was a little bit shy to go to him. You could see he really reached out for touching a child at that moment," Brand recalled.

"When I got the message when he passed away, it was very sad for me," Brand said. "But I think he was successful and he did what he wanted to do. I wanted him to go in peace and I am thinking of the family today, what they go through."

Brand started to work on Robben Island in 1978 when he was 18 and Mandela was 60. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.

Brand was privy to the torment and deprivation that prisoners felt, being cut off from loved ones. This led to rules being bent such as when Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela- Mandela smuggled in their baby granddaughter Zaziwe.

She had shielded the tiny girl from the rain under a blanket as she travelled on the ferry from the mainland, relegated to the top deck as blacks were not allowed inside the boat.

At the time, Mandela was only allowed one visit every three months for 30 minutes. He spoke to visitors through a small glass window and children were not allowed in. But once he knew his granddaughter was there, he asked to see her.

"Immediately he looked to me and asked, 'Mr Brand is it just possible to see the child from a distance?' My answer was 'no' … knowing that the visits were bugged."

However, after telling Madikizela-Mandela that he had never held a black child, Brand took the baby and allowed a teary Mandela to kiss and hold his grandchild.

It was a secret Mandela kept until he became South Africa's first black president, when he told parliament how his granddaughter had been smuggled in.

"My relation was prison warder to prisoner but, after the 80s, we changed," said Brand.

After Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town in 1982, a drama unfolded over a particular hairdressing lotion. Brand - who had been transferred to the jail - was ordered to find some for Mandela and eventually managed to track it down in a pharmacy.

Brand said that Mandela encouraged him to continue his education and maintained an interest in him and his family.

Brand recalls that years later, when Mandela was president, he took special care to single him out for recognition while he was a lowly civil servant.

While South Africa's new constitution was being drafted, Mandela flew in by helicopter and entered a room where members of parliament were debating the new constitution, said Brand. While Mandela shook hands with parliamentarians he noticed Brand, who was distributing documents. Mandela lifted his arms and warmly greeted him. "He immediately made a big announcement to everyone: 'You know who is this person? This person was my warden, this person was my friend'."

Brand said he felt very humble and proud. After the parliamentarians went out for a group photo, Mandela insisted Brand be in it, saying: "You must stand next to me, we belong together."

Brand still works on Robben Island which is no longer a prison but a tourist attraction. Former guards and prisoners tell visitors about the new South Africa's racial reconciliation.

Brand also recalls he shared a joke with Mandela about his final resting place. "I say to Mandela that we must bury you on Robben Island. He just laughed. He said 'Why? For tourist attraction?' He said, 'You should have made money. But I think I must go to Qunu [the African village of his childhood]'."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Watch: Nelson Mandela in his first television interview, 1961