‘Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend’


ST. PETERSBURG — As a South African white farm boy who grew up during the Apartheid era in South Africa, Christo Brand should have had nothing in common with aging black freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. Yet as a prison guard at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison, where Mandela was incarcerated for over 20 years, Brand developed a bond with Mandela that lasted their entire lives.

Brand spoke to students at Shorecrest Preparatory School on Tues., Nov. 17 as part of the school’s Willis Leadership Lecture series, whose theme this year is “Race, Justice and Equality.” During a recent trip to South Africa, Shorecrest junior Jordan Jacobson and his family met with Brand and were instrumental in coordinating Brand’s visit to the St. Pete school.

“This summer I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Brand while I was visiting South Africa, and his kindness and empathy were a real inspiration to me,” Jacobson remarked before introducing Brand.

Brand grew up on a rural farm in South Africa and knew little of the cruelness of the Apartheid regime, which ruled elsewhere in the country. He recalled that when he once as a boy disrespected an elderly man, Brand’s father was quick to chide him.

“‘A man can be black,’” Brand said his father had told him, “‘but the color of his skin can’t come off. He is a human being like us. We must respect each other.’”

That lesson stuck with Brand as he grew up with that respect. When he was high school age and left the farm he recalled taking the train and when he got off at the station he headed toward the first restroom he saw. A man informed him that he couldn’t use that restroom, as it was for blacks only.

“I didn’t understand why black people had different toilet facilities,” Brand explained. “I visit the parks, I see ‘For Whites Only.’

When he turned 18 he was required by law to do military service, but remembering a friend of his that had been conscripted and ultimately killed at the Angola border by what his government called terrorists, he opted to take another option available to young white males—prison guard duty.

During his training, he worked around the hardened criminal prisoners. They were even instructed to never open a cell door alone, it was simply too dangerous. Guards should always be two or three in number, he was told, to avoid being stabbed.

After his training Brand was sent to Robben Island, where his commanding officer told and his fellow guards they were going to meet the biggest criminals in South Africa. Picked for duty in the isolation section—where the worst criminals were held, he was told—Brand received instructions one day to open the cell doors. Inside the first cell he opened he saw and old prisoner stand up. In the next cell, another old man got to his feet. In the third cell, and old man by the name of Nelson Mandela stood up. All of these men had life sentences.

After he had opened all the cells he asked his sergeant what all these men had done to be given a life sentence.

“He said to me, ‘They’re terrorists who have tried to overthrow your country,’” Brand recalled. “Immediately I must hate these guys, the guys who killed my friends on the border.”

But these men were old, and Brand couldn’t understand how they could still kill people. At that point, Mandela had already been imprisoned for 14 years.

Cells were cramped and dank, and since all Robben Island prisoners had to perform hard labor, the work conditions were abysmal. Brand witnessed this firsthand as he was put in charge of guarding the prisoners as they toiled in the limestone quarry. Though he was positioned at the top of the quarry, the dust that flew up irritated and burned his eyes so badly that he could hardly even see the prisoners—they became just blurry shapes.

Brand requested permission to wear sunglasses to protect himself, but was denied. Sunglasses are not part of his uniform, he was told.

“I could not understand how prisoners could work in that situation, in all that dust, looking at dust, and still be positive,” he said, adding that those conditions were the reason why Mandela nearly became blind.

One day while Brand was at work in the prison office, a shipment of boxes arrived that contained mostly birthday cards for Mandela. Brand saw all the cards for Mandela and couldn’t understand how so many people could possibly know him.

“We go through all the cards, found a lot of cards from America, from Germany, England, all these places,” he said, adding that after he and his fellow guards had sorted out the cards, they realized they were over 50,000 in number.

Of those cards only 10 were from South Africans.

Brand soon found out that few South Africans wrote to prisoners at Robben Island, for fear of being questioned or even tortured by the police for wanting to communicate with terrorists, as the country viewed them.

It was during his job booking visits to prisoners that Brand met Nelson’s wife Winnie Mandela. When a prisoner’s family applied for a visit, they must apply in writing, Brand explained. When Winnie Mandela applied for a visit, Brand was told her visit had to be booked three months in advance, which puzzled him. Then he found out she had to apply to the court to get the necessary permission to visit her husband.

“Then the police would escort her from the house to the nearest airport, fly to Cape Town, escorted from there to Robben Island,” Brand noted.

Because she is black, Winnie Mandela was not allowed inside the boat to the island. She had to sit on the top deck outside, and brought blankets, raincoats and an umbrella to guard against the weather.

Nelson Mandela had prepared for the visit by ironing his prison uniform with nothing but a mug of hot coffee and handkerchief, even sleeping with his uniform under his matt to keep it pressed. He’d even picked a flower for the occasion, and when Brand has asked him about it he replied: “Mr. Brand, I want to show my wife there’s also other colors on Robben Island, beautiful colors.”

Brand explained that the guards would take him to a visiting booth, just a small cubicle, where he communicated with a telephone. When Winnie stepped off the boat and removed a blanket, the guards observed that she was holding a baby close to her—Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter. Small children were not allowed to be brought to Robben Island, Brand explained. Winnie Mandela was told that when it was her turn for a visit, she would have to leave the baby behind. She begged the guards for permission to just to show Nelson Mandela the baby from a distance.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Brand and the guards had told her, “we can’t.”

The visiting booth window opened between the two of them with a warder behind Nelson. Every word of their conversation was carefully monitored by a warder standing behind Nelson Mandela. If he had mentioned anything about any of the prisoners, the conversation would have been immediately stopped. If his wife had mentioned anything about any uprisings in South Africa, Brand explained, the conversation would have been stopped then also. They could discuss family-related issues only.

During this visit Winnie had told Nelson that she’d brought his granddaughter on to Robben Island. Immediately Nelson looked to Brand and asked him if it was possible to see the baby through the glass divider.

“My answer at that moment was no,” Brand explained, reminding Nelson that prisoners were not allowed to see children. Further, the visits were recorded and the guards would be held accountable if they had not enforced the rigid rules of the prison. With five minutes left in the visit, Nelson implored Brand to ask his superior if he could just be permitted to see the baby from a distance.

The answer was still no, and Winnie was led back to the waiting area. Having brought a notebook with him to keep track of all the things he’d wanted to discuss with Winnie, Nelson realized at visit’s end that he’d overlooked something, and asked Brand to relay a message to his wife. He had wanted her to apply for a visit on December 25, as he would love to see her on that day, Brand recalled. Brand’s superior overheard this request and allowed Winnie back in so Nelson could ask her himself. Brand offered to hold the baby for her, and he admitted to Winnie Mandela that he had never held a black child.

“She pushed him into my arms,” Brand said, “and at that moment when she pushed it into my arms she take her hand back, opened her purse, take out some money to give me.”

Brand refused to take any money, saying he’s not allowing her to show Nelson Mandela the child, he will just hold it for her. Yet when the conversation between Mandela and his wife was over and the microphone was switched off and the door opened, Brand sneaked over to the side of Mandela in the hallway passage.

“Mandela came straight to me,” Brand remembered. “When he came to me, he take the baby out of my arms, and then when he kissed the baby, there was tears in his eyes. It was quite emotional when he touched this child.”

Under questioning directly after the visit, Winnie Mandela admitted that she had taken the baby with her to Robben Island but was not able to show Nelson. She kept the secret, as did Nelson, as did Brand. Nelson could not even mention this to his fellow inmates, for fear of severe repercussions for all involved. Nelson only revealed this secret after he was freed and became president, when he credited Brand for allowing him to see his grandchild.

As they walked back, Brand said he felt as he had just done something “human” for Nelson, who hadn’t seen his own children grow up while incarcerated and even before then, when he was constantly hiding from the South African authorities.

In 1982 Brand was transferred along with Mandela to Pollsmoor Prison, where the guards were allowed to sit with the prisoners, talk to them, drink coffee with them, even play games with them. Nelson even taught Brand table tennis, so they could play together.

One Christmas Mandela invited a group of warders to sit with him and eat a fruitcake and drink coffee. Prisoners were only allowed limited grams of sweets, so the fruitcake Mandela had served was the driest cake Brand had ever had. He offered to next time bring him one of his wife’s scrumptious fruitcakes, which were soaked in brandy. Mandela fell in love with the tasty treat, and Brand continued to bring him these cakes over the years. Since prisoners were only allowed so few sweets, Brand had instructed Mandela to cut up the cake into small pieces, so a warder walking into his section should not see him sitting in his cell with a big fruitcake. Brand’s wife baked fruitcakes for Mandela up until his death.

In the 1980s under international pressure to release Mandela, South African president P.W. Botha offered to free Mandela under the condition that he renounces violence as a political weapon. Mandela spurned the offer, saying that he was not a violent man, so why should he renounce violence? He would remain a prisoner as long as his party, the African National Congress, was banned.

On day, Brand, while wearing a secret wire, was instructed to visit Mandela in his cell and convince him to accept the government’s offer. Before beginning a conversation with Mandela, Brand put his finger to his lips and showed Mandela the microphone he was wearing. Doing his duty, Brand had told Mandela he “was really a fool” to not accept the offer of President Botha. Mandela countered by saying: “I’d rather die in prison than to be a free man while my people are not free.”

After undergoing a surgery for an enlarged prostate gland, Mandela was reassigned to new solitary quarters in the basement section of Pollsmoor Prison. During this time, the Minister of Justice called Brand saying he wanted to see Mandela. Brand took his son with him to get Mandela for the meeting, and when Mandela saw the boy he immediately wanted to simply touch the child. Brand’s son had never touched by a black person, and wanted to keep his distance. Mandela then went into his cabinet and brought out sweets and chocolate for the boy. Brand’s grateful son was then a regular visitor to Mandela’s cell.

During his time in his dank cell at Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela’s health started to fail him. After one of his lungs collapsed, it looked like Mandela would die, Brand recalled. He recovered in a hospital then was sent to Victor Verster Prison. The then-modern technology around Mandela was all new to him. He couldn’t understand why there was a TV in the kitchen, Brand said, so he and others had to explain to him that it was actually a microwave oven.

It was in 1990 when Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster, and Brand recalled that he was so happy and excited for him. Afterward Mandela phoned Brand’s home and had a long conversation with Brand’s son. He wanted him to thank Brand for all he did for him while he was in prison.

“‘Tell him I will be in contact again,’” Brand said Mandela had told his son, “‘we are not going to lose contact.”

This made him feel “very happy,” Brand admitted, as he wondered if upon his release Mandela would forget about Brand. Brand still worked at Pollsmoor Prison, where there were dangerous uprisings, with prisoners trying to break out. A concerned Mandela phoned Brand one evening.

“Mr. Brand,” he’d said, “I think you should get away from that prison. You’re going to die in there.”

Mandela then offered Brand a job in Parliament, which Brand accepted. Brand noted that up to 70 percent of people he met in Parliament were his ex-prisoners from Robben Island. Not only were they were happy to see Brand, but welcomed him, he said.

Mandela arranged a scholarship for Brand’s son in New York to study civil engineering. But Brand’s son was not happy about this new opportunity, as he didn’t want to leave the country. Furthermore, he no longer wanted to be a civil engineer but a commercial diver. When a nervous Brand had informed Mandela of this, Mandela told Brand to bring the boy to his house to discuss things. After a personal talk with Brand’s son, Mandela told Brand that he must not push the child in the wrong direction but let him follow his own path.

“I will pay for his scholarship as a commercial diver,” Mandela had told him. Not only did he pay for the scholarship but wrote a letter of recommendation that instantly opened doors for Brand’s son, getting him a job on Robben Island in diving construction.

In 2005 Brand’s son tragically died in a car accident, and Mandela, who had also lost a child while in prison, was the first person to phone Brand and offer his sympathy. At the funeral Brand was touched to see so many members of the African National Congress there to offer their support.

Mandela kept in touch with Brand over the years and said to him one day: “Mr. Brand, you must write a book.”

Brand always made excuses to not begin writing. Mandela countered by sending Brand a contract from the Mandela Foundation to push him into writing this book, one that Mandela truly wanted to see come to fruition before he died. Published last year, “My Prisoner, My Friend” tells of the bond between a young white male and an elderly black political prisoner which developed into a friendship spanning many years, until Mandela’s death in 2013, at the age of 95.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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