Sunday, 16 February 2014

The moment I smuggled a baby into Nelson Mandela's jail cell... and my prisoner became my friend, by Robben Island guard


Friends for life: Nelson Mandela bursts out laughing Christo Brand, his former guard from Pollsmoor Prison, drop by his home for his birthday in 1998, to gift him a discontinued hair oil that he used while in prison
Christo Brand, his former guard from Pollsmoor Prison, drop by his home for his birthday in 1998, to gift him a discontinued hair oil that he used while in prison



I was 19 years old when I first came face to face with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, the bleak maximum security prison where I was his warder. He was 60. Until that day in 1978 I had never heard of him, or his African National Congress.
I worked in B Section, where seven of the eight men known as the Rivonia Trialists, who had been convicted of terrorism charges in 1964, were held. Mandela set my young mind racing. I saw this quiet, dignified man scrubbing floors, emptying his toilet bucket, cleaning the exercise yard – sometimes on his knees – and tending a little garden where he grew chillies and vegetables.








Behind bars: Nelson Mandela during his prison term on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela during his prison term on Robben Island

One day, I had to escort him to the visitors’ centre. It was the first time I had seen him on his own. All he wanted to know was where I came from, whether my parents were still alive, and if I had any brothers and sisters. He would say, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ when I told him about my upbringing on a farm.
Great risk: The baby girl that Christo brought to Nelson Mandela was Zoleka Mandela, pictured with her mother Zinzi Mandela Hlongwana and her grandmother Winnie Madikiza Mandela
Great risk: The baby girl that Christo brought to Nelson Mandela was Zoleka Mandela, pictured with her mother Zinzi Mandela Hlongwana and her grandmother Winnie Madikiza Mandela
 It was the first time we had talked. On B Section, no conversation was allowed with the prisoners. It was only possible while he was walking ahead of me and  no one could overhear us. His manner was concerned, fatherly. He thanked me for our nice conversation.
From then on, when I was alone with him he drew me in. I found myself listening to him and respecting him more and more. It was impossible not to be drawn to him, this powerful leader of men facing a lifetime of hard labour and isolation, seemingly without bitterness or anger.

 Together, across our different worlds, over time, we somehow came to be friends. For the rest of his life, I was honoured to be considered part of his extended family. By the time I arrived on Robben Island, the hard labour had finished for the older prisoners, mostly due to Mandela’s tireless campaigning. For 13 years he had broken rocks from the sunken cliffs every day, the white limestone reflecting direct sunlight and almost costing him his sight.
But life remained relentlessly harsh. The regime was intended  to strip these men of their dignity and reduce them to little more  than insect status – although what the government failed to realise was that the hopes and beliefs of the ANC leadership were impossible to break.
Some of the worst cruelty to prisoners was the holding back or destruction of their letters, their all-important link to loved ones, and the ruthless censoring of daily news to make them believe their stand against apartheid was for nothing, the sacrifice of their freedom pointless.


Time served: Mandela and Bill Clinton look out through the bars of cell number 5 where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island
Mandela and Bill Clinton look out through the bars of cell number 5 where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years on Robben Island

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