Mandela’s Jailer: ‘He Was My Prisoner, But He Was My Father’

The man who was assigned to guard political prisoner Nelson Mandela mourns Madiba's passing

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Rodger Bosch / AFP / Getty Images

Christo Brand, a former prison guard, who guarded Nelson Mandela.

Desmond Tutu once told me he believed prison was the making of Nelson Mandela. “I often surprise people when I say this,” he said. “Suffering can lead to bitterness. But suffering is also the infallible test of the openness of a leader, of their selflessness.” When Mandela had gone to jail, he had been “one of the most angry,” said Tutu. “The suffering of those 27 years helped to purify him and grow the magnanimity that would become his hallmark.” Jail helped Mandela learn how to make enemies into friends, said Tutu. It also gave him an unassailable credibility. “When you speak of forgiveness, 27 years in prison sets you up very nicely,” he said.

As free South Africa remembered its founding father Friday after his death at 95 the night before, many of the most eloquent commemorations also seemed to have a connection to Mandela’s time in jail. “Mandela was my prisoner, my friend, my president and my father,” said Christo Brand.

Brand was 18-year-old fresh from the farmlands of the Afrikaner hinterland when, in 1978, he was sent to Robben Island as a prison warden. He had been warned he would be guarding the most dangerous of terrorists. To his surprise, Prisoner 46664, then aged 60, asked him about his family, his upbringing, his fears for the future. “There was no color barrier between us,” said Brand, now 53 and a guide showing tourists around the cells where he was once a jailer. “Like me, Mandela came from a farm. He was a human being. We understood that we shared the same sky and the same air.”

Brand’s bond with his prisoner was against all the rules. Still, as the apartheid authorities began to soften their stance and explore the possibility of negotiations with Mandela in the late 1980s, the friendship was tolerated. When Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland in Cape Town’s southern suburbs in 1982, Brand moved with him. Brand transferred with Mandela again in 1988 when the ANC leader was moved to a bungalow in the grounds of Victor Verster prison in the Cape winelands. When he was eventually freed from there in 1990, Brand was bereft. “When he was released, the prison was empty for me,” he said. “He was very down to earth. And he was a person who loved children. When I had a problem, he would give me advice.” Even today, Brand said he still finds wondrous how Mandela was able to transform their relationship. “He was my prisoner,” he said. “But he was my father.”

Today Pollsmoor remains one of South Africa’s most notorious jails, a sprawling complex of razor wire and barred windows that is the center of a violent gang culture that rules life in Cape Town’s vast townships on the Cape Flats. On Friday, however, safely indoors from a roaring sea gale, the prison assumed an unaccustomed mood of reflection and emotion as 400 prison warders and staff – now 80% black – held a service of Gospel harmonies to remember their most famous former inmate.

“Madiba’s long walk has ended,” said Regional Prisons Commissioner Delekeile Klaas, a member of the ANC underground during apartheid. “Part of his life was spent here. But even his jailers could not ill-treat him. They realized how good he was.” Klaas said Madiba had the same effect on hot-headed members of his own organization, himself included. ”When he said ‘Nobody takes us off the road of nation building and reconciliation’ some of us saw it as a betrayal,” said Klaas. “But Madiba stood firm. That was the gift he gave us. To be free, to forgive each other, and to reconcile.”

The service at Pollsmoor was one of tens of thousands being held in South Africa in the days before Mandela is buried on Dec. 15. On Dec. 10, Presidents, Prime Ministers, rock stars and actors will attend the biggest at Soccer City, the vast national stadium on the edge of Soweto, outside Johannesburg. In Cape Town, the first mass event was held Friday evening as thousands of well-wishers came together in front of the steps of City Hall where Mandela gave his first speech hours after his release from Victor Verster on Feb. 11, 1990.

Then, to a dangerously surging crowd, he repeated his words from his trial in 1964 at which he had been sentenced to life in prison. “’I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” said Mandela. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Watching then on television, transfixed, was ANC activist Charlotte Petersen-Davids. Now 58, she was in the crowd on Friday. “That speech changed me completely,” she said. “I never liked white people. I saw them as my oppressors. Those words taught me that if you’re going to move forward, you can only unite and show love. Bitterness and hatred take your backwards.”

Not long afterwards, another famous Mandela speech changed Petersen-Davids a second time, she said. “Madiba said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world,’” she said. “I was crying. I thought, ‘This man is coming out of prison and he cares about whether we’re going to school.’” In her 40s, she went back to school, then onto university. “Now I’m studying to be a staff nurse at medical college. I’m 58!” She laughed. “He changed my life,” she said. “He changed the whole world.”

47 comments
Daniela Monteiro
Daniela Monteiro

‘Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world,’

Tyrone Harvey
Tyrone Harvey

HATE AND DIVIDE AGENDA OF AMERICA THE SAME IN SOUTH AFRICA What an example of greatest! What an example of belief in GOD! What an example of a man! Yes I talk of 95 year old Nelson Mandela who pass away Dec.5 2013 ! I’m so sad to hear the passing of Nelson Mandela…….I have read books about this man life! Each book was unbelievable of the amount of torture and hatred he dealt with !! To think a man born like all of “US” became such a great present……That should tell everyone that “WE” can be great…..”WE” can be a great present no matter what race you’re born into!!!Mr. Mandela was an example of greatest…….He fought against hatred and discrimination and separation of races! While he did become South Africa first black President……Today in America “WE” are returning to “Jim Crow Laws”! Shame on America for not respecting Mr. Mandela example!!!. Slavery “Jim Crow Laws” “Discrimination” “Separate but Equal” in America looked allot like “South Africa” apartheid! Let “US” get nothing twisted! It was America that did nothing while black South Africans suffer! During Ronald Reagan's presidency South Africa continued to use a non-democratic system of government based on racial discrimination, known as apartheid, in which the minority of white South Africans exerted nearly complete legal control over the lives of the non-white majority of the citizens. In the early 1980s the issue had moved to the center of international attention as a result of events in the townships and outcry at the death of Stephen Biko. Reagan administration policy called for "constructive engagement" with the apartheid government of South Africa. In opposition to the condemnations issued by the US Congress and public demands for diplomatic or economic sanctions, Reagan made relatively minor criticisms of the regime, which was otherwise internationally isolated, and the US granted recognition to the government. South Africa's military was then engaged in an occupation of Namibia and proxy wars in several neighboring countries, in alliance with Savimbi's UNITA. Reagan administration officials saw the apartheid government as a key anti-communist ally.] By late 1985, facing hostile votes from Congress on the issue, Reagan made an "abrupt reversal" on the issue and proposed sanctions on the South African government, including an arms embargo. However, these sanctions were seen as weak by anti-Apartheid activists who were calling for Disinvestment from South Africa. In 1986, Reagan vetoed the tougher sanctions of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, but this was overridden by a bipartisan effort in Congress. By 1990, under Reagan's successor, the new South African government of F. W. de Klerk was introducing widespread reforms, though the Reagan administration argued that this was not a result of the tougher sanctions.

TD Matthews
TD Matthews

The trait of a true hero. Attitude of Gratitude. Inspires others to admire and strive to reach higher in thought and deed. In so doing we rise above the greed and sting of need. Becomjng the example others naturally heed. Thanks eternal Sir g.Nelson M. A natural Father to the planet.

ChandraPanchabhikesan
ChandraPanchabhikesan

Nelson Mandela was an enigma: a courageous, humble man who had a vision to make South Africa a rainbow nation. Even after suffering 27 years in prison, he refused to be bitter. Instead  he concentrated on nation-building where tolerance and forgiveness were his watch-words.  In life and in death his spirit lives on beckoning others to embrace one another irrespective of race ,colour or creed.  The outpouring of grief says it all. Here was a man whose humility stood out, exemplary in every way. He will undoubtedly be TIME's man of the year or rather man of the century.


Pancha Chandra, Brussels   

ixe586
ixe586

Gosh! This is so touching! He stands outside wielding his bully club while his "prisoner, friend, father, and president" languished inside. Verily, the apartheid regime was filled with the milk of human kindness. With jailors like this, who needs democracy and freedom?

Dennis Lobato
Dennis Lobato

R.I.P. Nelson Mandela your passing away on December 5th left a clear message to the Netherlands, the breed of the white South Africans, to ban the use of "Zwarte Piet" ( Black Peter) from the celebrations of Saint Nicolas, another kind of promoting apartheid"!!!

bereket1078
bereket1078

Put yourself in Mandela shoe, in his own country treaded second class or less than a Human and no land for serval . Anyone would be "one of the most angry,” person.

R.i.p... grandfather

rotorhead1871
rotorhead1871

he was a very good force.......the world is sadder

John Handford
John Handford

"Wind Beneath My Wings" Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. It must have been cold there in the shadoweds of 27 years, to never have sunlight on your face. You were content to let me shine, that's your way. You always walked a step behind. So I was the one with all the glory, while you were the one with all the strength. A beautiful face without a name for so long. A beautiful smile to hide the pain. Did you ever know that you're my hero, and everything we wish we would be? I can fly higher than an eagle, 'cause you are the wind beneath south africa wings. It might have appeared to go unnoticed, but I've got it all here in our hearts. Madiba Madiba! We want you to know we know the truth, of course we know it. We would be nothing without you. Did you ever know that you're our hero? You're everything we wish we could be. We could fly higher than an eagle, 'cause you are the wind beneath our wings. Did we ever tell you you're our hero? You're everything, everything we wish we could be. Oh, and south africa, south africa could fly higher than an eagle, 'cause you are the wind beneath our wings, 'cause you are the wind beneath our wings. Oh, the wind beneath south africa wings. You, you, Mandela, you are the wind beneath our wings. Fly, fly, fly away. You let me fly so high. Oh, you, you, you, the wind beneath my wings. Oh, you, you, you, the wind beneath my wings. Fly, fly, fly high south africa against the sky, so high we almost touch the sky. Thank you, thank you, thank God for you, the wind beneath Africa's wings.

jskunkcabbage
jskunkcabbage

Rest in God.  May we practice this day to have no war!

Love Wan
Love Wan

may God bee with you and R.I.T

Amazon Panda
Amazon Panda

war cost money .... according to the law of equivalence exchange you have to give up something to get something in return. if you know what I mean

Eman Elsaka
Eman Elsaka

This is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt take up arms and kill people .. Muslim Brotherhood, which Obama was standing with them against the Egyptians

Karla Amoré
Karla Amoré

I hereby dub this day a holiday, no work! :D Who's with me?!

jskunkcabbage
jskunkcabbage

Have you no respect, sir?  Madiba has passed on.  Many mourn.

jskunkcabbage
jskunkcabbage

A good time to reflect, share, let go of struggle.  Now, if you're talking General Strike: timing is everything.  'Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes': our limited "ammunition" must be used wisely.  We mourn, and the great work continues, reinvigorated with a saintly presence.  Be well, all relations.

JosePremLal
JosePremLal

@Openminded1

Yo ! Openmindeeeer (error)!!!!!

OPEN UR MIND, Will you???

Oh ! you can't ????

No problem, use a Can Openeeeer . Ha ha ha  

jskunkcabbage
jskunkcabbage

I am saying do not pull that "good N / bad N" racist mindset evil philosophy on me here, now, as this great man has passed on we must change here, now. Could anything be more clear? This must change and war must end.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@JosePremLal @Openminded1 The name is meant to be ironic dummy. What are you 12. Muslims suck read and listen moron they kill all over the world. maybe you are a Muslim?