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.”