(This post assumes you know some background history about Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid. Nelson Mandela is remembered for his legacy in fighting apartheid and helping South Africa seek healing and forgiveness. A primer on Mandela is here and you can learn about apartheid in this quick video.)
When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, Christo Brand was his prison guard. On November 17, Mr. Brand spoke at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where I work as web master. I was able to hear his stories for a few hours, watch as he autographed books and shook hands, and captured the day on camera.
Mr. Brand grew up in a rural area where he played alongside black children despite apartheid and the laws governing South Africa. His father taught him from a young age to treat all people equally, regardless of skin color – so he had a hard time understanding why black and white people had separate public toilets to use and parks in which to play.
After high school, Mr. Brand had required national service. A friend died in the military and relatives his age were incarcerated for trying to dodge their requirement, so Christo started training as a prison warden to fulfill his requirement. After about 4 years with dangerous criminals, Brand was told he would be moved to an area with the most miserable, threatening, life-imprisoned men. Here he found he was warden for men who led political uprising – but he was told they were national terrorists, the worst of the worst. (Among them were Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.)
Brand was about 20 years old, Mandela was about 60 years old, and more often than not they spent time talking about their studies. Mandela found it important that everyone was furthering their education. He snuck letters off the island to lawyers and churches who might be able to help with furthering education of prisoners. It was even important to him that young Brand was finding ways to better himself. Brand shared the message of furthering education with the students at Shorecrest emphatically.
Brand shared lots of other anecdotes. He said he once asked Mandela how his prison uniform always looked freshly pressed when his wife came to visit. Mandela said he would take his hot coffee mug each morning and use it to “iron” his extra uniform. Then he would lay it flat and sleep with it under the 2 mats he had on the floor of his cell. (They didn’t have beds or flush toilets.) It would take him 4 days of pressing one uniform while only wearing the other so he could look nice for his wife. If possible, he would put a daisy or some weed he found in his buttonhole on the days they met as well so she could see there was some color in his life.
Brand said at one point the prisoners were all working in a limestone quarry. The bright sunlight would bounce off the white stone and it was hard for him as a prison guard to watch the prisoners. In addition, the work to gather the stone created white dust that caused his eyes to get red and puffy. Brand asked for sunglasses after spending time with medics for eye irritation. He was told they were not part of his uniform. But he was up on a precipice above the prisoners, and can’t imagine how the men down in the dust did their work without choking to death or becoming blind. He said this sunlight bouncing off the rock walls was what caused Nelson Mandella to not want his photo taken with a flash.
He also retold one of his most noted stories, of sneaking Mandella’s grandchild in for a quick visit. Prisoners were not allowed to see anyone under the age of 16, and his family was off growing up without him. Christo Brand risked his job and his own life by helping someone who was his prisoner, and slowly becoming his friend.
When Mandela was President, he gave Brand a political career, and urged him to write a book about their time together. He even sent a ghostwriter to his house to help get the process started. The result is “Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend“. Mandela even helped select cover photos for the books.
One of the hour-long lectures he gave to the high school students at Shorecrest was recorded. You can view these stories of amnesty and brotherhood yourself here. (It starts at the 8:30 mark.)
I was honored and thrilled to spend the morning with Mr. Brand, tailing him like paparazzi but also capturing his message for the families at Shorecrest and anyone else who would like to view the video.