An act of kindness was the seed that blossomed into a friendship between a young prison guard and the man who would leave his jail cell to eventually become South Africa’s first black president.
Former guard Christo Brand told Reuters how a visit to Robben Island prison by Nelson Mandela’s second wife Winnie put him in the awkward position that would spark a friendship with his former prisoner that has lasted a lifetime.
Mandela spent 27 years in jail at the behest of South Africa’s apartheid government. Most of his time behind bars was in the Alcatraz-like Robben Island prison off Cape Town’s coast.
Brand, who arrived at Robben Island as an 18-year-old in 1978, said that during Winnie’s 1980 visit, she told Mandela that she had brought his infant grandchild with her.
Prisoners were only allowed to see visitors through a tiny window, measuring 30 cm by 15 cm, that was accessed by entering a small cubicle. They communicated with visitors on the other side of the window using a telephone.
Winnie Mandela had arrived on the boat to Robben Island and was not immediately ushered into the prison.
“It was winter, it was cold and because she was black and not coloured (mixed race) or white, she (had to) sit outside on the boat wrapped with blankets,” Brand said “We never observed that she had a baby on her back.”
But the baby was discovered and Winnie Mandela was not allowed to take it into the box for visitors on her side of the window. The infant was kept in the visitors’ main waiting area.
Children were strictly not allowed at the prison, but when Mandela found out that his grandchild was near he asked to see it.
“He immediately looked and said: Mr. Brand is it possible to see the child?” said Brand, who explained to Mandela this was impossible because it was against prison regulations.
Mandela asked Brand to take the matter to his superiors, who gave him a tacit go-ahead.
At the end of Winnie’s visit, Mandela, who was sitting in the prisoner’s cubicle, told Brand he needed to speak to his wife once more to give her a final message he had forgotten about earlier.
That’s when Brand brought the child to Mandela.
“I (went) to the other side and she’d just picked up the baby and I said: ‘Ma’am, please can I hold the baby?’ I had never touched a black child and she put it in my arms,” Brand said.
Brand ushered Winnie into the visitors’ box, locked the door and then called to Mandela.
“He looked up and said: Darling I must go. He never jumped up during the visits, and that day he jumped up because he saw I’ve got an infant in my hands. He came to me and had some tears in his eyes,” said Brand.
Brand said he never told Winnie, who pleaded with the guard to let Mandela see the child, about his transgression. It was also something Mandela kept secret from his fellow prisoners and was the catalyst for a special bond between prisoner and warder.
“That is where our relationship really started in Robben Island,” recalled Brand, who was transferred with Mandela to the mainland Pollsmoor Prison in 1982.
“And that’s where we started becoming more closer friends, started sharing views with each other,” Brand said.
Mandela, who became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, mentions fondly the friendship he struck with Brand in his memoirs.