“I was 19 years old when I came face-to-face with Nelson Mandela,” writes Christo Brand, in his memoir Doing Life with Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend. “He was 60. Until that day I’d never heard of him, or his African National Congress. I was his prison warder on Robben Island and he changed my life forever.”

Nelson Mandela, dressed in yellow, looks thoughtfully out of the bars of his former prison cell, green walls behind him.
Nelson Mandela revisits the cell at Robben Island prison in February 1994 where he was jailed for more than two decades. Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images

The two men — one a young, white Afrikaner prison guard, the other a charismatic African freedom fighter imprisoned for life — should have been bitter enemies. Instead, over the course of three decades, they formed a powerful bond that transcends age, race, politics, and even death.

It’s not often you have the opportunity to hear about the life of Nelson Mandela directly from the lips of one of his Robben Island prison warders. But since summer 2018, when he retired as manager of the Robben Island gift shop, Christo Brand has been offering private tours of the island prison off Cape Town. I'm a decades-long admirer of Mandela, so when I met Christo Brand, quite by chance, I knew I had to join his tour.

Robben Island: a wintry, inhospitable place      

My private group tour began at Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela Gateway, from where we boarded the ferry to Robben Island. Upon first meeting Brand, I was immediately taken by his ready smile and the kindness in his eyes. A gentle and compassionate soul who has had to deal with his own personal tragedy, Brand does not suit the profile of the stereotypical prison guard.

Robben Island is a windswept and mostly barren place where, in winter, the waves crash relentlessly against the forbidding shore. Even in late summer, when I visited, the surf pounded against the rocks. It was cool and blustery, despite the bright sun, and I was grateful for my thin linen sweater.

Lying tantalisingly close (only 7km) to Cape Town, the former leper colony and prison offers wow-factor views of Table Mountain, but so turbulent is the water separating it from the mainland that escape is virtually impossible. Brand told us he’d “wanted to leave from the moment [he] got here, but [he] had to commit to at least two years.” As I stood with Brand and the two others in my group on the rocky north shore looking out toward Table Mountain, I understood why. The desolation was palpable.

Bright limestone walls of a rock quarry; in the foreground is shrubby vegetation on the base of the quarry, while atop the walls are trees and a concrete guard tower.
The old limestone quarry, where Mandela and other prisoners toiled in the bright sunshine © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

Hard labour takes its toll on Mandela and others

After stopping at the leper cemetery, one of the most poignant points on our tour was the old limestone quarry. It was here that Mandela toiled for 13 backbreaking years, digging up and breaking rock. Forbidden from wearing sunglasses, even in the relentless sun, the prisoners were subjected to the blinding light reflected off the white limestone. Not only were their eyes damaged from the sun, but the dust clouds also caused them respiratory issues. “Mandela’s eyesight suffered for the rest of his life and eye drops didn’t have much of an effect,” Brand said.

It’s no longer possible to walk into the quarry as it’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site and has been cordoned off, but as we stood facing the quarry listening to Brand, I felt my chest catch with emotion. I could almost picture the prisoners, as if in an old black and white film, grunting with the effort of smashing rocks, the sweat pouring off their faces and down their backs as clouds of dust rise up, the prisoners choking and wiping futilely at their eyes.

A dishevelled room with the floor covered in old electrical cables; the pale green walls have empty wooden bookshelves on them.
The remains of the Robben Island library, which was set up to help prisoners with education © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

Mandela leads introduction of prison education

Despite the hardship the prisoners endured in the rock quarry, Mandela managed to turn the quarry, and eventually their section (B Section), into a classroom. The Red Cross provided them with works of literature, history, philosophy and political theory. Prisoners would be given various texts, which they'd then need to read and later lead a seminar on. Initially the seminars were held secretly in one of the quarry's caves as getting caught with the texts was a major risk. But over time the Afrikaner guards permitted the seminars on condition that they could listen in on the discussions.

In time, the prisoners won the right to do university correspondence courses and no longer had to hide their activities. They set up a library – basically bookcases in an empty double cell. “The guys appointed a librarian and there was a warder who would let them in two at a time. And they each had a card to record what books they were borrowing.”

Mandela spent much of his time in prison studying, taking at least fifty correspondence courses. Brand said, “I used to tell him, why don’t you relax and take things easier? Why not borrow books from the library and enjoy, instead of pushing yourself so hard with all these exams? And he would say, ‘If you have degrees, if you have knowledge – even if it’s about motor mechanics – for as long as you’re alive they can’t take that away from you.’” Mandela pressured his fellow prisoners and “he would even tell we guards we should study,” Brand said, “so we could be thinkers and lift up our lives.” Warders started doing courses and, Brand recalls, “I even saw prisoners helping warders with their assignments.”

A sisal mat with rough blanket lay atop a polished concrete floor within a dark grey room with barred widows; benches line the walls and a single bunk bed sits at the far end.
The very cold confines of a dormitory within the prison, along with the traditional bedding of a sisal mat and blanket © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

Inhumane conditions and discriminatory treatment

Brand led our group into an erstwhile dormitory, a long, narrow room with a polished concrete floor and barred windows letting in little light. There were rolled up sisal mats and rough, matted blankets on display. We immediately remarked on how cold it was in the room.

“It’s as cold as a refrigerator year-round,” said Brand. He directed us to a sisal mat laid out on the floor with one of the thin blankets on top, no longer than four feet. “It was just like that, plus three blankets,” he said. “No sheets, no cover, no pillow, no nothing. Sometimes they might put their book under a blanket and use it as a pillow. They didn’t get mattresses until 1980.”

“I’d be on patrol and I’d walk by Mandela’s cell and I’d see him doing sit ups and push ups and I’d ask him, why are you doing sit ups at this time of night? He said, ‘Mr. Brand, I must warm up. I can’t sleep anymore. I need to warm up the body and try to sleep again once I get warmer.’”

The B Section prisoners, the political prisoners incarcerated for life, “were treated worse than criminal prisoners,” said Brand. As if the cold was not bad enough, there was the execrable food and the shameful discrimination regarding its allocation. “The food on Robben Island was very bad,” Brand said. “And there was discrimination. Black people would get a bucket of porridge, no sugar, no milk, and a cup of coffee, no sugar, no milk. The coloured [sic] prisoners got a nicer quality porridge with sugar and milk, a piece of bread with white margarine and jam, and coffee with milk and sugar. The Indian prisoners got a little more.”

A woman sits on a wooden bench in a small room and looks through a small glass window into where a prisoner would be sitting when meeting his family.
The visitation room, where family members could see their imprisoned loved ones through a small window © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

The gift of human kindness

One of our last stops after visiting Mandela’s cell was the visitation booth separated by a wall and a viewing window a little larger than A3 paper. Both parties had to speak in either Afrikaans or English because meetings were recorded and it was a requirement that prison staff, listening later, be able to understand.

Visits from family members, the thing the prisoners most looked forward to, were tough not only on prisoners and visitors but also on sensitive warders like Christo Brand. “It was hard to tell them they only had five minutes left when they’d only been talking for 25 and hadn’t seen each other in months.”

On one occasion Mandela’s wife, Winnie, disembarked from the ferry on a rainy winter’s day wrapped in a big blanket. When Brand discovered that underneath the blanket was Winnie's four-month-old grandchild, Zoleka, he was shocked. Despite all her pleas, Brand told her she had to leave the child with other visitors. As he sat behind Mandela to supervise the visit, Winnie told her husband she had brought his grandchild but she was not allowed to show him. Mandela begged to see the baby, but Brand and another guard told him it was impossible. But Brand knew this was all wrong. Returning to the waiting room, he asked Winnie if he could hold the baby and swiftly disappeared. He went back to the visitation booth and held out the child to Mandela. “He held her and just said, ‘Oh’, and I saw tears in his eyes as he kissed the baby,” said Brand.

Only Brand and Mandela knew what had transpired. Mandela thanked Brand, knowing that the warder could have lost his job and he himself would have lost his privileges. “This moment that passed between us, this silent understanding, was very special to Mandela,” said Brand. “After that moment, we became allies for life.”

Christo Brand and Thulani Mabaso stand next to each other on the grounds of Robben Island prison.
Christo Brand (right) stands next to Thulani Mabaso, a tour guide who was his last prisoner during his time as a guard on Robben Island © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

Robben Island: now a symbol of hope and reconciliation

On the packed ferry back to Cape Town, I pondered the irony of Robben Island: the island that once represented everything that was most reprehensible about apartheid is today a place of hope and reconciliation as well as a Unesco World Heritage Site symbolising the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I pondered, too, the unlikely friendship between Brand and Mandela, and the strange twist of fate that brought them together. Mandela and Brand remained close friends right up until Mandela’s death.

As the boat approached the Nelson Mandela Gateway, I concluded that the special bond shared by Mandela and Brand perfectly embodies the spirit of hope reconciliation.

A small bed is visible within a tiny cell through the barred prison door.
The former cell of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president © Elizabeth Warkentin / Lonely Planet

Practicalities

The fee for a private tour with Christo Brand is R6000 (US$407). Note that this is only the guiding fee and is a set fee regardless of the numbers and is subject to COVID-19 restrictions. Ferry tickets, private vehicle and driver on the island are booked directly with Robben Island.  Access to Mandela’s cell depends on the size of the group and is not guaranteed (standard group tours never have access to Mandela’s cell). Brand’s tour also offers exclusive access to the solitary confinement house of Robert Sobukwe, another prominent South African political dissident and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress.

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