Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend by Christo Brand

The book starts with the life of Christo Brand growing up in the Eastern Cape, where his father works as a farm foreman. He recounted his early childhood experience growing up, playing with Africans, coloured kids and Afrikaans, which is a stark reality in other parts of South Africa, where apartheid was shaping racial divides.

Life for the young Christo changed dramatically when his father, having contracted pneumonia, and unable to work to pay his farm rent, was evicted from his farm. He moved to Cape Town, where he worked at the railways. To help his family out, he tried his hand in business. But it was not long when he quits to consider what to do that would bring substantial income to his family. Thoughts started whizzing in his head. During apartheid, able-bodied men are obliged to compulsory sign up to security services, such as the police, military, and prison warder. After weighing his options, calibrated and re-recalibrated them, Christo Brand chose a prison warder.

After an intensive training, he was deployed to Robben Island, the notorious prison, where South Africa’s most ‘dangerous terrorists’ are to be kept. Then Nelson Mandela and his fellow Rivonians – his colleagues who were given life sentence at the famous Riviona Trial in June 1964 – were serving their jail term. The other Riviona ‘comrades’ were Walter Sisulu, eight years older than Mandela regarded as a  mentor, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Govan Mbeki (father of Thabo Mbeki, successor of Mandela as president), Elias Motsoaledi,  Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg, the only white South African among them.   

Denis Goldberg, because he is a white, was not allowed to serve his sentence on Robben Island, but, instead, in a prison in Pretoria. But what was the crime of these people? As members of the African National Congress, formed in 1912, they were demanding ‘freedom, justice, and equality’ for all South Africans, values that were out of sync with the apartheid government wish. Apartheid is a ‘cruel’ legitimised racism, inspired by the notion of white supremacy, brought to South Africa by the Dutch ‘conquerors and designed by Hendrik Verwoerd, famous for saying that “there is no need for blacks to study mathematics if they cannot use it in real life”.

After trying peaceful means to rip up apartheid and failed, the ANC High Command, Nelson Mandela at the forefront, decided to use force to cower the apartheid regime to change ways. They formed ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ (a Zulu word, meaning Spear of the Nation) as an armed wing of the ANC to destroy government instillation, with no, in the words of Mandela during his trial, “intension to kill people’. But a successful raid at Lieslifeal farm saw the arrest of Mandela and his comrades, after proving evasive from capture, earning the nicknamed ‘Black Pimpernel’.

The trial of the Rivonians was not without drama and historical contours. Thousands of South Africans and people from abroad flooded the trial court in Johannesburg to show their solidarity with their ‘heroes’. Knowing that the case is faith accompli on life sentence, Mandela used it as a platform to spell out his political beliefs. In a moving, powerful, illuminating, hear-winning statement, the sage Madiba, as he was affectionately called,  pointed out, after peroration in his speech laying out his belief for south Africa where blacks and whites can live together, that “this is a cause I am prepared to die for”.

He was, as expected, given a life sentence with his colleagues. At prison, the author of this book Christo Brand was one of the warders guardingMandela. He recounted his first meeting with him in prison. As an Afrikaan, he admitted that he was brainwashed by the apartheid government’s propaganda of the ANC’ burning the country’ and Mandela being a terrorist. This is how he was seeing Mandela, and “I don’t want to have anything with him”. Instead, when he first met Mandela he was surprised by the courteous, dignified way he was towards him. 

As the warder looking after B section on Robben Island, where the Rivonians were held, Christo Brand used to take Rivonians to the visitors section when they have visitors. Winnie, Mandela’s wife, was around one day to see her imprisoned husband. On their way to the visitors section, Mandela smiled and starts asking Christo about how he is doing, his family, what his favorite sport is, and whether he is married. After their chat, Mandela told him: ‘greet your father for me’. This struck Christo. 

Also, he was gradually seeing the strong bond that exists between the eight Rivonians on Robben Island. They helped one another, do things together and make sure that they have busy activities every day to keep themselves distracted, knowing that the intension of apartheid authorities is to break them physically, emotionally and mentally. For instance, Christo used to see Mandela emptying the toilet bucket of Eddie Daniels when Eddie was sicked in prison. To keep himself occupy, Mandela also tends a garden and exercising every morning, with ‘push-up and sit-up in his cell’.

Christo Brand said this signalled to him that “these people are different”.  He said: “The comradeship, friendship, companionship that exists between them was very strong”. They study at night, shared news stories and food among themselves. Such was the relationship between Christo Brand and the Rivonians that he started relaxing some of the prison rules for them. When they applied for newspapers, “of course they are censored at the censor’s office, but I gave them”. When they have visitors, he will extend the time. Mendela called him as ‘Mr Brand’. As a 16-years-old warder, “I was taken aback by this respect”, he said.

When Winnie visited the prison one day, she brought with her Mandela’s granddaughter. But according to the prison rules, this was not allowed. Christo informed Winnie about this, and she pleaded with him to allow Mandela to see the granddaughter. To encourage him to relent, she took 700 Rand out of her bag to give Christo. But he refused to take it. Later, Christo recounted in the book, he closed the door on Mandela and told Winnie to wait at the other end to be given back the child. Before reaching Winnie, he had already dropped the child to Mandela, who was completely astounded, and said ‘Oh’. This is how Christo Brand recounted the story: “I walked through the passage on his side of the booth and held out his granddaughter to him. He took her and held her and said ‘Oh’, and I saw tears in his eyes as he kissed the baby. We both stood there in silence and after about 30 seconds he knew he must hand her back to me. Neither of us said it but we knew this had to be a secret, even from his wife”.

Winnie, who didn’t know about this, was angry that she brought the granddaughter and warders refused her. When she went back, she expressed her anger to waiting journalist, who are always gathered at the disembarkation point from Robben Island when Winnie visits Mandela to share news with them. Never mind the apartheid authorities banned Mandela’s name from being published in their papers.

Asserting leadership

In Prison, Mr Brand, said in the book Mandela was a natural leader among his ‘comrades’. Sisulu is older than him for seven years and Govan Mbeki is eight years his senior but they respect his authority, integrity and standing among them. Sometimes they would be having discussion about the future of the ANC, family, at the lime quarry on Robben Island, where they toiled from dawn to dusk sometimes.

In his humorous, charming manner, Mandela will be engaging the warders in discussions to know them more. He knows the limitations of their powers, so when he needs something sorted out for him and his colleagues; he will write to the prison head for a meeting, demanding to meet him face-to-face to table their demands and complains. Sometimes he will agree, and Mandela will complain about conditions, and demand more blankets and long prison uniforms for ‘all of them, not only him’. A selfless act, if you consider that he used to be offered in secret, and he will turn it down, ‘until we all have it’.

Christo also pointed out a story in the book where Mandela reined in on prisoners in other sections who were on hunger strike. After some weeks Mandela heard of this, he request to meet them was approved. He told them to take their food, as “hunger strike is counter-productive. “Let us channel our concerns through other means, when that fails, I can assure you that I will lead any hunger strike”. His fellow African prisoners, most of whom see him as their hero and inspiration, agreed.

Also, Mandela re-asserted and re-established leadership when a radio provided to the Rivonians to listen to news, provided to them for the first time in 19 years, was taken by Andrew Mlangeni, who insisted that he is the only one who will listen. Described as “argumentative and short-tempered” by Christo Brand, Mlangeni was called by Mandela for a chat. He told him: “This [radio] is provided for us to listen to the news. Whiles we are here it is important we all know what is happening. Now give me the radio. I will control it and when it is time for news I will put it somewhere where we can all listen”. Without a word, Andrew handed the radio back. And Mandela did as he said.  

Negotiation and release 

With the international community pilling pressure on the apartheid regime, with sanctions and boycotts, to release political prisoners, the South African government decided to soften its stand. Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor prison and later Victor Vester prison, where he was taken out to see the Minister of Justice Kobi Coestee for talks. He was giving a ride to see the town and pick fruits. All of this, said Christo Brand in the book, is designed to prepare him and rehabilitate him for life outside prison. 

After unsuccessful negotiation with Prime Minister P W Botha, he entered talks with Botha’s successor F W d Clerk.  Later all political prisoners were released. And in February 1990, Mandela and his wife Winne, walked through the prison gates and punched their fist in the air with the liberation battle-cry of ‘Amandla’, meaning power to the people. Mandela ended up winning the elections.  Some cast doubt that Mandela was ‘talking to the enemy’. But he said in a powerful defense that, sometimes a leader should move a step forward from its flock, make decisions, believing in the strength of his judgment. 

The book Mandela – my Prisioner, My Friend, clearly explains the most unlikely friendship between a man representing the oppressor, born in the Western Cape to Afrikaans and a man who hailed from the Western Cape born to a chieftain family in Qunu, trained as a lawyer and strong opponent of apartheid.

It is a most-read book for anyone interested in South Africa’s past. Having read myself Nelson Mandela’s life story ‘long walk to freedom’,  The ‘Riviona Trial by Mandela’s lawyer’, ‘Kaffir Boy by a young Black South African’, I will strong recommend this book to anyone interested in  South Africa’s past, tells from the prism of an Afrikaan, white-Dutch south Africa, Christo Brand, with a clear focus on the high-octane moral leadership, empathy, sympathy, compassion, fairness, honesty, integrity and a golden heart of Nelson Mandela for human beings of all hues.   


You can buy the book at Tombookoto Bakau for D720     

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