The day I stopped hating Madiba

2010-08-28 00:00

IT was a cold, rainy day in the Cape when Christo Brand’s hatred for Nelson Mandela disappeared.

It was the day the former Robben Island prison warden placed the world’s most famous freedom fighter’s grandchild in his arms.

That day Brand realised Mandela was actually a “normal person”.

Brand started working on the island as an 18-year-old in 1978.

“We were 21 young guys and the first group of matriculants to become wardens at the time.

“The previous wardens were chosen for their big build so that they could scare the prisoners.”

Even after all this time, and after all the times Brand has spoken about the subject, he still bubbles over.

“Sorry for talking so fast,” he apologises in his soft-spoken way.

The first day on the island Brand and his colleagues were divided into two groups. Brand worked in the B section, where Mandela and the rest of the senior ANC leaders were held.

“The head of the prison first gave us a long speech about the prisoners.

“He said we would be working with the biggest criminals in the country and that the people are in jail because of murder and serious crimes and that they want to overthrow the government.

“He said the people murdered our soldiers on the border.

“I was a bit apprehensive when I unlocked the door to their section.

“I immediately looked to see whether I could spot the biggest criminal, but all I saw was old black people and a few coloureds and Indians.

“A feeling of hatred rose up in me, because my friend was killed on the border in 1976,” Brand tells me.

Despite the hatred he treated the “old people” with respect.

“I grew up on the farm Goedvertrou in Stanford in the Papiesvlei district in the Cape.

“I played with a lot of black people and coloureds and never knew the word ‘apartheid’ until we moved to the city. My dad always taught me to respect older people.”

The hatred that Brand felt towards Mandela disappeared on a cold, rainy day in 1980.

“On that particular day Winnie came to visit Mandela. We always knew exactly when she landed at the airport and she was always followed.

“On the boat to the island she had a lot of parcels with her and a blanket tied around her body. When she got to the island, she sat outside on the boat, and it was cold and rainy.”

Brand and the other wardens searched Mrs Mandela’s parcels, but no one questioned the blanket that was wrapped around her.

“When she walked into the waiting room and removed the blanket we saw the baby on her back for the first time.”

Mrs Mandela was prohibited from showing the baby to Mandela.

“She told Mandela about his grandchild who was there with her.

“Mandela immediately said, ‘Mr Brand, may I please see my grandchild through the glass?’

“I said: ‘No, Mandela, you know you aren’t allowed to.’

“After a while he asked me again and said I should go and ask the head of the prison if he could see his grandchild.

“The prison chief said that if I could show Mandela his grandchild without Winnie knowing about it, we could do it.

“He said he knew Mandela would keep it a secret, but Winnie would go and broadcast it to the press and then the wardens would be in trouble.”

When Mandela sent Winnie to go and apply for her next visit, Brand grabbed the opportunity to take the child from her.

“In the waiting room Winnie picked up the child and I called her and asked to hold the child because I had never held a black baby before.

“She gave me the child and went off to book her next visit. I moved to a side door and whistled to Mandela.

“Mandela immediately stood up, and I gave the child to him. He was trembling. He was half tearful. He was desperate for his grandchild, and right there my hatred for him disappeared.

“He pressed the child up against his chest, and just at that moment Winnie knocked at the door to come in so that she could continue her visit.”

Brand says Mandela handed the child back to him and said, ‘Thank you, Mr Brand’ and gave him a little squeeze.

“Winnie wasn’t aware of this and kept pleading with me to show the child to Mandela.

“She offered to pay me R200 for doing it. At the time I was earning only R100 a month.”

Brand says Mandela kept that incident a secret until he became president.

Shortly afterwards, Mandela told Brand about discrimination against black people and why he was prepared to sacrifice his life.

“In 1986 Mandela explained to me what the ANC stood for and that it wasn’t their aim to kill people. I understood that he would sacrifice his life for freedom.”

Brand says that on the island Mandela never stood out.

“He wasn’t special. Walter Sisulu was the leader and Mandela always used to tease and say it’s Sisulu’s fault that he [Mandela] is in jail. He looked up a lot to Sisulu.”

Brand’s and Mandela’s stay on the island ended in 1982 when both were transferred to Pollsmoor prison.

In 1988 Mandela was transferred to the Victor Verster prison, where Brand visited him up to three times a week.

“I said goodbye to him every day as if he was going to be released the next day.

“I also always tried to be helpful and even went and posted registered letters from Mandela myself to make sure Winnie got them.”

Brand says the day Mandela was released he watched the event on his TV in his flat.

“About four days later he phoned me at home and we had a bit of a chat.

“If I could have my life over again I would go and work on Robben Island again, but this time there wouldn’t be any hatred any more.”

Mandela immediately stood up, and I gave the child to him. He was trembling. He was half tearful.

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