Guard recalls how Winnie snuck grandchild onto Robben Island for Mandela to see

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela. (Gallo Images)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela. (Gallo Images)

Trudging through blistery winds, heavy rains and cold weather, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once braved the elements and strict prison rules so that Nelson Mandela could get a glimpse of one of his grandchildren.

During his time on Robben Island, Madikizela-Mandela was one of the former president's primary links with the outside world.

Security was so strict that the two were never allowed to touch and were permitted only a 30-minute visit every three months or so.

Speaking to News24, the one-time prison guard for South Africa's first democratically elected president, Christo Brand, described the incredible bond shared by the struggle power couple. He said the most heartfelt moment he witnessed was when Madikizela-Mandela smuggled one of her grandchildren onto Robben Island. 

"She was a very brave and tough woman. She knew it was against the rules, but she still kept to her convictions," Brand said.

Read: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: revolutionary who kept the spirit of resistance alive

He described how she braved the elements and hid one of her newly born grandchildren in the hopes that her incarcerated husband would have a glimpse of the infant.


"We had no idea she had the baby. Because she was black, she would have to ride on the top deck of the ferry. So, she would always have a blanket covering her."

Brand said Mama Winnie jumped off the boat and boldly requested that Mandela be allowed to see the baby.

"Now you have to understand, rules were extremely strict for inmates and no babies were allowed on the island at all. Yet she brought the baby and then went on to ask me to ask my superiors if Madiba could see the child."

Brand said he tried to get permission from his superior officer, but this was denied.

"It was a very heartbreaking thing to see."

Brand, however, persevered in his attempts to help Madikizela-Mandela. His opportunity came when Mandela asked him to pass a message.

"After time was up, Madiba asked if I could tell Winnie he wanted to see her for Christmas. My superior at this point walked in and asked what was taking so long. When I told him, he said Winnie could come in quickly, but without the child."

Brand said he then took the child while Mama Winnie went back into the visiting booth.

"I told her I had never held a black child before. I took the baby. It was during this back and forth that I managed to sneak the child to Madiba's side. He kissed the child twice, with tears in his eyes."

They 'changed me'

Brand said that his life changed after observing the couple.

"She was a very strong woman. They were never stopped by anything. She was always fighting to get her husband help."

Brand said he first encountered Madikizela-Mandela on one of her visits to Robben Island in the 1970s.

"I collected her at the ferry. I only found out months later who she was. Some of the warders were afraid to talk to her. She always argued with them, saying she wanted more time. During the visit she would try to give updates on the situation outside. Then we would stop the visit and give her a warning."

He described the relationship between the Mandelas as "very strong".

"Even if someone talked bad about his wife, he defended her. She was there for the family and a role model for him."

Also read: Madikizela-Mandela more than Nelson Mandela's wife – Mokonyane

Brand said that over the years, he developed a strong relationship with the former ANC Women's League president.

"We started respecting each other. I grew up on a farm and my father used to say that black people are just people. Many of the prison guards would ignore her. She went to the media very quickly and this made them afraid."

He said that Madikizela-Mandela's strength was infectious.

"The impact she had on me was incredible. To see that a person can love so much changed me. Through hardships, punishment and pain she always supported her husband. You have to understand no one thought he would ever get out. But she did. She had hope."

Brand said she was always politically strong.

"For what she has done I will take off my hat. She kept Madiba alive in prison. She kept the struggle going. I will say South Africa must think of her as a human being. This woman fought for freedom and the nation and the freedom of the country."

He added: "We must respect the impact she had and uplift each other and not fight each other. We must be just human beings and build up the country. The more we educate our people, the better it will be."

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Would you choose to continue working from home after the coronavirus lockdown if given the option?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's much better for me
40% - 7008 votes
No ways! I can't wait to get back to the office
12% - 2044 votes
A mixture of both would suit me best
48% - 8425 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo