How #WinnieMandela unlocked a warder’s heart
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Long boat trips to Robben Island and organising underground operations filled Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's time in Cape Town during the apartheid era.
And on each visit she made to Robben Island, Madikizela-Mandela was met by a familiar face, prison guard Christo Brand.
The former prison warder was Nelson Mandela’s guard for 12-and-a-half years, following him from Robben Island to the Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons. He later penned his memories in a book, Doing Life with Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend.
This is an extract from his book:
ON A rainy winter’s day when the wind was howling around Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s beautiful wife Winnie came to visit him. She was a banned person under the Suppression of Communism Act and she had been forced to leave Joburg and live hundreds of kilometres away in a white Afrikaans area, Brandfort, in the Free State.
For many years, she had been allowed only very limited prison visitation rights - just one 30-minute visit in his first year on the island - though this had gradually increased over the years.
Now, to get to see her husband for 30 short minutes once every three months, she had to receive an invitation from him, apply for a permit to the prison, then go to her local magistrate to have the permit stamped.
Most visitors supported each other in a large group and drove to Cape Town, sometimes overnight, to stay at Cowley House, a charity-funded lodging house set up for the families of prisoners in the city and from there take the trip to see their loved ones. After the prison visit, they would return to Cape Town on the ferry and stay overnight again at their lodgings, able to share their news and enjoy the friendship of those in a similar situation.
For Winnie, it was different. She lived under a strictly monitored curfew and could only leave her home between 6am and 6pm. So she took a flight to Cape Town, alone, to board the ferry to Robben Island, then flew back. Because of her husband’s status, there would always be a large number of journalists at the embarkation point to see her leave and return. They were hungry for news of Mandela, despite a total ban on anything being published about him or his fellow Rivonians in South Africa.
His sympathisers in England and the US got to know much more about his prison years than any of his supporters in his own country. On the day of Winnie’s visit, as the white prison officers and their wives and families went inside the ferry boat, the black visitors, as always, had to sit on the top deck, exposed to the wind and rain, or else downstairs in the cold, bleak hold of the ship. Winnie had wrapped herself in a huge blanket against the weather, knowing the 45-minute journey would be hellish.
However, the warm covering also served a dual purpose. Only her handbag had been checked at the embarkation office in Cape Town’s waterfront; no one had looked inside the blanket.
When she arrived on Robben Island, I was there to collect her and the other visitors. I accompanied the group on foot, and when we reached the visitors’ centre I watched her take off the blanket. I was astonished to see there was a baby hidden inside. It was Zoleka Mandela, the daughter of Zindzi, who was Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s child.
Now this was a serious breach of the rules. Political prisoners were not allowed visits from their own children and were even forbidden to set eyes on the children of warders whose families lived with them on the island: a particularly cruel regulation meant they could not see any child under the age of 16 for the whole length of their sentence.
An ANC prisoner, the academic Neville Alexander, has written about hearing a child’s voice only once in 10 years on Robben Island. He said: “We all stood dead still and everyone was waiting for the moment when we would actually glimpse that child. And of course it wasn’t allowed.”
A fellow prisoner, Patrick Lekota, who later became minister of defence, wrote to his daughter about how there was terror that one could die on Robben Island without ever being able to make contact with one’s child.
Mandela told me that when he worked in the limestone quarry there would sometimes be the distant sound of the warders’ children playing in nearby bushes. “We immediately stopped, wanting to enjoy it,” he said.
“But the warders would come at us shouting and make us start shovelling again.”
Now I was faced with this extraordinary situation. Winnie was holding out a baby to me. What on earth was I meant to do? I told her: “Mrs Mandela, you must leave the baby with other visitors in the waiting room while you see your husband.”
Winnie, although she was a fighter and was in many ways living out her own wretched sentence under constant harassment from the apartheid police, knew better than to fight prison rules. She might find the visit to her husband was disallowed altogether. So she went into the visitor’s booth alone. She and Mandela as usual greeted each other as lovingly as possible by each putting a hand up on the glass panel that separated them.
I sat behind Mandela, listening in to their conversation on the warders’ phone. I saw his face as she told him that she had brought their four-month-old granddaughter Zoleka and had somehow managed to get her all the way to the prison. He looked at me, standing behind him, supervising the visit. “Please, Mr Brand,” he said. “Is it possible to see the baby? Please let me see this little child.”
I told him it was impossible, that I would lose my job. After a few minutes, a warrant officer came into the passage. Mandela tried again, pleading with both of us. But we told him it was against the rules, that there was no way we could allow it. He asked again, saying perhaps he could watch as his wife left carrying the child. We said, “No, impossible.”
But by now the warrant officer and I were exchanging looks. It was a flesh-and-blood moment when your heart told you it was only human to find a way around the cruelty.
At the end of the visit, I told Mandela to stay in the visiting booth and I would call his wife back so he could ask her to apply for a Christmas visiting permit.
I knew the microphones were off so I went around to Winnie in the waiting room where she had the baby back in her arms. She took R200 in cash out of her handbag - a small fortune and much more than my monthly salary. She said: “Please, sir, please, Mr Brand, let my husband see the baby for a few seconds.”
I told her: “I cannot take your money you have to realise I can’t help you, I’m sorry.”
She looked downcast, but I went on: “Ma’am, could I please hold the baby for a moment? I’ve never held an African child.” It was the only thing I could think of at that second. I told her she could have a moment with her husband to talk about applying for a permit at Christmas. I ushered her back into the booth on her side and locked her in, then quietly closed the door to the passageway.
The window in front of Mandela was by now also closed so I walked through the passage on his side of the booth and held out the baby to him. He took her and held her and he just 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. Journalists were waiting for her when she reached Cape Town on the ferry and she told them how cruel we were.
She had smuggled their grandchild to him but they wouldn’t let her show her to Nelson.
On the way back to the cells, Mandela told me: “Thank you. I know you can lose your job for that. Now it’s a secret between us, just you and me.”
This moment that passed between us, this silent understanding from man-to-man, meant everything to him. We became allies for life without referring to that day again all the time he was in prison.
* Doing Life with Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend by Christo Brand, with Barbara Jones, is published by Jonathan Ball.