Christo Brand: I Didn’t Know Who Nelson Mandela Was When I First Started Working on Robben Island
Christo Brand was a warder at Robben Island while Nelson Mandela was there, and later became his warder at Pollsmoor Prison. In the book Doing Life with Mandela, he tells the story of the unlikely friendship that grew between himself, a naive young warder, and Mandela, a seasoned political activist.
In this interview with John Carlin for Frontline, he discusses how he balanced abiding by prison regulations in order to hold on to his job while showing compassion and respect to prisoners like Mandela.
Read the interview:
Describe the first time that you had real communication or engagement with Mandela.
When I arrived in Robben Island in 1979, the commanding officer gave us a small speech on what type of prisoners we were working with. Then the head of the prison … explained that we worked with the biggest criminals in history in South Africa. All the criminals … [who] were supposed to be given the death sentence have been sent to Robben Island. I grew up in a community where I didn’t know about politics at all. I came from a farm community. I never knew Mandela. I never heard the name Mandela, at that stage, but when I landed on Robben Island they didn’t tell me I am going to meet Mandela. They just told me I’m going to meet the dangerous prisoners here.
What did the head of the prison say to you?
The head of the prison told us that we mustn’t try to have unnecessary communication with the prisoners. We mustn’t discuss politics or discuss any family members … just do our job. They were very strict. If the head of the prison or somebody observed you having too long a conversation with one of the prisoners, they would immediately call you in and ask, “What is the private conversation you had with this prisoner?”