CAPE TOWN, South Africa – He was with Nelson Mandela during all those years the anti-apartheid icon was imprisoned on Robben Island. And, like millions around the world, he has been hit hard by Mandela’s death.
Yet this South African was not one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners. Christo Brand was his jailer.
The two men – the black political prisoner and the white Afrikaans warden – forged an unlikely but enduring friendship.
They last met about two years ago when Brand, now in his 50s, brought his wife, son and grandson to see Mandela in Cape Town for a Sunday afternoon visit that lasted nearly three hours.
They had nice chats about the past, about his family. He wanted to pick up my grandchild, to hold him, which he was a little bit shy to go to him. You could see he really reached out for touching a child at that moment, Brand recalled.
When I got the message when he passed away, it was very sad for me, Brand said Saturday. But I think he was successful, and he did what he wanted to do.
I wanted him to go in peace, and I am thinking of the family today, what they go through.
South Africa expects overwhelming crowds and a host of world leaders to attend services honoring Mandela. The White House said President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will attend a Tuesday memorial service in South Africa honoring Nelson Mandela.
The Obamas will be accompanied on Air Force One by former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.
Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former President Jimmy Carter will also attend memorials for Mandela in South Africa.
Brand started to work on Robben Island in 1978 when he was 18 and Mandela was 60. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.
Eventually, Brand grew to like Mandela and smuggled in special treats, including bread and Mandela’s favorite hair pomade. Brand even sneaked in Mandela’s infant granddaughter so that the prisoner could hold her.
Years later, when Mandela was president, he took special care to single out Brand for recognition. Brand was a civil servant then, present when South Africa’s new constitution was being drafted.
Mandela flew in by helicopter and entered the room where members of parliament were debating the new constitution, Brand said. Mandela went around the room shaking hands with parliamentarians, but when he saw Brand, who was distributing documents, Mandela lifted his arms and warmly greeted him.
He immediately made a big announcement to everyone: You know who is this person? This person was my warden, this person was my friend.’ Brand said he felt very humble and proud at that moment.
Later, when the parliamentarians went out for a group photo, Mandela insisted that Brand be in the photo. He said, No, no. You must stand next to me, we belong together.’
Brand has returned to work on Robben Island, a now bustling tourist attraction. He and other former guards and prisoners tell visitors about the new South Africa’s racial reconciliation.
Brand said he shared a joke with Mandela about his final resting place.
I say to Mandela that we must bury you on Robben Island. Then he just laughed. He said, Why? For tourist attraction?’
He said, You should have made money. But I think I must go to Qunu.’ That was him making a joke.