‘My Prisoner, My Friend’: Mandela’s jailer speaks of their unlikely friendship

Christo Brand, who has just published an autobiography about his friendship with South Africa's anti-apartheid icon, spoke at the BOLDtalks event at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.

Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela’ s prison guard, speaking about his friendship with the South African statesman, at the BOLDtalks event at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre on March 22, 2014. Pawan Singh / The National
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DUBAI // A man who was Nelson Mandela’s prison guard has spoken of his unlikely but enduring friendship with the legendary South African statesman.

Christo Brand spoke to an audience in Dubai on Saturday about how he forged a close bond with Mandela while working as a prison warder at a maximum security prison on Robben Island.

Brand, who has just published an autobiographical account of their friendship, was speaking at the BOLDtalks event at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre.

“Mandela looked beyond the uniform, he looked at me as an individual, as a human being,” said Brand.

“He was my prisoner, but he was my friend. He was like a father to me.”

Brand was 18 when he first met Mandela, who was 60 at the time, and urged the younger man to continue his studies.

Over the years, the two grew close, and Brand paid him back with small acts of kindness, such as allowing Mandela to hold his infant granddaughter his wife had brought to show him, despite a prison rule that forbade inmates from coming into contact with children.

He said there were moments where their friendship made being Mandela’s jailer a difficult job.

“I’ve been in situations where prisoners were beaten,” he said. “When that happened I couldn’t step in and try to stop them, because I would be in trouble.

“I couldn’t do anything else than feel sorry about the situation. Sometimes I would try to accommodate him when he was locked away in isolation, and I just talked to him and tried to make him comfortable.

“It was difficult to be both his prison warden and his friend.

“There were a lot of times where I had to burn his letters after being told to do so by the security branch. Sometimes I would put a letter in my pocket and pass it to him, saying ‘I want it back in ten minutes’.”

The event, BOLDtalks, features innovators and experts in the field of science and medicine, and is held three times a year.

Yesterday’s event included speeches by Jack Andraka, a US high-school student who discovered a new test for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer, as well as Harald Haas, who has discovered a way of transmitting Wi-Fi over a light spectrum.

International speakers have been flown in for the event, said project director Enida Mujanovic.

“We try to keep the topics very diverse and invite the most interesting scientists, inventors and humanitarians from around the world to share their stories with local audiences,” she said.

Brand was in Dubai to promote his new book, Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend. Brand said his friendship with Mandela lasted until his death.

After his release, the South African leader never forgot his friendship with Brand. He even gave him a job in parliament drafting the constitution.

Brand went on to travel with Mandela to the US and Holland, attended his 80th birthday, and was at his funeral last year.

Brand, now 53, said his enduring memory of Mandela was his immense tolerance and commitment to peace.

He said: “I asked him after his release, ‘Don’t you hate the white people in this country?’.

“He told me, ‘Mr Brand, I can’t hate white people because my friends are all white. But I can hate the system that’s in place, that leads to the oppression of one people by another. That I can hate.’ ”

mcroucher@thenational.ae