By Thakira Desai
Tributes are pouring in from all corners of the globe for the loss of struggle icon, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, woman revered for her revolutionary activism. As one of several prison guards of former president Nelson Mandela during his incarceration at Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Correctional Facility, Christo Brand was one of the few people who witnessed the intimate relationship between Mandela and his former wife.
In 1978, the year he was appointed as a guard for the political prisoners on the island, an 18-year-old Brand was introduced to the leader of the African National Congress, prisoner 46664 – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Following Mandela’s release from prison, Brand formed a unique bond with the Mandela family and reconciled the past through his interaction with the woman fondly remembered as ‘Mama Winnie’.
Speaking to VOC News, Brand explained that following the end of apartheid, his relationship with Madikizela-Mandela remained tense, but after consistent engagement their bond improved.
The pair remained in contact, even after the passing of the former statesman.
“I knew Mrs Mandela from the late 1978, [and] until after Mandela passed [away] I was in touch with her. At first, we had a very bad relationship. We didn’t understand each other properly, because I was the oppressor who put her husband behind bars,” Brand recalled.
They did not treat her like a human being.
During the course of her life, following the fall of apartheid, Mama Winnie’s anger continued to be evident, which Brand ascribed to the poor treatment that she received at the hands of the apartheid regime.
“They always tried to break the relationship between her and her husband, because she was the one who kept Nelson Mandela alive in prison and who spread the name Nelson Mandela on the outside.”
Brand recalled the few attempts to have her killed. Her life, he stated, was filled with untold difficulty.
For her to touch her husband, after 20 years, was something enormous.
Over the 27 years of incarceration, former president Mandela received countless visits by his former wife, but the pair were initially only allowed one 30 minute visit every six months.
The former prison guard said that the most emotional visit between the pair, which he had been witness to, was the moment Mama Madikizela-Mandela hugged her husband for the first time since his incarceration in 1983.
“Mandela was waiting in this room. We sent her in without informing her that her husband was inside. When she walked in she just ran to him, hugged and kissed him. We said she can sit and she held his hand.
“You know how emotional Mandela was. He did not know how to handle the situation… [And] for her to touch her husband, after 20 years, was something enormous,” Brand stated.
Brand admitted that witnessing moments of such raw emotion forced him to question the regime for which he was working.
Mama Winnie’s dedication to her husband and the struggle described as a mark of a true fighter.
“We are all human beings and I grew up on a farm where I respected elderly people and black people, who were my friends. Then I saw how these people treated Winnie Mandela and her husband – how strong she was to stand behind her husband, even when the warders come with stories [such as] ‘hey your wife has a relationship outside’, Mandela would just say ‘she is a human being’.
Maybe we can be separated by this government…but still we are committed to the struggle of this country and we must get freedom for our people.
In those intimate moments between Mama Winnie and Madiba, Brand described the limited and censored interaction as being centred on family life. Madiba would constantly enquire about the well-being of family members and the condition of the children.
Despite incarceration and an ongoing struggle for liberation, the couple always discussed the importance of education in the lives of their children and the maintenance of family bonds.
“Even when Mandla Mandela, his grandchild’s father and mother divorced then [Mandela] insisted that Winnie must look after the boys. That was their responsibility as grandparents.”
For anyone who has a spouse in prison, it is painful and difficult road to follow, but it is in the silence of the night when prisoners long for their family ties. Brand, however, noted that Madiba constantly encouraged Mama Winnie to continue in her efforts and lead the struggle against apartheid.
“He used to tell her ‘darling things will come over our life, maybe we can be separated by this government…but still we are committed to the struggle of this country and we must get freedom for our people.
“Winnie Mandela was locked up a few times in prison, she was in 90 days solitary confinement [and] I’m sure she was tortured during her time. But, she was always positive [about the] fight.”
She did not hold it against me when I chased her away from the prison.
Brand says despite the difficult years in which their friendship formed, Mama Winnie transformed in her interaction with him, following the fall of apartheid, which had a profound impact in his life. He said he was humbled to be treated as one of her children.
“How she forgave some of the guards…she did not hold it against me when I chased her away from the prison when police removed her from Pollsmoor at the gates. She knew that was instructions that I got from higher authorities. She knew that I always made a plan to organise a visit for her.”
Following the dawn of democracy, Brand said he and Mama Winnie developed a relationship based on trust and saw each other as human beings.
In witnessing her 27 years of devotion to a husband and the cause, Mandela’s former prison guard laments the icon, who he said never failed in her duties to her husband, her children, her grandchildren and her country.
“For me personally it is a big loss; we lost a respected woman. Even for the mistakes she made, I respect her – she is a human being. But, my biggest respect is for her standing behind her husband for 27 years, when she could have given up in the beginning and married another man and carried on with life.
“She always acknowledged me, even though I was the oppressor who looked after her husband in prison, we became friends – we will all miss her.”