Christo Brand is a South African former prison guard who was one of several that were responsible for guarding Nelson Mandela. He came to Robben Island, where Mandela was being held, in 1978 when he was 19 years old.
In 1982 he was transferred along with Mandela to Pollsmoor Prison. Christo and Mandela developed a close friendship over the course of many years. He is the co-author of his book, Doing Life with Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend (2014). Christo retired from Robben Island on 31st July 2018 to pursue his story-telling on a full-time basis.
How was it possible for these two men from such seemingly different backgrounds to develop a relationship which was to become so much more – a lasting friendship based on a mutual trust and respect for each other? Surely they should have hated each other? One was a white, 18 year old Afrikaans speaking prison guard representing the oppressive, apartheid regime of the time; the other – a black, 60 year old Xhosa speaking terrorist serving a life sentence.
Rather than join the army for National Service as was compulsory for every South African white male, Christo decided to join the prison service. After training for a year in Kroonstad, he applied for a post on Robben Island because he wanted to be close to home.
His application was successful and at the age of 19 he was sent to work on Robben Island in 1978. That was when Christo first came across Nelson Mandela who at that time was 60 years old. This was where they formed a relationship which was to become so much more. A close friendship built on trust and mutual respect for each other.
In 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. On 13th March that year, Christo married Estelle. Soon afterwards, Christo was transferred to Pollsmoor and was responsible for guarding Mandela for the next 6 years.
Later Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison and the talks about his release escalated.
On his release, Mandela organised a job for Christo as an administrative and logistics manager in the Constitutional Assembly. Once the Constitution was adopted, Ahmed Kathrada organised for Christo to start work again on Robben Island – this time as supervisor in the island shop. The wheel had turned full circle and Christo was back where he started his work career. But this time on an island freed of prisoners – a place of healing and reconciliation. A place of endless fascination to international tourists, historians, political activists and anyone with an interest in South Africa’s turbulent past. On 31st July 2018 after 20 years at Robben Island, Christo retired to pursue his story-telling on a full-time basis.
Here are some of the key learnings from this journey which we can explore during our session and which our audience will hopefully translate into their personal, business and organisational lives. We can discuss which of these learnings you want us to focus on during our session.
- Early/formative years
- What were the similarities in the two men’s formative years – and how did this allow them to connect for the first time?
- Trust and risk-taking
- Why did Christo decide to smuggle Mandela’s grandchild into the visitors centre on Robben Island for him to hug when such a deed would have had extreme consequences for both men?
- Random acts of kindness
- What were some of the other secrets the two men kept from the authorities?
- Overcoming personal differences
- How did Christo help Mandela learn the language of his oppressor? And when Mandela was freed, how did he reach out to those who might have considered him their “enemy”, in particular during the 1995 Rugby World Cup?
- The importance of education and improving yourself
- How important was education in the life of Mandela and how did he instill this passion for education in those around him, including Christo and his son?
- Compassion and humanity
- When Christo’s son was killed in a car crash, what was Mandela’s message when he called Christo to offer his condolences?
- Belief in and commitment to a cause
- What can we learn from Mandela’s belief in a cause, his absolute commitment to that cause and the success he eventually achieved?
- Forgiveness and reconciliation
- How did Mandela manage to make a conscious decision to walk out of prison with forgiveness and reconciliation in his heart? Surely he should have hated the people who put him behind bars for 27 ½ years? How was it possible for him to choose reconciliation over revenge?
- As a guest of the Mandela family at Mandela’s funeral, how did Christo reflect on his journey with his friend?
- Mandela respected everyone he came across and treated everyone with the same dignity. Whether meeting the Queen, a Head of State or an ordinary member of the public, he never forgot where he came from and maintained his humility at all times.
- Coping with lockdown
- How did Mandela cope with 27 years of lockdown when we have all been battling with our own COVID lockdowns?