Robben Island guards recall Mandela’s acts of kindness

Jailers tell how they were won over by future president’s advice and humility

Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island cell. One of his guards recalled how in the late 1970s Mr Mandela  continuously urged him to finish high school. Photograph: Patrick Barth/The New York Times

Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island cell. One of his guards recalled how in the late 1970s Mr Mandela continuously urged him to finish high school. Photograph: Patrick Barth/The New York Times

Tue, Dec 10, 2013, 01:00


Some of Nelson Mandela’s former Robben Island guards have spoken out in recent days about how their former prisoner won them over with acts of kindness and humility.

Despite being incarcerated for 27-years under extremely difficult conditions, Mr Mandela went to great extremes to not hold grudges against many of those tasked with keeping him behind bars.

Philip du Preez, of East London in the Eastern Cape, who had been assigned to Robben Island because he was fluent in the Xhosa language, recalled how in the late 1970s Mr Mandela had continuously urged him to finish high school so that he could advance his career.

“It got to a point where I tried to avoid him. I couldn’t avoid him any longer so, to get him off my back, I started reading my books and eventually I passed my matric exams in 1980. I was promoted to a warrant officer and he was so proud of me,” he told a Sowetan newspaper.

Another Robben Island prison guard, Christo Brand, described Mr Mandela as a father figure to him after he came to work at the prison off Cape Town as a politically naive 18-year-old in 1977.

He said that his first impression of the African National Congress “terrorists” was that they were friendly, polite, neatly turned out and old.

After some time, Brand said he began to see how tormented the prisoners were by the strict rules they faced in relation to family visits, so he turned a blind eye when Winnie Mandela smuggled their grandchild in so her husband could meet the baby.


Family meetings
After Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982, Mr Brand on occasion took the African National Congress leader to his flat in Cape Town so that he could meet with his family in private.

Mr Brand went on to say that Mr Mandela did not change when he became president, remaining a person who “always let you feel the big person”.

“People will always remember Mandela for the humble, down-to-earth person who led the country, who changed the country without bloodshed. For me it feels like I lost a father even if he was my prisoner,” he said.

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