Securing his own future
GERHARD BRAND now lives quietly in west Clare after having spent most of his career working in prisons in South Africa, including Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was famously incarcerated.
A former soldier and warden, he was the last governor of the Robben Island prison and helped oversee its transformation to the museum it now is. Since then he has run a restaurant with his wife, Avril, delivered ice-cream and skippered a fishing boat before moving to Ireland where he now works as a security officer for a retail group.
It’s a long way from having big budgets, handling large staff and even arranging the security for the visit of a US president.
He and Avril live in a refurbished cottage near Kilrush, Co Clare, where the commute to work takes about five minutes.
“There is no career path any more. You have this job. Of course, it is frustrating, but on the other hand I can now have a life. I have a job.
“Once you buy your own place and you have a house, then you make peace with that. As long as I can afford to pay the bills and we can live in safety and with the friends we have made around us, I am happy with that.”
He still has fond memories of Robben Island, a World Heritage Site which he found an idyllic place to live. Although Mandela had been transferred to a mainland prison by the time Brand started working there in December 1990, there were still almost 300 political prisoners imprisoned on the island.
“They were all from banned organisations at the time: the ANC, the PAC, the BCM, all these organisations. And we dealt with hunger strikes day after day, and with visits from the International Red Cross and visits from lawyers and all the support that these people were getting to get them out of prison.
“Once Mandela was released the pressure just kept on coming, ‘Why don’t the others get amnesty, why can’t they be released?’ So it filtered down.”
The pressure for political prisoners to be freed continued through 1990 and, by March 1991, only a handful of prisoners remained on Robben Island.
“We used to get calls late at night from the officers of the minister of justice, saying that we have to fill out the documents for the release of the following prisoners for the next day. I had stacks and stacks of files in my office of these guys.
“You then had to write the unconditional immediate release of the prisoner is recommended as he is no longer seen as a danger to the community, and sign . So I signed about 270 of theses releases.”
After the prison was closed, he and Avril worked alongside some of the former political prisoners and received visitors from around the world during this period of transformation before they both decided to move on with their lives.
“I was in charge of safety, security and basically running the infrastructure. We worked for the ANC for two years. We were appointed permanently by them,” he says.
While there he met Nelson Mandela on a number of occasions and has his own experience of the former Robben Island prisoner’s remarkable memory.
“He came on one of his visits to the island when I was still a captain. And then about a year or so later he came back again and I had been promoted in the meantime. He walked in, he was surrounded by people from everywhere.
“He walked straight up to me, he shook my hand and he said, ‘Congratulations Major Brand, I see that you have been promoted’. After meeting millions of people, he is now the celebrity of the world and he still remembers you.”
Brand also met dozens of high profile visitors from around the world, including Bono, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby and the late Yasser Arafat and Michael Jackson. In 2006, he was the South African liaison officer for arranging security for former US president Bill Clinton’s visit in 1998 for which he received a certificate from the CIA.
He and Avril had a few years of uncertainty in South Africa after leaving Robben Island. They set up a restaurant together in an area on the west coast which they thought might develop a tourism industry.
“I learnt to make pizzas, steaks and we ran it ourselves. Avril, myself and our daughter, Liezel, who had just finished school.
“We thought the potential for tourism would come in the years to come. After about a year or two, we realised there was just not enough feet through the door. So I tried to supplement the income of the restaurant by doing other jobs as well.”
Finding work continually proved difficult, while rising crime levels made them feel increasingly insecure, and when Brand saw security positions being offered in a country whose location he was unsure of, he decided to give it a go.
“I saw in a Sunday newspaper, a small advertisement. It just read, ‘Security work in Ireland’. I thought I will take the chance and send my CV away once more. We sent it on the internet and a few weeks later we got an e-mail back.”
He worked in Dublin for six months in 2003 before suggesting to Avril that she should sell their restaurant and internet business in South Africa and join him.
“When Avril came over we started to use public transport. My goodness. It is safe to get on a train or bus and go somewhere without being robbed.
“We used to go to Malahide and everywhere. It was so nice to be able to feel safe.”
The high cost of living in Dublin convinced them to transfer to Ennis, Co Clare, and last year Brand moved to a store in Kilrush.
“We bought an old second-hand car and started to explore Clare. And there are very many roads in Clare that we have not travelled on. We used to drive all over – every day that I was off we went to a different place. And it is beautiful. We love it.”
The South Africa he misses is no longer there, he says.
“We went back there in March for two weeks on a holiday. And when we came back I was physically home sick. There was nothing right in Ireland for at least a month till I realised why I left South Africa. It is not that I have a problem with the black government because they are a black government or a majority government. That is not what changed South Africa.
“What’s changed in South Africa is the corruption, the way that there is no more true discipline. Things are falling apart and because of that crime has got of control.”