Person of the Week: Christo Brand

Former jail guard shares special bond with Nelson Mandela.

Feb. 12, 2010— -- Christo Brand was 18 when he reported for duty as a prison guard in 1978 at the prison on Robben Island in South Africa. He did not know then that his life would be changed forever by prisoner 46664, Nelson Mandela.

"They informed us that we're going to meet the biggest criminals in the history of South Africa," Brand said.

Nelson Mandela was 60, already in prison since 1964; still forced to sleep on the floor.

Much has changed in the years since Mandela's release from prison Feb. 11, 1990. This week marks the 20th anniversary of his freedom, but the memories of his 27 years behind bars still linger for both Mandela, 91, and Brand.

Meeting Mandela in Prison

Brand's family was Afrikaner and affiliated with the party that famously and fiercely supported apartheid, the country's system of legal racial segregation.

But when the young prison guard met Mandela, he was struck by the political leader's respect for Brand, even though they were of different races. Slowly, a trust grew between the two men, and Brand began to extend the same respect to Mandela.

Mandela's Wife Makes a Small Request

Brand recalled one of Winnie Madikizela-Mandala's visits and her request of the prison guard. She had asked Brand if she could show Mandela his infant grandchild, even if just from a distance. Brand refused, telling her children were not allowed in the prison.

But, secretly, Brand came up with a plan on his own, knowing Mandela had not seen children since he was imprisoned. "The only time when [he] would see [his] children was in photos," Brand said.

Quietly, Brand brought the baby to Mandela as Winnie waited in the holding area. No one ever knew about the visit for fear of the possible consequences for both Brand and Mandela. Not even his wife.

"It was just tears coming out of his eyes," Brand said.

It was the first time Mandela had seen a child in more than a decade.

The Secret Code With Mandela

Throughout the years, a deep bond formed between the prison guard and the famous prisoner and many more secrets were shared.

Brand smuggled whole wheat bread to the jail, and Pantene oil for Mandela's hair, driving all around Cape Town to find just a few bottles of the sanctioned luxury item.

The two men even developed a secret code.

When Brand was wired by his superiors to try to get information from Mandela, he would grab his earlobe to let Mandela know to be careful about what he said.

"I was bugged lots of times," Brand said. "Because I can't tell him, 'I'm bugged,' then they would hear me. I just showed him."

During the isolated years on Robben Island, the prison guard said, there was one view from the prison courtyard of the country Mandela loved: the very top of Table Mountain. Mandela would look to this view wondering if he'd ever be free.

But Mandela was always preparing.

Teaching the Language

He asked the prison guard to teach him Afrikaans, the language of the white, ethnic group in power. Brand would assign Mandela essays and, with the help of a local teacher, corrected Mandela's words with a red pen.

"Sometimes the whole essay was in red," Brand said.

Mandela understood the power of language, and on the day he was released, he delivered his speech in Afrikaans. Mandela would later famously say, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Life After Prison

Mandela was released in 1990. Four years later, he became the first black president of South Africa, leading the post-apartheid, newly united nation for five years.

After his release, Mandela made it a point to reach out to the white population of South Africa, his oppressors for so many years.

Mandela told Brand, "I can't hate white people." But, Mandela went on to say, he could hate the system of apartheid in the country.

Brand didn't know what to say to Mandela after he became president. He wondered if he should address Mandela as "president." But Mandela quickly corrected Brand.

"He said, 'No, no. You know me as Mandela.'"