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Robben Island Museum

By 10th July 2019July 22nd, 2019Exhibitions, People

Earlier this week SAFM hosted a two-hour special on Robben Island, which this year celebrates 20 years as a World Heritage Site. The talk show, which is available for download via a series of podcasts, included interviews with representatives of the Robben Island Museum, who provided wonderful insight into the history of the prison, as well as former political prisoners who spent time on Robben Island. One particularly interesting and heartbreaking story was told by Christo Brand, a warden at Robben Island, who later became Nelson Mandela’s guard at Pollsmoor Prison.

While Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, Winnie Mandela smuggled one of Mandela’s grandchildren onto the island. Brand spotted the baby, which was hidden under a raincoat and strapped to Winnie’s body with a blanket. But the infant wasn’t allowed on the island, in fact political prisoners were not allowed to see any children at all. This restriction even applied to their own offspring – prisoners’ children were only allowed to visit the prison once they reached the age of 16.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela with their grandchild, Bambata, Soweto 21st February 1990
Nelson and Winnie Mandela with their grandchild, Bambata, Soweto 21st February 1990

Winnie pleaded with Brand, who asked his superiors if they would grant special permission, but the answer was a firm no. Inside the visitors room, Winnie told Mandela about his grandchild. Mandela looked behind Winnie to Brand, who was standing guard, and begged him to make an exception. Conversations in the room were recorded, so again Brand’s answer was no. Eventually though, the warrant officer told Brand that if he could somehow sneak the child in to see Mandela without Winnie knowing, he would allow it. They knew that Mandela would never tell anyone, but feared that Winnie might, and the consequences for all involved would have been severe. So, when Winnie entered the visitors room for a second time to receive a note from Mandela, Brand locked her in the room and took the baby around to the passageway adjacent to where Mandela was waiting. When Mandela left the visitors room he saw Brand standing there with his grandchild. He took the child out of his arms, and kissed him twice. There were tears in his eyes.

Nelson Mandela, after his release, with prison warden, Christo Brand

Nelson Mandela and his prison guard, Christo Brand, kept this secret between them for nearly twenty years. Had it been discovered, Brand would have faced a minimum of five years in prison himself, and Mandela would have lost the few privileges that he had.

The story told by Christo Brand points to the lengths that the apartheid government went to to dehumanise the men and women under its control. And obviously this wasn’t an isolated incident. There exist countless examples of the physical and psychological controls put in place by the state during apartheid. Our own KwaMuhle Museum is home to a permanent exhibition which depicts the infamous Durban System that sought to control the movements of non-whites in the city; the Cato Manor Heritage Centre houses a selection of large black and white photographs which tell the story of the forced evictions that took place in the area; and the Mpumalanga Heritage Centre reminds us of the political violence that engulfed the region in the 1980s and early ’90s.

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