Photography by Brian Moody
Christo Brand was one of the warders directly assigned to guard Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison between 1978 and 1987. At the same time Vusumzi Mcongo was a political prisoner serving a 12-year sentence. Following the collapse of the apartheid regime, both men worked for the Robben Island Museum in Cape Town.
The first time I saw Vusumzi was on our way to Robben Island. We both arrived on the same day in 1978. I was a warder. He was a prisoner in chains, on his way to maximum security. We did not speak to one another. The first time we spoke properly was nearly 20 years later when we were both applying for a job at Robben Island Museum. We embraced each other warmly. Now that we work together we talk about what was wrong in the past. Sometimes we have a laugh about things that happened then. There is no bitterness between us.
When I started on Robben Island I was told that the men we guarded were no better than animals. Some warders hated the prisoners and were very cruel. But I could never hate because these political prisoners were far more polite and friendly than any prisoner I’d met before.
Eventually I was put in charge of the educational studies of Nelson Mandela and a few other prisoners. Mr Mandela was determined to turn Robben Island into a university. It meant that prisoners who arrived with no education at all left as powerfully educated men. He kept saying that as long as you’re alive, they can’t take away your education. He was even determined to learn how to speak and write Afrikaans.
Mr Mandela is the epitome of forgiveness, able to reach out to all people. While he was in prison, the man who was the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, died. When Mandela was finally released, one of the first people he visited was Verwoerd’s widow, Betsie. She received him with open arms in their house in a white suburb.
I was arrested in 1976 for being a member of the South African Student Movement (SASM) during a school boycott in Port Elizabeth. The charges laid against me under the Internal Security Act were for incitement, sabotage and terrorist activities. I was detained for six months, during which time I was interrogated and tortured. I was lucky to survive. Many died in detention.
In prison I noticed Christo, but prisoners didn’t talk to officers. I tried to keep out of his way, as it was my job to carry information from one section of the prison to another. It was a risky job, and to be found out would have meant having my studies curtailed. For us prisoners this was the ultimate punishment. Broadening our knowledge was about broadening our future.
Our relationship with the warders at Robben Island was often a stumbling block. We had to convince them we weren’t violent men. But I never hated these warders. They were working for a system and the system was brutal. The people I hated were those who had tortured and interrogated me in detention. I used to dream of revenge.
And yet, after I was released, that hatred diminished. All I wanted was to meet these people again to show them that I’d survived. And what’s more, survived with a smile.
By chance, during Steve Biko’s hearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I met some of the security officers involved in his case. I greeted them and reminded them that they’d also interrogated and tortured me. Then I wished them luck in their case. I bore them no ill will. I knew then that the experience of Robben Island had not brutalised me. We had all learned different lessons in different ways.
We cannot live with broken hearts. In time we have to accept that these things have happened to us, that those years have been wasted. To stay with the past will only bring you into turmoil. No nation can survive without forgiveness.
Preaching reconciliation has become part of my daily task. For me this is a voluntary change, one that comes from within, even though the government has made me no reparation. But some former political prisoners are still very angry. They are not prepared to forgive. It’s not hatred against the white man they feel, but anger at the government that has done nothing for them.