Christo Brand’s early years were spent on a small farm outside Stanford in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The farm was called “Goedvertrouw” – a Dutch word meaning “Good trust.” Christo went to a small school on a nearby farm from the age of five. Life was tough; the family had no luxuries and no electricity.
After matric, Christo joined the South African prison service. After a year’s training in Kroonstad he was sent to work on Robben Island in 1978 at the age of 19. That was when Christo first came across Nelson Mandela, who at that time was 60 years old. The two men formed a relationship which was to become a lasting friendship based on a mutual trust and respect.
In 1982, Mandela and three other political prisoners were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. On 13 March that year, Christo married Estelle. Soon afterwards, Christo was also transferred to Pollsmoor and was responsible for guarding the Mandela group for the next six years.
On his release from prison, Mandela organised a job for Christo as an administrative and logistics manager in South Africa’s Constitutional Assembly. Once the country’s new Constitution was adopted, the former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada arranged for Christo to start work again on Robben Island – this time as supervisor in the island shop. The wheel had turned full circle, and Christo was back where he had started his career.
In July 2018 Christo took the bold step to resign from Robben Island in order to pursue his dream of sharing his story on a full-time basis. Since then, he has toured many countries around the world and become a highly sought-after public speaker. He is one of those rare people still alive who knew Mandela so intimately – as a prisoner, as president, and after his retirement. Mandela’s family invited Christo to be a guest of the family at his funeral in Qunu in December 2013.
Christo lives in Cape Town with Estelle and his 96-year-old mom. His married son Heinrich lives not far away with his wife Veronica and daughter Mia. Christo and Estelle’s oldest son, Riaan, was tragically killed in a car crash in 2005.
Christo’s book Doing Life with Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend, with co-author Barbara Jones, was first published in 2014. Doing Life with Mandela will be republished in an updated second edition with additional material in early 2022 by Blue Ear Books.
In the book’s original foreword, Ahmed Kathrada writes:
My lasting impression of Christo Brand is that he’s a very good human being. He’s not a politician; he’s just a very caring man who took chances for other people, which could have brought him trouble.
I sincerely hope that Christo’s book will receive the respect and attention it deserves. It is a valuable addition to the writings about imprisonment in the apartheid era, and it is written by a fine man. It is also unique in that it is the most honest account I have read by a warden relating their interaction with Nelson Mandela, and for that alone it deserves credit. I wish Christo all the success in the world.
The late Zindzi Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s daughter and South Africa’s ambassador to Denmark, said: “I regard Christo and Estelle more like family members than friends, as we share a special history and his relationship with Madiba was something historically profound to witness.”