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Review of Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend


By Ruth Daly

Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend. Christo Brand with Barbara Jones. John Blake: London, 2014. Pp. 272. ISBN 978-1-78219-743-0 (Hb). £19.99

Much has been written about Nelson Mandela’s momentous contribution to anti-apartheid resistance within South Africa and to the country’s subsequent historic democratic elections in 1994.  Though it is not targeted towards an academic audience, the publication of Christo Brand’s memoir Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend offers an alternate vantage point from which one gains valuable insight into life on Robben Island for Mandela, capturing his magnanimous spirit and resolve.

Part memoir, part bildungsroman, Mandela: My prisoner, My Friend charts the development of a uniquely positioned friendship between an Afrikaner farm boy turned prison warden and Mandela during his detainment on Robben Island.  This moving meditation on friendship details an emotional, political, and sociological maturation on behalf of the author upon coming into contact with the freedom fighter.  The author’s prior naiveté is challenged as he moves from an idyllic, albeit sheltered life in the countryside where he remains unaware of the gross human rights violations occurring around him, to the cityscape where he is faced with the realities of the apartheid state.

Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend marks a shift away from the oft politicised narrative surrounding the statesman offering instead an unfettered glimpse into life in detention for one of history’s most multi-faceted characters.  Though the memoir remains apolitical on the whole, Brand nevertheless grants the reader some access into the continued activism of Robben Island’s political prisoners, among them Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, and Ahmed Kathrada.  Despite strictly enforced censorship rules preventing them from championing their cause openly, coupled with their respective navigation of an inherently corrupt system, their mutual insistence on upholding the ideology of the ANC saw them educate and sway those capable of ideological change; this is nowhere more obvious than in the case of Brand himself.

Chapter Six provides a glimpse into the characters of the ‘Rivonians’ and their fellow prisoners, among them the notable Japhta Masemola, a ‘key member of the military wing of the PAC’ (p.99) and Robben Island’s longest serving political prisoner.  Though somewhat disappointing in its brevity, this is a particularly interesting chapter in the book offering as it does insight into the profound moral and political conviction held by these men.  Despite the aims of the apartheid government to ‘physically and mentally [break them] as thoroughly as the limestone they were forced to hack in the quarry for 13 back-breaking years’ (p.89), Brand captures the essence of their resolve, both to their cause and to each other.

In order to capture the successes of Brand’s novel, it is worth noting James Gregory’s earlier memoir on Mandela Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend (1995) which occupies a contentious space whereby emphasis is placed on the ‘miracle’ of racial reconciliation behind bars.  Such a symbolic and uncontextualised rendering of the warden / prisoner relationship risks lending itself to a fetishisation of Mandela as war-hero.  It is problematic for myriad reasons, and inevitably offers a skewed perception of the man and his legacy, and indeed of the complex racial contentions within South Africa which still persist today.  Indeed, issues of authenticity and authorial integrity were raised upon publication of Gregory’s book, criticism rearing its head again with the release of its filmic adaptation, “Goodbye Bafana” (1997), or “The Color of Freedom” (1997) in the US.  Conversely, Brand’s memoir manages to capture a most unlikely bond between prisoner and warden without succumbing to this fetishisation.

Primarily a personal account of the parallel journey of two men occupying juxtaposing spaces within a deeply segregated world, Brand’s memoir captures Mandela’s commitment to understanding, education, and perseverance in the face of adversity.  Indeed, it might be said that his book stands as an embodiment of some of those values central to the cause of the freedom fighters incarcerated in Robben Island.  For those unfamiliar with Mandela’s biography, or the politics of the ANC, supplemental reading will prove necessary.  Otherwise, Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend makes an interesting, and worthwhile addition to the canon of Mandela literature.

Reviewed by: Ruth Daly, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 145-146]

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