Christo Brand was 19 and a newly qualified prison officer when he first met Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1979. Mandela, then aged 60, had been on the notorious prison island since 1964. Brand was Afrikaans, a farm foreman’s son from the Western Cape, ignorant of politics and from a strict, loving, Dutch Reformed Church background. Influenced by his parents’ own, unusually tolerant attitude towards the Africans who worked on the farm, Christo grew up unaffected by the worst aspects of apartheid, a system of racial segregation rigorously established by the National Party in South Africa in 1948.

One of Mandela’s fellow political prisoners on Robben Island, Ahmed Kathrada, wrote in the foreword to this book, “Christo stood out for his kindness and humanity.” It took Brand time to understand that the political prisoners were not like ordinary criminals; they were disciplined, well-behaved, determined to continue their studies and recognised that he had a job to do: seeing that the punitive prison regulations were obeyed or otherwise losing his job.

 Having been told that he would be guarding the most dangerous men in South Africa, the young man, who had never heard of the charismatic leader of the African National Congress (ANC), found Mandela “courteous and humble”. Indeed, their relationship was to be the single most important influence on the Afrikaaner’s subsequent life. He was continually struck by Mandela’s quiet and courteous demeanour: “It was impossible not to be drawn to him, this powerful leader of men, facing a lifetime of hard labour and isolation, seemingly without bitterness or anger”, he writes. Later on he reflects, “How could you not be drawn to a man with great dignity and humility who would willingly take instructions from a teenage boy?”

Although Brand had to enforce the prison rules he found ways of showing humanity within them; he taught Mandela Afrikaans to help him pass an exam in the language; he did not shout or throw his weight around; he made sure that requests for books were forwarded to the correct authorities; he arranged for Mandela to hold a grandchild during a visit from his wife, Winnie, who had smuggled the baby onto the Island. Above all, the two men came to see that they were both prisoners on the Island, trapped both by geography and a political system they knew was deeply wrong. Sometimes the warders would watch films with the prisoners when “we were able to forget where we were for just an hour or so. It was a lifeline for all of us.”

The book gives many glimpses of Mandela’s life on Robben Island: having to sleep on a concrete floor in a cold cell, with a bucket for a toilet; having all letters read and censored; limited visits from family members; living on an inadequate, semi-starvation diet. Allowed to have a small garden, he tended it meticulously; he was just as careful about keeping his prison uniform clean, his cell tidy and himself fit. The author arrived on the island 14 years after the political prisoners had begun their sentence and noted Mandela’s natural gift for leadership, his charm and good humour, his instinct for conciliation rather than confrontation. It was obvious to Brand that the seven men sentenced in what became known as the Rivonia trial kept their spirits up in what at the time was seen as a life sentence, by their mutual loyalty and sense of purpose. Mandela constantly encouraged them – and Brand – to continue their education in prison, and regularly wrote letters of complaint to the authorities if he felt their meagre rights were being infringed. This was not so much on his own  behalf as to keep the group in the public eye. He never lost hope in believing that apartheid would one day collapse and that the ANC would be accepted as a legitimate political party.

After 18 years on Robben Island, the whole group was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. Brand, who had applied for a transfer on his marriage, found he was transferred with them and the friendship continued. Pollsmoor was an easier regime. Strictly segregated from the rest of the prison, the group lived on the top floor and exercised on the roof. For the first time, they had proper food, flush toilets and slept in beds. Brand writes, “We became an unlikely family up there, isolated from other prisoners and officers.”

After 26 years in prison, Mandela was moved to a small, guarded bungalow next to Victor Verster prison. By now he was in regular communication with the South African government. When President PW Botha resigned in 1989 owing to ill-health, the way was clear for his successor, F W de Klerk, to bring about the momentous political changes that Mandela had waited for so patiently. On 2 February 1990 he announced that the ANC would no longer be banned, the death penalty would be suspended and that Mandela would be released. Brand watched his friend walk to freedom on television: “In my heart I felt so proud I could hardly speak and there were tears in my eyes. Here was my prisoner and I knew he was soon to be my leader.”

The friendship did not end there; Mandela made sure there were regular meetings and phone calls between the two men until ill-health prevented it. Now Brand runs the library and museum shop on Robben Island, explaining to tourists what the prison island used to be like. He admits, “The whole island is full of ghosts for me”. His affecting memoir was written with the help of journalist Barbara Jones. While it is likely she would have supplied the historical details, the structure and much of the phrasing for Brand’s memory recall, the sincerity and simplicity of the narrative are surely wholly his own. As he describes in this affecting memoir, the “prisoner and friend” whom he guarded and whom he came to admire unreservedly, also changed his life.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.