The story of Mandela’s warders

3 June 2011

During over 27 years of incarceration in apartheid prisons, Nelson Mandela formed relationships not only with his fellow prisoners, but also with those who kept him behind bars: his warders.

Three warders in particular claimed special relationships with Mandela and remained in contact with him following his release from prison – James Gregory, Christo Brand and Jack Swart.

Who are these three men, and what exactly was the nature of the connections they established with Mr Mandela?

Written by Mike Nicol for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Nelson Mandela’s Warders tells the stories of these three men and offers a preliminary analysis of their relationships with Mandela.

All three men “were close to Mandela in the sense that at various times they were given special duties in relation to him, they read his correspondence, sat in on his family visits, sometimes spoke to him during the day,” journalist and writer Nicol says in the introduction to his book.

“Today, when referring to Mandela, both Brand and Swart call Mandela by his surname without the honorific, and sometimes by his first name,” Nicol writes. “Neither uses Madiba, the clan name by which Mandela prefers to be addressed.

“There is no telling what James Gregory would have called Mandela today because Gregory died of cancer in 2003. In his 1995 autobiography, Goodbye Bafana, Gregory calls him Nelson. As in: ‘Good morning, Nelson, sleep well?’ Or ‘Well, Nelson, this is it, man. This is what you have waited for’ – which was part of a reported conversation between the two men as Mandela prepared to leave Victor Verster prison.

“This informality, this apparent friendliness, enhances the intimacy of the warder/prisoner relationship Gregory is at pains to create in his book.” Of the three warders, Gregory had the longest assocation with Mandela, spanning the period 1968 to 1990.

In the last few years, Nicol notes, Christo Brand “has moved into the position of ‘the guard who really was Mandela’s friend’ – to the annoyance of Gregory’s widow, Gloria, who “believes that Brand is trying to usurp the glory that was Gregory’s”.

Brand was the last and youngest of the three warders to be closely involved with Mandela.

But while both Gregory with his book and Brand in his interviews “have foregrounded their proximity to Mandela the prisoner”, Jack Swart – the first of the three to come into contact with Mandela, in 1966 – has made no such claim to Mandela.

According to Nicol, Swart has spoken about his time with Mandela only infrequently and reluctantly – has recently vowed never to do so again – and tells a different, in fact contradictory, story from the one told by Gregory.

“Establishing the precise nature of the relationships these three warders had with Mandela is challenging,” Nicol writes. “Their claims address the central challenge of historiography: the authority of the storyteller.

“Mandela has commented cursorily on his relationships with them in his own autobiography, in his book Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, and in Anthony Sampson’s Mandela – The Authorised Biography, but these comments are, understandably, in passing.

“Consequently, although Gregory’s narrative stands in conflict with those of Brand and Swart, and although former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada has condemned Gregory’s account, it is Gregory’s word which dominates the internet. A simple Google search foregrounds his relationship with Mandela as a matter of record, and yet it is seriously flawed.”

SAinfo reporter

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