Shortly after my ordination to the priesthood in 1964,
Archbishop Robert Selby Taylor asked if I would assist Fr Alan
Hughes in his chaplaincy work to the prisoners on Robben
It was there that I met Nelson Mandela for the first time, and
was aware that I was in the presence of someone with an alive
spirituality and an appreciation for the sacramental and teaching
ministry of the Church.
After his transfer from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, I was
fortunate to continue that ministry by invitation of the local
In a letter Nelson Mandela wrote to the then Archbishop of Cape
Town, Philip Russell, on 4 March 1985, he told of the chaplains'
ministry, describing himself as "one who has been so impressed by
members of your Church".
He wrote: "Apart from our families, who could only see us once
every six months, the only other people we could meet were priests.
The interest they took in prisoners, especially during the
turbulent days of the '60s, was a source of considerable
"And, in such an environment, each sermon made us feel that we
had a million friends, a feeling which made us forget the
wretchedness which surrounded us.
"Of the priests whose services were very popular in those days
was the late Fr Hughes. . . What he said not only enriched the
spirit, even more, it left one full of hope."
On every occasion that I visited Pollsmoor Prison to celebrate
the eucharist, a warder had to be present to keep an eye on me and
to hear every word that I said, to be sure that I was not passing
on or receiving any politically inflammatory messages.
On this particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson
gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch.
"Brand," he asked, "are you a Christian?" "Yes," the warder,
Christo Brand, responded. "Well then, you must take off your cap,
and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is holy
communion, and we must share and receive it together."
To my utter astonishment, Brand meekly removed his cap, and,
joining the circle, received holy communion.
I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of
To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of
inclusive love, one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual,
but also of its political significance. The fact that Christo Brand
was white, and that he had responded to an invitation from a black,
and so naturally, was deeply moving. Brand had political power, but
submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the
In Christo Brand's Dutch Reformed Church, blacks and whites were
not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in
worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian
heart that morning. That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and
pray for. That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his
loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God,
belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those
of this mullti-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the
He truly shone with the light of Christ.