The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

With a handwritten letter these days being something of a rarity, not many of us can appreciate how important written correspondence used to be, or the incredible tale of history that letters can reveal. Last Friday saw the book launch of a curated collection of letters that Archbishop Denis Hurley wrote over the course of his life, and earlier this year the much anticipated book, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, was published to mark the centenary of Mandela’s birth.

The collection, which was compiled by veteran journalist, Sahm Venter, is composed of 250 letters that Mandela wrote over the course of the 27 years that he was incarcerated. Assembled from the collections of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African National Archives, amongst others, approximately half of the letters have never been published before, and as such offer a unique insight into the private life of Nelson Mandela. Ranging from mundane notes requesting reading glasses from prison governors, to heart wrenching letters to his family, the letters follow the course of Mandela’s prison life as he moved from Pretoria Local Prison to Robben Island Prison, Pollsmoor Prison, and finally Victor Verster Prison, from where he was famously released on the 11th February 1990.

What’s incredible to contemplate is that Mandela wrote these letters without ever knowing if they would reach their intended recipients. When he was first imprisoned Mandela was only allowed to write and receive one letter of five hundred words every six months, but even after restrictions were finally loosened, his jailors continued censoring his letters for political overtones. Letters written to his family invariably referenced previous correspondence having gone unacknowledged. A fastidious record keeper, Mandela kept a log of all the many letters he sent:

I sincerely don’t know whether you’ll ever get this particular letter, nor those of July 18, Aug 1 and 18 and, if you do, when that’ll be…”, a letter composed to Mandela’s wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

And yet the tone of Mandela’s letters is surprisingly uplifting. As Tim Adams writes for The Guardian, “The letters were not a reflection of that world, they were his escape from it”. In addition to serving as a therapy of sorts, Mandela’s letters home became a critical means of parenting. A father of five when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela was denied visitation rights from his children until they had reached the age of sixteen. Being a firm believer in the liberating power of education, many of Mandela’s letters centred around his children’s schooling.

When Mummy came to see me last December, she told me that both of you had passed your examinations and that Zeni was now in Standard 3. I now know that Kgatho and Maki have also passed. It pleases me very much to see that all my children are doing well”, letters addressed to Zenani and Zindzi Mandela, 4th February 1969

In 1971 Mandela wrote to a bookseller in Johannesburg asking for books to be sent to his children for their birthdays: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Steinbeck’s The Pearl. He enclosed five Rand to cover the cost of the books. Unfortunately for his children the letter was never received by the bookseller, with the head warder scrawling a note across his letter: “This sort of thing is not allowed”.

The compilation also reveals the closeness of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie, who was fighting her own battle with the apartheid system. Mandela’s letters show his deep love for his wife, as well as offering moral support and his deep gratitude for Winnie’s efforts on behalf of the movement. Writing in 1970, at a time when Winnie herself was in prison, Mandela urges her to try to read The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale:

He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory.”

Clearly words Mandela took to heart.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela edited by Sahm Venter is available for purchase from www.exclusivebooks.co.za or in ebook version via www.amazon.com

Cover image courtesy of abcnews.go.com. Image of letter to Zindziswa Mandela courtesy of conversationswithmyselfbook.com

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