#MandelaDay: Prison letters of a world statesman

Much has been written about the tall, larger-than-life political leader and freedom fighter that was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

From his captivating words during the infamous Rivonia trial in Pretoria from 1963 to 1964 to his first speech as a free man at the Grand Parade in 1990, Mandela’s every word, just like his every move, is well documented.

His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom and many other biographies, authorised and unauthorised, have all given a glimpse into the life of the world-renowned leader.

But it is the letters that he wrote while in prison that give a startling view of the man. His sense of humour, ability to convey his feelings on paper and his yearning to be with the people he loved, show just how he was first a human being.

The letters are compiled in a book titled The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which was launched in commemoration of the centenary of his birth this week.

The book is edited by former journalist Sahm Venter, with a foreword by Mandela’s granddaughter, Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela.

Nelson Mandela beneath the window of his prison cell on Robben Island in November 28, 2003. Inset: A 1964 letter to the head of Robben Island prison. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

It is a collection of letters the former statesman penned when he was imprisoned at Pretoria Local Prison, then at Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor and Victor Verster Prisons over a period of 27 years.

In some of the letters he appealed to prison authorities for help and expressed frustration at the disregard with which his correspondence were welcomed; in others he comforted and encouraged family and comrades.

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As a law student at the University of London while imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela often needed books which never reached him. In a letter dated February 27, 1967, he expressed frustration at the prison commanding officer for the delays he suffered in the delivery of his study materials when he had an examination to prepare for.

In another letter on November 30, 1964, in which he asked for an examination entry form and a sum of R16 to be sent to the British Embassy by the application closing date, Mandela further asked for permission to borrow money from fellow prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, which was denied by prison authorities.

The signature on a letter to his second wife, Winnie Mandela, from November 1969. Picture: The Estate of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela/The Nelson Mandela Foundation

His tenacity to continue to ask and his will to not despair when faced with opposition come through in his writing.

In addition to being a studying political prisoner, Mandela was a father, a husband and a brother who expressed his feelings freely.

To his first wife, Evelyn Mase, Mandela wrote comforting words to the mother of his four children on the passing of their son, Thembekile in an accident.

Mase, a nurse, and Mandela were married in 1944.

A letter from Nelson Mandela to his first wife Evelyn Mase from July 1969. Picture: The Estate of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela/ The Nelson Mandela Foundation

In the letter, dated July 16, 1969, Mandela wrote he had been informed of Thembekile’s death by a commanding officer at Robben Island who received a telegram informing him of the news.

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Thembekile was the second child Mase had lost, Mandela wrote, speaking of the first daughter the couple had, Makaziwe who died as a child. The second Makaziwe is the only surviving child of the couple after Makgatho, Mandla Mandela’s father, died in 2005.

He spoke fondly of his son and how proud of him he was. He also revealed his understanding of how difficult it must have been for Mase to lose a second child.

Mandela wrote he had looked forward to seeing his son again before the tragic accident.

“In 1967, I wrote him a long letter drawing his attention to some matters which I thought it was in his interest to attend to without delay,” Mandela wrote, adding, “I looked forward to his response and to meeting him and his family when I returned.

Picture: Copyright the Estate of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela/ the Nelson Mandela Foundation

“The blow has been equally grievous to me in addition to the fact that I had not seen him for at least 60 months. I was neither privileged to give him a wedding ceremony nor to lay him to rest,” Mandela wrote.

“I last saw him five years ago during the Rivonia Trial and I always looked forward to his accounts for they were the main channel through which I was able to hear something of him,” the letter read.

“All these expectations have now been completely shattered for he has been taken away at the early age of 24 and we will never again see him. We should all be consoled and comforted by the fact that he had many good friends,” he wrote to his former wife.

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His letters to his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, with whom he had two daughters Zenani and Zindziswa, seemed to have ended not at a loss for words but at the end of the paper.

The salutation in these letters noticeably varied from “Darling” to “Dadewethu” (sister) with a tone of a loving husband and a comrade at the same time.

“I write to warn you in time of what lies ahead, to enable you to prepare yourself both physically and spiritually to take the full force of the merciless blows that I feel certain will be directed systematically at you from the beginning to the end of the trial,” he wrote in November 1969 ahead of the appearance of his wife, a freedom fighter herself, in court on a charge of sabotage in December of the same year.

Weekend Argus


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