THE PRISON LETTERS OF NELSON MANDELA, SAHM VENTER
As Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter Zamaswazi
asks himself, “how could he survive twenty-seven
years in prison?” Through the reading of
this compilation of Mandela’s letters, written during his
time in prison, we can better understand what helped him
carry on. Throughout that time, Mandela made a copy
of every letter he sent in his notebooks, leaving us with
a precious collection now available in this new edition.
The reading of these letters leads the reader here and there throughout the menacing Robben Island prison, where there were no white inmates; where food rations were limited and mediocre, and where climate conditions were extreme. Its system of forced labor was brutal, and the coercion which political prisoners were subject to bore enormous cruelty.
After being initially sentenced to prison for five years, charged with leaving the country without a passport and for rallying strikes, Nelson Mandela was accused of sabotaging the South-African regime and condemned to life imprisonment. Together with other six convicted colleagues, he was sent to the infamous maximum-security prison of Robben Island, located near the coast of Cape Town.
As political prisoners they were attributed level “D,” the lowest rank with the least privileges in the prison system. Only one visit was allowed every six months, and they could only write and receive one letter in that period of time. All mail was checked at Robben Island Censor’s Office, prohibiting any description of confinement conditions or references to other inmates, and for a long time letters could only be exchanged with their closest family members.
Mandela included in every letter he sent to his wife, Winnie, words of encouragement to push through the long years of distance between the two, as she struggled to care for their five children’s education and survival. In one of those occasions, he recommended her the reading of two books by American psychologist Norman Vincent Peale – The Power of Positive Thinking and The Results of Positive Thinking. Despite not agreeing with the metaphysical aspects of Peale’s arguments, Mandela considered his view on physical and psychological problems valuable, which would help Winnie to overcome her frail health condition.
The authorities’ lack of humanity towards Mandela became quite blatant when, in July 1969, his oldest son Thembi died in a car accident. The letters to his ex-wife and Thembi’s mother, as well as to the prison lieutenant, accurately express the pain he lived as he was denied the chance to be present at the funeral and say goodbye to his son one last time. Years later, in a long letter directed to the highest office of the South-African prison system, he described these continuous abuses of authority, the egregious conditions in which prisoners dwelt and the
His Methodist education became clear when Winnie was tried in court along with other activists. Mandela wrote her an encouraging letter where he reported the story of an inspiring book he had read previously – Shadows of Nazareth, by C. J. Langenhoven. Here, the author describes the trial of Jesus through a letter of Poncius Pilate himself to a friend in Rome.
Here we also learn some peculiar details of Mandela’s life. In 1975, under the suggestion of Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, Madiba began to prepare in secret his autobiography. He wrote little pieces every night, which would then be translated by two inmates, who painstakingly reduced its content, from six hundred pages to sixty. This work was buried in prison until one of the inmates was released and could finally take the manuscript out of the country. Nevertheless, their plot was exposed, and their academic privileges were suspended for four years. Even though a good part of the texts arrived to London, the publishing of Long Walk to Freedom only happened in 1994, after Mandela’s release from prison.
In December 1988, already after being hospitalized due to tuberculosis, he was transferred to Victor Verster prison, being lodged in an old house for prison guards, enjoying modern commodities. Around that time he finished his Law degree – forty-five years after starting it – at the University of Witwaterstand.
In a speech to the nation in early February 1990 by then president F. W. de Klerk, it was finally announced Nelson Mandela’s release, which happened around 4:30 PM of February 11. He wrote his last letter in that same morning.
Sahm Venter – LIVERIGHT