Defiant missives

Hundreds of letters written by Nelson Mandela while in prison reveal his anger, passion and longing.

NELSON MANDELA walks out of the Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town in February 1990, after spending 27 years in jail (photo credit: ULLI MICHEL/REUTERS)
NELSON MANDELA walks out of the Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town in February 1990, after spending 27 years in jail
(photo credit: ULLI MICHEL/REUTERS)
(Los Angeles Times/ TNS) - Nelson Mandela would always receive thunderous cheers when he took the stage. Even from a distance, the world’s most famous former political prisoner was instantly recognizable: taller and broader than most Africans, beaming his 1,000-watt smile, and always sporting one of the flamboyant “madiba” shirts designed especially for him.
But the crowd would grow restless after Mandela began to speak. He had a stilted, droning cadence that could turn an eloquent address into a reading from the telephone book. He invariably got more applause at the start than at the end. His personal and political courage was never in doubt, and his place in history – somewhere between Gandhi and Lincoln – was rock solid. But his oratory was flat.
So it was with considerable delight and relief that I read The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, an astonishing outpouring from his 27 years in prison – 10,052 days to be exact. Many of the 255 letters chosen and annotated here have never been published, and because they articulate his thinking and feelings in real time, they provide a new lens with which to view his personal and political growth.
Almost from the day he was arrested in 1962, Mandela took pen to pad and in cramped cursive wrote heartrending missives to his wife and five children (and later numerous grandchildren); defiant letters to prison authorities and government ministers; anguished condolences to the families of fallen freedom fighters; explorations of African and colonial history; even a wistful letter about amasi, a traditional fermented milk that he desperately missed.
Underlying them all was his unfaltering optimism in the inevitability and righteousness of his cause – the end of white supremacy and democratic self-rule for the black African majority.
“Our cause is just. It is a fight for human dignity & for an honorable life,” he wrote his wife, Winnie, making clear he would never back down. Indeed, he repeatedly warned the apartheid government through the decades that it must relent, not him. Ultimately it did.
Never once did he express self-pity or regret about his plight. Instead, he engaged in a drawn-out legal battle to block the government from disbarring him as an attorney (he won), pleaded for permission to attend the funerals of his mother and then his eldest son (denied both times), tried desperately – mostly in vain – to protect his wife from persecution, and advocated relentlessly for his fellow prisoners.
“For 13 years I have slept naked on a cement floor that becomes damp and cold during the rainy season,” Mandela noted in a 1976 letter seeking the pajamas routinely issued to white prisoners. Until the 1980s, black prisoners were also denied hot water, newspapers, radios, proper food, simple medicines and other basic amenities. “Let him blow bubbles,” an administrator scrawled derisively on one of his appeals.
For the first decade, he and other black prisoners were allowed only one family visitor every six months (children were barred from visiting until they were 16), and could send and receive only one letter of 500 words every six months. After 1973, he was allowed to write more frequently and his correspondence turned into a torrent. He also drew solace from his incoming mail, telling one friend that the messages “cut through massive iron doors and grim stone walls, bringing into the cell the splendor and warmth of springtime.”
The most painful letters are those to his wife and children. In 1969, after Winnie was also arrested and jailed, he warned his two youngest daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, in unsparing terms about the hardships ahead.
“It may be many months or even years before you see her again,” he wrote. “For long you may live like orphans without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection Mummy used to give you. Now you will get no birthday or Christmas parties, no presents or new dresses, no shoes or toys.” It goes on like that for several pages.
Mandela was famously loath to speak of himself in interviews. His letters, often filled with sadness, fill out some of those details.
“I am neither brave nor bold” and have “no desire to play the role of martyr” but am “ready to do so” if need be, he wrote.
He added, almost in passing, that nearly every letter he wrote over the previous seven months had failed to reach its destination.
Knowing censors would read this letter as well, he appealed to their “considerations of fair play & sportsmanship to give me a break & let this one through.” Apparently it worked.
Perhaps the most remarkable letter is one Mandela wrote in 1976 to the commissioner of prisons. More than 20 pages long, it reads as an impassioned indictment of the rampant corruption, physical abuse and cruel indignities that black prisoners faced on Robben Island. “It is a mean type of cowardice to wreak vengeance on defenseless men who cannot hit back,” he wrote.
“It is futile to think that any form of persecution will ever change our views,” he added. “I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands.”
Yet Mandela felt compelled to hold out an olive branch, one that ultimately defined his legacy.
“Even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme form, I should like us to fight over principles and ideas and without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the results might be, I can proudly shake hands with you because I felt I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honour and decency,” he wrote. 
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