The Making of a Moral Hero: ‘The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela’

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault
, New York Times

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, dozens of journalists and television camera crews from all over the world descended on South Africa and made their way to the dusty street outside his Soweto home. I was among them. We shared the same goal: to get Mandela to give us some insight into his 27 years in prison and to tell us his plans for the future. My turn finally came toward the end of that warm day, after he had sat for hours in suit and tie, always composed, despite the fact that he’d had virtually no experience being in front of a TV camera when he went to prison, in 1962.

I began by trying to open a door none of the other journalists could, telling him how I identified with the struggle against apartheid, given my younger years in America’s segregated South before the civil rights movement. Before I could finish my sentence, Mandela’s eyes lit up brighter than I had seen them all afternoon, and for the first and only time that day, he provided a small glimpse into his prison life.

“Oh,” he said, “do you know Miss Maya Angelou?” I nodded, and his reserved demeanor briefly fell away. “We read all of her books when we were in prison!” he said.

That was about all Mandela or any of the other political prisoners incarcerated with him on Robben Island gave up to me or to any other journalist for the longest time. When I next traveled to South Africa, for the “PBS NewsHour,” in May 1994, just before Mandela was sworn in as president, I inquired about interviewing some of the former Robben Islanders. “You know, those old guys only talk about those years among themselves,” one of their friends told me.

But eventually Mandela did talk about those years, in graphic detail, in his monumental autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” (1994), a book that his fellow prisoners Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada persuaded him to begin, with their assistance, in prison, and that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Now, during the centenary of his birth, we have “The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela,” containing 255 of his handwritten letters and displaying unedited his raw emotions, heartbreaking and inspiring, from the period of his imprisonment, first on Robben Island; then in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, outside Cape Town; and finally, in 1988, at Victor Verster Prison, near Paarl, where he held the talks with government officials that ultimately led to his release.

This book confronts readers with the most direct evidence yet of Mandela’s intellectual evolution into one of the great moral heroes of our time. It was assembled over 10 years by Sahm Venter, a South African journalist and author, who obtained the letters from a variety of sources, among them a collection named for a policeman who, after Mandela’s release, returned notebooks confiscated from his cell in 1971 into which he had carefully copied his letters before passing them on to warders to be mailed. Mandela knew that the warders screened his incoming and outgoing correspondence, often withholding both, sometimes for months, or censoring portions.

Many of the letters portray Mandela the loving husband and attentive father to five children — his three older ones by his first wife, Evelyn, and his two with his second wife, Winnie. (Just 3 and not quite 2 when he went to prison, they were prohibited from visiting him until they were 16.) The letters make clear Mandela’s efforts to stay connected to his extended family, who sometimes consulted him on tribal matters. (Venter provides footnotes translating his occasional phrases in isiXhosa and identifying people he mentions.)

He refused to condone the apartheid regime’s ploy of establishing separate homelands for black South Africans, in effect isolating them from white society, at one point declining a request for a visit from his nephew K.D. Matanzima, a Thembu chief who went along with the plan. Mandela scolded Matanzima in a letter for “using our relationship to involve me and my organization [the African National Congress] in Bantustan politics." Yet in the same letter, Mandela insists on his family bond, telling his nephew that he was “disturbed by recent press reports which indicate the existence of a tragic turmoil in family affairs.” (In a footnote Venter speculates that Mandela was referring to Matanzima’s conflict with another paramount chief, who fled the country after offending Matanzima’s dignity.) Regardless of their political differences, Mandela continues, “touchiness and intemperate language is no model for my own approach to people and problems.” The letter ends with the words “I miss you all.”

Others convey the legal training he had as a law student before his arrest (for inciting worker strikes, to which charges of sabotage were later added). In a long letter he wrote in 1979 to the commanding officer of Robben Island, and ultimately intended for the minister of prisons and police, he politely elaborated a list of grievances and demands, including requests that political prisoners “be released on remission, parole or probation," “be allowed to acquire radios and newspapers," to “study any course or subject with a recognized educational institution local or abroad" and to “train in some skill or trade."

With words as his only ammunition, Mandela fought his case patiently, on lined paper, his eloquence inseparable from his rectitude. “I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands," he wrote to a senior prison official in 1976, in another letter of grievance. “But 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 feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honor and decency. But when your subordinates continue to use foul methods then a sense of real bitterness and contempt becomes irresistible."

Eventually Mandela acquired the textbooks he needed to study for his law degree, which he finally obtained in absentia from the University of South Africa a few months before leaving prison. He was 70 years old.

Two of the volume’s most heartbreaking letters are ones he wrote after the deaths of his mother and eldest son, whose funerals he was not permitted to attend. His mother’s death “hit me hard,” he wrote to his nephew Matanzima. “I at once felt lonely and empty.” Mandela’s letters to Winnie — who, when she was finally allowed to visit him, was denied any physical contact until after he arrived at Pollsmoor prison in the early 1980s — are tender, often addressing her as “My darling Mum” or by one of her clan names. In one, he calls her “the most wonderful friend I have in life." In another, he recalls “touching your hand or hugging you as you moved up & down the house, enjoying your delicious dishes, the unforgettable hrs in the bedroom, made life taste like honey." There is no indication that the relationship would end in divorce, as it did six years after he left prison.

In August 1970, he wrote to Winnie, who was also in prison at the time, a letter of eerie prescience: “One day we may have on our side the genuine & firm support of an upright & straightforward man, holding high office, who will consider it improper to shirk his duty of protecting the rights & privileges of even his bitter opponents in the battle of ideas that is being fought in our country today; an official who will have a sufficient sense of justice & fairness to make available to us not only the rights & privileges that the law allows to us today, but who will also compensate us for those that were surreptitiously taken away. In spite of all that has happened I have, throughout the ebb & flow of the tides of fortune in the last 15 months, lived in hope & expectation. Sometimes I even have the belief that this feeling is part & parcel of my self. It seems to be woven into my being."

Twenty-four years later, Nelson Mandela would become that upright and straightforward man.

Publication Notes:

‘The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela’

Edited by Sahm Venter

620 pp. Liveright Publishing. $35.

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