The unbreakable spirit of Mandela

History: The ­Prison ­Letters of ­Nelson ­Mandela, Edited by Sahm Venter, Liveright Publishing, hardback, 640 pages, €31.40

Unbending willpower: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Photo: David Turnley
Unbending willpower: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Photo: David Turnley
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

A superbly edited collection of the ANC chief’s prison letters paint a portrait of Mandela the family man, the political thinker and the inmate.

In April 1969, Nelson Mandela learned that his wife Winnie had become seriously ill and started suffering blackouts. He sat down and wrote her a letter from his tiny 8ft X 7ft cell on Robben Island, suggesting that she get hold of a book by the American psychologist Dr Norman Vincent Peale called The Power of Positive Thinking.

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

As this superbly edited collection of Mandela’s prison correspondence makes clear, he certainly practised what he preached. The future president of South Africa spent 27 years in jail, but never once allowed the vicious apartheid that had put him there to break his spirit.

“It is only my flesh and bones that are shut up behind these tight walls,” he assured a political colleague. “Otherwise I remain cosmopolitan in my outlook, in my thoughts I am free as a falcon.”

Since Mandela was initially allowed just one visitor every six months, writing became his chief method of keeping in touch with the outside world. He took each communication extremely seriously, copying the text into a hard-covered notebook in case the original document was destroyed or mangled by a censor.

On one occasion, two notebooks went missing and he sent a formal complaint to the prison’s commanding officer, prompting a warder to scrawl in Afrikaans across it: “He can go and blow bubbles… Good reading material for the shredder.”

Thankfully, the bulk of Mandela’s literary archive seems to have been preserved for posterity. As well as presenting 255 letters across 640 pages here, the South African journalist Sahm Venter does a fine job of putting them into historical context.

He provides extensive annotations, footnotes to identify each person mentioned and even some facsimiles to show the prisoner liked to fill up almost every inch of his precious paper.

The letters are printed chronologically but fall into three main categories. One reveals Nelson the family man, missing his wife desperately and feeling guilty about not being able to raise his five children in person.

He usually addressed Winnie as “my darling Mum” and in a wistful mood listed the activities of their early courtship: “Travelling with you to work in the early morning, phoning you during the day, touching your hand or hugging you… enjoying your delicious dishes, the unforgettable hours in the bedroom, made life taste like honey.”

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When Nelson’s eldest son, Thembi, died in a car accident at the age of 24, he was not allowed to attend the funeral. “Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating,” he confided to a friend, “and the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze into ice.”

Long before Tony Blair coined the phrase, his priorities for Thembi’s siblings were “education, education, education” and he constantly praised or scolded them about their academic results.

“What are you doing?” he demanded of his other son Makgatho after learning that the young man had not registered for college.

“Have you neither pride nor conscience? Anybody who is keeping you away from your studies is not a genuine friend but a fraud and a danger to you.”

The second category of letters displays Mandela’s political and legal skills. He regularly protested against his captors’ barbaric treatment of black inmates, but always in a dignified tone aimed at building bridges rather than burning them.

One forensically argued example ends with a striking passage that hints at his long-term ambition to reshape South Africa as a ‘rainbow nation’.

“I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands. 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 honour and decency.”

The final category concerns Mandela’s daily activities, which make for more mundane reading but still paints a vivid picture of the suffering he had to endure. He was acutely concious of his deteriorating health, requesting cold cream for a dry-skin condition and ordering the prison chef to put him on a salt-free diet. His growing fame is illustrated by a note thanking Mike Tyson for sending him some boxing gloves and a missive expressing his hope that Sidney Poitier might one day play him in a film (he did).

Mandela’s prose style was undeniably long-winded and only his most devoted admirers will want to read this book from beginning to end. It is probably best appreciated as a companion volume to his seminal autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which was mostly written in captivity too but not published until 1994.

Together they are a remarkable testament, not just to Mandela’s moral leadership but also his unbending willpower – a quality which seems to have puzzled even the great man himself.

“I very often wonder what gives the strength and courage to carry on,” he once admitted to Winnie.

“If calamities had the weight of physical objects, we should long have been crushed down, or else we should by now have been hunchbacked, unsteady on our feet, and with faces full of gloom and utter despair. Yet my entire body throbs with life and is full of expectations.”

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