A life­line of writ­ten words

‘The Prison Let­ters of Nel­son Man­dela’ is a land­mark pub­li­ca­tion 10 years in the mak­ing. Re­leased by the Nel­son Man­dela Foun­da­tion to mark the 100th year since Man­dela’s birth, the dis­patches are the only au­then­ti­cated let­ters by him and span his 27 years

Sunday Times - - Insight Prison Letters - By NA­DINE DREYER

It was bit­terly cold on the morn­ing of June 13 1964 when Nel­son Man­dela ar­rived on Robben Is­land. The day be­fore he had been sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment at the conclusion of the Rivo­nia trial, a court case that would shape South Africa’s des­tiny. His wife Win­nie had vis­ited him in jail in Pre­to­ria on the 12th and, hours later, with­out warn­ing, he and other Rivo­nia tri­al­lists were trans­ported to the is­land off Cape Town.

As a black man, Man­dela was cat­e­gorised as a “cat­e­gory D” pris­oner, the low­est clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Food ra­tions were al­lo­cated ac­cord­ing to race. Break­fast for African pris­on­ers was 12 ounces of maize meal with a cup of black cof­fee. In­dian and coloured pris­on­ers re­ceived 14 ounces of maize meal, with cof­fee and bread.

“We were like cat­tle kept on spare ra­tions so as to be lean for the mar­ket. Bod­ies to be kept alive, not hu­man be­ings with tastes and a plea­sure in eat­ing,” fel­low pris­oner In­dres Naidoo wrote of his time on the is­land.

Cat­e­gory D pris­on­ers were al­lowed only one vis­i­tor ev­ery six months and could re­ceive only one per­sonal let­ter, of no more than 500 words, ev­ery six months. Satur­day and Sun­day were ear­marked for vis­its, and let­ters were re­ceived on a Satur­day. Pris­on­ers could give up a visit for two let­ters.

Years be­fore he could see his daugh­ters

Pris­on­ers were not al­lowed to re­ceive vis­i­tors younger than 16, so it was many years be­fore Man­dela could see his youngest daugh­ters, Ze­nani and Zindzi. Zindzi was only 20 months old when she lost her fa­ther to the revolution.

Ev­ery let­ter went through the Robben Is­land cen­sor’s of­fice. There could be no men­tion of prison con­di­tions or other pris­on­ers.

Of­fi­cials did ev­ery­thing to break Man­dela’s body, mind and spirit. It was only in 1978 that he was al­lowed to stop hard labour. Many of his let­ters went “miss­ing” or were never sent.

Ef­fec­tively cut off from the world, Man­dela had no way of estab­lish­ing whether his chil­dren were safe and be­ing cared for, espe­cially when Win­nie was de­tained for 491 days.

The year 1968 was the be­gin­ning of even darker days for Man­dela and his loved ones; just as one calamity was dealt with, an­other would fol­low.

On Septem­ber 26 his beloved mother, Nosekeni, died and Man­dela was de­nied per­mis­sion to at­tend the fu­neral. Then, on a freez­ing win­ter’s night, a few hours be­fore dawn on May 12 1969, se­cu­rity po­lice stormed their Soweto home and de­tained Win­nie.

Zindzi and Ze­nani, then aged nine and 10, clung to her clothes, beg­ging, “Mommy, please don’t go.” In jail she was tor­tured and kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment. It was 16 months be­fore she saw her daugh­ters again.

Man­dela’s let­ters at the time re­veal his pain and anx­i­ety about his wife’s or­deal and the fate of his two young daugh­ters. His frus­tra­tion at be­ing pow­er­less to do any­thing is al­ways pal­pa­ble.

News of Win­nie’s de­ten­tion reached him on May 17 in the midst of his prepa­ra­tion for his exam fi­nals, then only 25 days away. He was able to write to her only on June 23 1969. In this let­ter he re­minds her of a let­ter she wrote to him six-and-a-half years pre­vi­ously, one of his most pre­cious pos­ses­sions, one, he tells her, he takes com­fort in reread­ing count­less times.

He quotes some of her words to him: “Most peo­ple do not re­alise that your phys­i­cal pres­ence would have meant noth­ing to me if the ideals for which you have ded­i­cated your life have not been re­alised. I find liv­ing in hope the most won­der­ful thing . . . noth­ing can be as valu­able as be­ing part and par­cel of the for­ma­tion of the his­tory of the coun­try.”

He re­minds her of the power of hope: “It is pre­cisely at the present mo­ment that you should re­mem­ber that hope is a pow­er­ful weapon & one no power on earth can de­prive you of.”

On the same day he writes a heart­break­ing let­ter to Ze­nani and Zindzi about their mother’s im­pris­on­ment: “Per­haps never again will Mummy and Daddy join you in house no. 8115 Or­lando West, the one place in the world that is so dear to our hearts.”

As if that were not enough, tragedy struck again, on July 13, when his el­dest son, Thembi, was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. Af­ter hear­ing the news three days later, Man­dela sat in his cell, his brown prison blan­ket wrapped tightly around him, be­ing com­forted by his friend, Wal­ter Sisulu. The terse tele­gram he had re­ceived had sim­ply stated: “Please ad­vise Nel­son Man­dela his Them­bek­ile passed away 13th in­stant re­sult mo­tor ac­ci­dent in Cape Town.”

Later that day he wrote what must have been his most painful let­ter to Win­nie, who was still in prison.

“To lose a mother & a first-born and to have your life part­ner in­car­cer­ated for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod, all within a pe­riod of 10 months, is a bur­den too heavy for one man to carry even in the best of times. The in­vis­i­ble wound was more painful than the vis­i­ble one.”

Other Man­dela let­ters are poignant win­dows into his life. He as­sumes an up­beat tone with his sec­ond­born, Mak­gatho, who is about to turn 20.

On Au­gust 31 1970 he writes to Mak­gatho, salut­ing him with HEIT MY BLA. He re­minds Mak­gatho that he has not heard from him for a while and is anx­ious to hear how he is get­ting on.

He rem­i­nisces about Mak­gatho’s boy­hood, “when you did not work, grub was ga­lore, cloth­ing plen­ti­ful and you slept good”.

“Some of your play­mates roamed about com­pletely naked and dirty be­cause their par­ents were too poor to dress them and keep them clean.”

The fa­ther re­calls the son’s gen­eros­ity to his less­for­tu­nate mates by of­ten bring­ing them home and giv­ing them some­thing to eat. He would also make sure he had enough money to pay the en­trance fee to the Trevor Hud­dle­ston pool for a needy friend.

On De­cem­ber 1 1970 Man­dela writes to Sanna Teyise, the owner of the leg­endary Blue La­goon restau­rant at 10 Von Wiel­ligh Street, Jo­han­nes­burg. Seretse Khama, Oliver Tambo, Ed­uardo Mond­lane and Joshua Nkomo were some of the po­lit­i­cal fig­ures who hung out there. Man­dela re­minds Sanna that reg­u­lars urged her to raise her prices, which she bluntly re­fused to do. Man­dela also re­mem­bers her land­lord tak­ing ad­van­tage of the le­gal dilemma cre­ated by her gen­eros­ity to all races to un­rea­son­ably hike the rent.

On March 1 1971 he writes to Ze­nani, who had just turned 12. He re­mem­bers that her birth was a great re­lief as three months be­fore, Win­nie had spent 15 days in prison in con­di­tions that were dan­ger­ous for a preg­nant woman.

There’s the long­ing of a fa­ther for his child. She would only be able to pay him a visit in five years’ time, when she was 16. “But I am grow­ing im­pa­tient and the com­ing five years seem longer than eter­nity.”

Man­dela fought re­lent­lessly for the rights of his fel­low pris­on­ers and him­self. His cor­re­spon­dence is de­tailed and metic­u­lous and he sets out his ar­gu­ments as a lawyer would, pre­par­ing for trial.

On May 13 1974 he writes to jus­tice min­is­ter Jimmy Kruger, who would later be­come no­to­ri­ous for his re­ac­tion to Steve Biko’s death: “It leaves me cold.”

Man­dela urged Kruger to in­ter­vene to en­able Win­nie’s brother to live with her in Or­lando West. He sets out sev­eral in­ci­dents that make Win­nie fear for her life. The house had been ran­sacked, then three men broke in and one of them had tried to stran­gle her with a cloth. An Al­sa­tian dog she had ac­quired to guard her was poi­soned. Man­dela asks Kruger for po­lice pro­tec­tion and for in­flux con­trol reg­u­la­tions to be re­laxed so that Win­nie’s brother, Msuthu Madik­izela, could live with her.

“I am quite cer­tain that if you think my rep­re­sen­ta­tions are rea­son­able and sub­stan­tial, and you con­sider it your duty to help, all red tape will be brushed aside and our prob­lems could be solved with the stroke of a pen.”

In one of Man­dela’s sem­i­nal let­ters he writes to his friend Joy Mot­sieloa on Fe­bru­ary 17 1986. He af­firms his be­lief in his po­lit­i­cal mis­sion to win change in South Africa.

At this time he would have been writ­ing from his sin­gle cell in Pollsmoor Prison. Af­ter 1980 he and his fel­low po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were al­lowed ac­cess to news­pa­per and ra­dio news, so he would have been well aware that the coun­try was lit­er­ally burn­ing and un­der a state of emer­gency. Six weeks af­ter this let­ter, his friend Vic­to­ria Mx­enge was as­sas­si­nated.

“When a man com­mits him­self to the type of life he has lived for 45 years, even though he may well have been aware from the out­set of all the at­ten­dant haz­ards, the ac­tual course of events and the pre­cise man­ner in which they would in­flu­ence his life could never have been clearly fore­see­able in ev­ery re­spect,” he writes to Mot­sieloa.

“If I had been able to fore­see all that has since hap­pened, I would cer­tainly have made the same de­ci­sion, so I be­lieve at least. But that de­ci­sion would cer­tainly have been far more daunt­ing, and some of the tragedies which sub­se­quently fol­lowed would have melted what­ever traces of steel were in­side me.

“The death of your beloveds and your in­ti­mate friends to whom you are linked by count­less ties, some go­ing back for sev­eral decades, the wide va­ri­ety of prob­lems to which your fam­ily would be ex­posed in your ab­sence, are per­sonal dis­as­ters which are of­ten dif­fi­cult to en­dure, and, on most oc­ca­sions, leav­ing you won­der­ing whether in this kind of life one should have a fam­ily, raise chil­dren and make firm friend­ships.”

Man­dela suf­fered ev­ery pos­si­ble pain, ev­ery at­tempt to break his spirit, but de­spite all the assaults in the course of his jour­ney, his let­ters re­veal the courage, res­o­lu­tion and de­fi­ance that great­ness is made of.

To lose a mother & a first-born and have your life part­ner in­car­cer­ated for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod, all within a pe­riod of 10 months, is a bur­den too heavy for one man to carry even in the best of times Nel­son Man­dela In a prison let­ter to Win­nie Man­dela

✼ The Prison Let­ters of Nel­son Man­dela is pub­lished by Pen­guin Ran­dom House South Africa, R425

Pic­tures: Tiso Black­star Group and Pic­tureNET Africa

ON THE IS­LAND Pris­oner 46664 in the Robben Is­land gar­den, above. At right, Nel­son Man­dela re­lives his hard labour in the quarry on a visit to the is­land in 1995.

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

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