I wish you to know that you are my pride & that of our wide fam­ily

Sunday Times - - Insight Prison Letters -

In July 1969, Nel­son Man­dela re­ceived a terse tele­gram in­form­ing him that his first-born son, Them­bek­ile, had died in a car ac­ci­dent. Man­dela was filled with an­guish at not be­ing al­lowed by the au­thor­i­ties to at­tend Thembi’s fu­neral or to have ac­cess to de­tails about the fa­tal crash. His friend Wal­ter Sisulu com­forted him as he sat in his cell, his brown prison-is­sue blan­ket wrapped around him. Later that day he wrote a let­ter to Win­nie.

My Dar­ling,

This af­ter­noon the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer re­ceived the fol­low­ing tele­gram from at­tor­ney Men­del Levin: “Please ad­vise Nel­son Man­dela his Them­bek­ile passed away 13th in­stant re­sult mo­tor ac­ci­dent in Cape Town.”

I find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that I will never see Thembi again. On Fe­bru­ary 23 this year he turned 24. I had seen him to­wards the end of July 1962, a few days af­ter I had re­turned from the trip abroad. Then he was a lusty lad of 17 that I could never as­so­ci­ate with death. He wore one of my trousers which was a shade too big & long for him. The in­ci­dent was sig­nif­i­cant & set me think­ing. As you know he had a lot of cloth­ing, was par­tic­u­lar about his dress & had no rea­son what­so­ever for us­ing my clothes. I was deeply touched for the emo­tional fac­tors un­der­ly­ing his ac­tion were too ob­vi­ous. For days there­after my mind & feel­ings were ag­i­tated to re­alise the psy­cho­log­i­cal strains & stresses my ab­sence from home had im­posed on the chil­dren. I re­called an in­ci­dent in De­cem­ber 1956 when I was an await­ing trial pris­oner at the Jo­han­nes­burg Fort. At that time Kgatho [Man­dela’s sec­ond son] was 6 and lived in Or­lando East. Al­though he well knew that I was in jail he went over to Or­lando West & told Ma that he longed for me. That night he slept in my bed.

But let me re­turn to my meet­ing with Thembi. He had come to bid me farewell on his way to a board­ing school. On his ar­rival he greeted me very warmly, hold­ing my hand firmly & for some time. There­after we sat down & con­versed. Some­how the con­ver­sa­tion drifted to his stud­ies, & he gave me what I con­sid­ered, in the light of his age at the time, to be an in­ter­est­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Shake­speare’s Julius Cae­sar which I very much en­joyed. We had been cor­re­spond­ing reg­u­larly ever since he went to school at Matatiele & when he later changed to Wode­house. In De­cem­ber 1960 I trav­elled some dis­tance by car to meet him. Through­out this pe­riod I re­garded him as a child & I ap­proached him mainly from this an­gle. But our con­ver­sa­tion in July 1962 re­minded me I was no longer speak­ing to a child but to one who was be­gin­ning to have a set­tled at­ti­tude in life. He had sud­denly raised him­self from a son to a friend. I was in­deed a bit sad when we ul­ti­mately parted. I could nei­ther ac­com­pany him to a bus stop nor see him off at the sta­tion, for an out­law, such as I was at the time, must be ready to give up even im­por­tant parental du­ties. So it was that my son, no! my friend, stepped out alone to fend for him­self in a world where I could only meet him se­cretly & once in a while. I knew you had bought him cloth­ing & given him some cash, but nev­er­the­less I emp­tied my pock­ets and trans­ferred to him all the cop­per and sil­ver that a wretched fugi­tive could af­ford. Dur­ing the Rivo­nia

Case he sat be­hind me one day. I kept look­ing back, nod­ding to him & giv­ing him a broad smile. At the time it was gen­er­ally be­lieved that we would cer­tainly be given the ex­treme penalty & this was clearly writ­ten across his face. Though he nod­ded back as many times as I did to him, not once did he re­turn the smile. I never dreamt that I would never see him again. That was 5 years ago.

Dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod, you gave me many in­ter­est­ing re­ports on him in your let­ters & dur­ing your vis­its. I was par­tic­u­larly pleased to note his at­tach­ment to the fam­ily & the per­sonal in­ter­est he took in mat­ters af­fect­ing his re­la­tions. This at­tach­ment & in­ter­est is demon­strated by the warm let­ter he wrote you in June 1967, meet­ing you at the air­port when you vis­ited me the same month, look­ing af­ter Ma in Cape Town & bring­ing her to the Docks to board the Is­land boat, vis­it­ing you when he re­cently came up to Jo­han­nes­burg with his fam­ily & tak­ing Zeni & Zindzi out. I do not know whether he man­aged to go down to see Ma’s grave. He has sent mes­sages through Kgatho & gave me the parental hon­our of ask­ing me to name his baby. Maki also told me that he bought Kgatho & her­self cloth­ing & all the other things they need. I know what a shat­ter­ing blow his death is to you dar­ling & I write to give you my deep­est sym­pa­thy. I have sent Ntoko [Man­dela’s first wife Eve­lyn] our con­do­lences. Though taken away so early in his life, he will rest in peace for he has done his duty to his par­ents, brother & sis­ters & to his re­la­tions. We will all miss him. It is a pity that nei­ther you nor I could pay him the last re­spects that are due from par­ents to a beloved son who has de­parted. To lose a mother & a first-born, & to have your life part­ner in­car­cer­ated for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod, and all within a pe­riod of ten months, is a bur­den too heavy for one man to carry even in the best of times. But I do not at all com­plain my dar­ling. All I wish you to know is that you are my pride & that of our wide fam­ily.

Never be­fore have I longed for you than at the present mo­ment. It is good to re­mem­ber this in this day of bit­ter mis­for­tunes & bit­ter re­verses. The writer, P. J. Schoe­man, told the story of an African Com­man­der-in-Chief who took his army of mag­nif­i­cent black war­riors for a hunt. Dur­ing the chase the son of the Com­man­der was killed by a li­on­ess & the Com­man­der him­self was badly mauled by the beast. The wound was then sterilised with a red-hot spear & the wounded dig­ni­tary writhed with pain as the wound was be­ing treated. Later Schoe­man asked how he felt & he replied that the in­vis­i­ble wound was more painful than the vis­i­ble one. I now know what the com­man­der meant. I think of you ev­ery mo­ment of the day. Tons & tons of love & a mil­lion kisses, Mh­lope.

Devot­edly, Dal­i­bunga

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