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