THE PRISON LET­TERS OF NEL­SON MAN­DELA

The Oldie - - LETTERS & DIARIES -

ED. SAHM VEN­TER Liveright, 620pp, £25, Oldie price £16.79 inc p&p

For the first three years of the 27 Nel­son Man­dela spent in prison, he was al­lowed to write only a sin­gle 500-word let­ter ev­ery three months; then, later, and by in­cre­ments, more. Yet his let­ters were a life­line, he later said, de­scrib­ing how the replies ‘cut through mas­sive iron doors and grim stone walls, bring­ing into the cell the splen­dour and warmth of spring­time’. The Times’s Jerome Starkey found this col­lec­tion of his cor­re­spon­dence ‘in­spir­ing, heart­break­ing, funny and oc­ca­sion­ally dull’ and said ‘it en­riches rather than trans­forms our un­der­stand­ing’ of the great man.

Ivan Fal­lon in the Sun­day Times, though, mar­velled at ‘what must be one of the largest and most elo­quent prison cor­re­spon­dences of all time’ and high­lighted poignan­cies – such as the long lov­ing let­ter to his daugh­ter Zindzi on her 19th birth­day, never de­liv­ered be­cause the au­thor­i­ties con­fis­cated it with­out ever telling him.

‘He is strict in ad­mon­ish­ing his chil­dren when they slack. He is very grand when com­plain­ing to a tribal chief about the theft of his sis­ter’s cows,’ wrote the Spec­ta­tor’s Stephen Robin­son – and he was a mar­tyr to dry skin, com­plain­ing when forced to use Vase­line in­stead of Pond’s Cold Cream: ‘It is poignant to think that when trade union­ists and Scan­di­na­vian hu­man rights groups were send­ing Man­dela pen­dants and greet­ings of sol­i­dar­ity, all the world’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal pris­oner re­ally wanted was a jar of Pond’s.’

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