THE PRISON LETTERS OF NELSON MANDELA
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.’