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The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela
Arrested in 1962 as South Africa's apartheid regime intensified its brutal campaign against political opponents, forty-four-year-old lawyer and African National Congress activist Nelson Mandela had no idea that he would spend the next twenty-seven years in jail. During his 10,052 days of incarceration, Mandela wrote hundreds of letters to unyielding prison authorities, fellow activists, government officials, and most memorably, to his wife Winnie and his five children.
Now, 255 of these letters, the majority of which were previously unseen, provide the most intimate portrait of Mandela since Long Walk to Freedom. Painstakingly researched, authenticated and catalogued by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the letters have been drawn from the Foundation's archive as well as from public and private collections held by the Mandela family and South African government archives.
Mandela's letters are organised chronologically and divided by the four prisons in which he was incarcerated. Each section opens with a short introduction to provide a historical overview of each of these periods and the collection features a foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela.
Whether writing about the death of his son Thembi after a request to attend the funeral was ignored, providing unwavering support to his also-imprisoned wife or outlining a human-rights philosophy that resonates today, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela reveals the heroism of a man who refused to compromise his moral values in the face of extraordinary human punishment. Ultimately, they confirm Mandela's position among the most inspiring historical figures of the twentieth century.
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I was 10 years old when Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 year incarceration. The news reports form a clear part of my early memories. I had little true understanding of its importance, but even as a child I understood that it WAS important.
Mandela’s time spent as a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa is so normalised in its popular representation that it can now be hard to appreciate its gravity. So perhaps it takes something like this book, a chronology of previously unpublished letters, to reawaken the significance of Madiba. He began his life sentence at Pretoria in 1962, a fourty four year old man, and emerged an elderly grandfather of seventy one. In that time, despite being a targeted and persecuted prisoner, he succeeded in setting the foundations for change in South Africa.
Many of us are familiar with the events subsequent to Mandela’s release. But what was the cost? Well, it is the personal cost that is dealt with in this book. Domestic sacrifice, not just of Mandela himself, but his wife, children, grandchildren, friends and acquaintances. The loss of a parent, a father, has ripples of effect within any family. In this respect, the Mandelas are no different to you or I. As it is, Nelson Mandela was an individual who changed the course of an entire country and, arguably, a whole generation. This doesn’t make his children any less children, his grandchildren any less grandchildren.
Reading nearly three decades of letters reveals this man’s heartache from being separated from close family. He says in 1986, to the grandchildren from whom he must have felt so distant “I miss you very much and think of you always. Tons of love and a million kisses.”
In 1968 he was shattered by the death of his mother, but was refused attendance to her funeral. In 1969 he was refused the same of his eldest son, Thembi who was tragically killed in a road accident. However, he tirelessly campaigns in his letters to the Commissioner for Prisons for fairer treatment, showing a patience that is beyond most people.
For a man who has become a symbolic figure of equality and justice, it’s easy to forget the humanity that lies beneath. Mandela’s letters reveal a passionate man - he tells of constant dreams of his wife and writes to Winnie in 1970 (eighteen years into his prison term) “why did you give me that enchanting photo? It has made me homesick.” Despite the constant words of devotion and love that were expressed in these letters, it was an union that (understandably) did not survive.
Reading Mandela’s quiet frustration with state interference in his letters is enough to ignite empathetic fury in any reader. However, his persistence in letter writing is something to inspire the most lethargic of us. Mandela details in his dogged correspondence, amongst others to the Prison Commissioner, and later to the President of South Africa, a detailed log of undelivered, overly censored and deliberately mislaid letters. To persist in writing against such aggressive attempts at suppression is quite astounding and was integral, I think, to his survival.
As his profile raised, it clearly became harder for the state in their attempts to silence this formidable man. He manages to forge and pursue relationships with not only old friends and colleagues, but new acquaintances of increasing profile. These include statesmen, politicians and celebrities. Letters to Denis Healy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mike Tyson litter Mandela’s final years under sentence.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The letters show, both in their content and their persistence, the substance of this man. Despite the constant mutilation of correspondence by officials or attempts to vanish the letters, Mandela produces beautifully considered and articulate expressions of humanity throughout his 27 years. Not only this, but he kept an accurate copy of each letter sent so as to be able to reproduce it when required. This lost art of letter writing is arguably what kept Mandela sane, strong and true to his cause. And in the end, perhaps it was the key to his success in uniting South Africa.
"Published in what would have been his centenary year, this fascinating collection of correspondence provides a revealing and deeply emotional glimpse into the mind of the 20th century's greatest leader." -- World of Cruising "The back cover of The Prison Letters Of Nelson Mandela is adorned with several quotes from the book, all expressing the kind of noble sentiments you might expect from one of the Great Men of History. In fact, though, this is a bit misleading - because, taken as a whole, the book itself gives us a far more rounded, interesting and, above all, human portrait of Mandela than that." -- The Daily Mail "So much rubbish has been written over the years by those who feared, revered or pretended to know Nelson Mandela that it is useful, finally, to be able to read about him and the privations of his prison years in his own contemporaneous, understated prose." -- The Spectator "A superbly edited collection of the ANC chief's prison letters paint a portrait of Mandela the family man, the political thinker and the inmate... As well as presenting 255 letters across 640 pages here, the South African journalist Sahm Venter does a fine job of putting them into historical context." -- The Irish Independent "To commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday, a book of 250 letters has just been published, providing a remarkable insight into the man, his tenacity and endurance and the struggle for his country's freedom." -- The Independent "Remarkably, this collection only serves to enhance and consolidate Mandela's reputation as a defining figure of the last century and the present one. The letters are in multiple languages, English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa, but they speak the language of humanity, which is the language of that fraught but loaded prison word: time." -- The Herald "... as a series of illuminating snapshots into one of the most important political icons of post-colonial Africa, the book will have a timeless value." -- The Irish Times "Nelson Mandela's long, thoughtful letters, written during his 27 years in prison, display an unwavering certainty that change would prevail." -- Tim Adams, Book of the Day - The Guardian "Venter has done an excellent job of sifting through the South African national archives, which alone contain 57 boxes of his prison letters and papers, and smaller collections that are scattered all over the place." -- Ivan Fallon - The Sunday Times "... this mesmerising book of prison letters... through these compelling letters the thinking, feeling, loving man he was comes back to us." -- Gillian Slovo - The Guardian "A veritable treasure trove, they grant a forensic insight into his courage, superhuman fortitude and clarity of political judgment; into his agony at failing in his duties as a husband and father of two girls, toddlers when he was snatched away; and his torment at being refused permission to attend either his mother's or his son's funeral. To me, even as a biographer of Mandela, it is a revelatory volume." -- Peter Hain - The Daily Telegraph "Madiba's words give us a compass in a sea of change. Firm ground amidst swirling currents." -- Barack Obama