Nelson Mandela’s unpublished prison letters are full of life and love
Regrets, recipes for herbal tea and dreams of Winnie dancing … Mandela’s letters from Robben Island reveal the family man behind the political warrior.
Gillian Slovo writes in the Guardian Newspaper about the new book of Nelson Mandela’s previously unpublished prison letters – recently released to coincide with Nelson Mandela’s 100 centenary celebrations.
In 1969, six and a half years into his 27 year imprisonment, Nelson Mandela wrote to his wife, Winnie: “Since the dawn of history, mankind has honoured & respected … men and women like you darling – an ordinary girl who hails from a country village hardly shown in most maps.” The letter is one of many he wrote to Winnie and it is his love for her that lights up the pages of this mesmerising book of prison letters, many of which have not previously been published.
He had been sentenced to life at a time in South Africa’s history when life meant life, and at first was only allowed to write one 500-word letter every six months, and then only to family members. He wrote drafts in the hardback notebooks he kept in his cell (and at one time was furious that two of these, along with a precious pen, had disappeared). Because the prison authorities would delay his letters – sometimes not sending them – and would hold up or confiscate replies, he never knew whether they’d been received. On one occasion, when he realised that someone had not got his letter, he painstakingly recopied it exactly as it had been a decade before. Thus does time pass slowly in prison.
Nelson Mandela was an icon in his time and has been mythologised since his death as the man who brought peace to a country and made forgiveness on a grand scale seem possible. His voice, brought to life in these letters – which are being published to celebrate the centenary of his birth – helps the reader understand why: his writing pulsates with a conviction allied to a humanity that helped lay the grounds for the miracle of South Africa’s peaceful transformation. At the same time, we are given a privileged glimpse into just how much this one man, and his family, suffered for that transformation.
Before we also had to leave home, both my parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, had worked closely with Mandela: Joe and Mandela had together formed the ANC’s nascent army. Joe went into exile around the time of Mandela’s jailing, and only returned in 1990 as part of the ANC negotiating team, before becoming Mandela’s first minister of housing after the 1994 election. A year later, when Joe died of cancer, Mandela was our first visitor. He sat opposite us, Joe’s three daughters, and, in the quiet of a breaking dawn he told us how his only regret was that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price for their parents’ commitments. I thought at the time that he was doing what he was so good at – seeing us and acknowledging our loss – but now, reading these letters, I understand how deep ran this regret……
This article was first published in the Guardian on Saturday 14th July and we assume (and therefore recognise) all copyrights belong to the Guardian and or Gillian Slovo
To read ths article by Gillian Slovo in full (and some other wonderful insights into the life of Joe Slovo and Joe’s first wife Ruth First) click on the Guardian logo below