Literature

Book Review: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

Let’s paint the picture, Mandela imprisoned in a cell which was only 2.4 metres by 2.1 metres, he wrote his daughter, it was 1969 Mandela was a political prisoner serving his life sentence on the maximum-security Robben Island in South Africa. When he started the sentence his youngest, Zindzi, was 18 months old,  now eight years old (in 1969). Conditions were dire Mandela was only allowed to write and receive one letter every three months. This was the beginning of the letters that have formed a book called “The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela”. Going to prison as a forty-four-year lawyer he spent the next 25 years in jail. During his 10.052 days of incarceration the future leader of South Africa and the then leader of the African National Congress (ANC) wrote a huge number of letters, to prison authorities, fellow activists, government officials and most touchingly to his devoted wife Winnie and his five children. The 225 letters that have never been published provide an insight into how he maintained his resilience, spirit and mental strength.

He wrote:

“I do not know, my darlings, when I will return, it may be long before I come back; it may be soon. But I am certain that one day I will be back home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days. Do not worry about me. I am happy, well, and full of strength and hope.”

With a ‘bed’ which was just a mat on a concrete floor and hard labour every day, little prospect of release, how did he still have “strength and hope”.

Some of the most moving letters are around the time he is forbidden to attend his mother’s funeral. And then when his eldest son Thembi dies in a car accident. He writes “I can’t associate a “lusty lad” with death”. He goes on to write about the “psychological strains and stresses” his absence has on his children.

In another letter about his son’s death he writes to his second son Kgatho: “It is never wise to brood over past calamities, however disastrous they may appear to be … work harder on your studies, never allow yourself to be discouraged by difficulties or setbacks, and never give up the battle even in the darkest hour.”

His letters to Winnie the woman who once said when she met Mandela, “very early on into our relationship we become great lovers” are touching, starting with “darling” and signed “devotedly”. In 1970 he wrote to Winnie after she served 491 days in custody on her release: “I received the wonderful news” …. “I send you my warmest congratulations for serving 491 & still emerge the lively girl you are, & in high spirits”. He continues: “now that you are back I long for you even more”…… “I wish we could have a contact visit where I could hug you feel warmth of your blood”.

That great love and devotion that they had for each other is played out on the pages of his letters to her. On a lighter note in 1989 he wrote a letter to Mike Tyson thanking him for “the pair of gloves which you sent me to me to mark my 70th birthday. It is such messages of solidarity which has enabled me and scores of others to remain strong and full of hope”. At that point now 70 he had spent almost half his life in prison but could maintain his moral.   The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela are a deep and sometimes painful insight into of one of the 20th century’s most inspiring and iconic people.

A good read as we enter into 2019.  We have teamed up with the publishers to offer two lucky  readers a copy of the book. To win answer the following question: What year did Nelson Mandela go to prison? Send answers via email to the editor no later than 31st January 2019. The book is available to buy on Amazon and most good bookshops.

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