This is an extraordinary book, giving an insight into the man over the 27 years that he was imprisoned. It also gives an insight into the small-minded, petty, vicious officialdom of the prison regime of the apartheid state. There are basically four types of letter: those to friends and family, those to universities whose degree subjects he was studying, those to prison officials setting out their legal obligations to prisoners, and those dealing with the affairs of the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member. The letters are all signed appropriately, depending on who he was writing to. Mandela was a man with many names. His birth name was Rolihlahla, his school name, given to him by his teacher, was Nelson. His circumcision, or adult name, was Dalibunga, and his clan title was Madiba. The letters are signed using any of these names, except Rolihlahla. He was also Tata (Dad) and Tatakhulu (Grandad).
The letters to his family, and especially to Winnie, are deeply personal and show the difficulty and frustration that he felt in trying to be supportive and to give guidance when he was in prison, and could not be of any effective help. They are full of compassion and concern, and express his horror at the levels of harassment to which she was subjected, which included physical attacks on her and her home, threats to the children, arrest, torture, solitary confinement, prosecutions and internal banishment. The letters to the children are more about their need to pursue their education, and quite remarkably he was as insistent upon the importance of education to the girls as well as the boys. He wrote to Makaziwe, his eldest daughter, by his first wife Evelyn, encouraging her in her wish to study mathematics, telling her that it is a difficult but important subject, and that it is good that she wishes to specialise in it. There are similar letters to Zenani and Zindiswe, his daughters by Winnie. The two boys, Themba and Makgatho, by his first wife, are advised against giving up their studies to earn money, which is advice that neither of them took, because of their financial responsibilities to the family.
The letters that are the most heartrending are the letters of thanks to the people who organised the funerals of his mother, Nosekeni, and his son, Themba. Mandela was refused permission to attend either funeral, and they happened within ten months of each other. This is an illustration of both the cruelty of the apartheid state, and of its fear of Nelson Mandela. They did not want to give him a public profile by letting him honour his dead.
The letters to the various ministers and officials of the apartheid state are a different matter entirely. They are dignified statements of the rights of prisoners, under the law, and insist that the law should be adhered to. They object to the petty whims and spitefulness of the prison officials being the basis on which the lives of the prisoners are governed. They are forceful assertions of human dignity, in the face of the arrogance and racism of the prison officials. There are complaints that letters have been withheld for long periods, that letters have been mangled by the censors, that letters have not been delivered. It has to be remembered that prisoners were not allowed to send or receive many letters in the first place, and that the failure to deliver many of the letters sent and received had a profound impact on relationships. This was especially the case when Winnie too was imprisoned and the children were effectively orphaned because they did not have access to either parent. If it is difficult to grasp the full impact of the malign viciousness of the apartheid state all you have to do is remember that this is just one instance.
The letters to various academic bodies are mainly about the difficulties of studying in prison. The lack of access to books on recommended reading lists was an obvious difficulty, especially as the prison authorities interfered in the access to books on what appears to be an arbitrary basis, even though Mandela was purchasing these books from his own funds, through Juta, a South African publisher and bookseller. Fortunately, the University of London and other academic bodies were much more understanding of Mandela’s predicament in this regard than the apartheid prison authorities and he eventually completed his law degree, in the late 1980s. [It may be significant that by the time he completed his law degree that Mandela was involved in “talks about talks” with Kobie Coetzee, the Minister of Justice and that there was a loosening of restrictions, but the letters do not indicate that].
The letters about the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member of a cadet branch, show how seriously he took his position as a counsellor and show how much of a traditionalist he actually was. There are times when he fell out with members of the Thembu royalty, as when his nephew Kaiser Matanzima led the Transkei Bantustan into so-called “independence” which was a clear breach with ANC policy. He clearly sided with the King, Sabata Dalindyebo, who opposed the move. There are also surprises, like cordial letters to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of Inkatha (later the Inkatha Freedom Party). Mandela clearly regretted the breakdown in the relations between the ANC and Inkatha that occurred during the 1980s. One of the things that becomes clear is that Mandela looked back to his childhood in Mvezo and Qunu with fondness, and he recognised his debt to the Prince Regent, Jongintaba, who took on responsibility for his upbringing when Mandela’s father died. Another thing that becomes clear is that Mandela took his duty of initiating his sons and grandsons into manhood, through the rite of circumcision, very seriously and, even though he was in prison, he did his best to fulfil his responsibilities in this regard. This view of Mandela, as a traditionalist supporting the customs and ceremonies of the Xhosa, is not one that is generally recognised in the West.
I think that my favourite letter is one to Winnie in which he extols the importance of women leaders. He names a few of these female leaders – Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth of England and Catherine the Great of Russia, and then adds “how great she really was, I don’t know”. He also mentions the Batlokwa Queen Mantatisi, the enemy of Shaka, the Zulu King and Moshoeshoe, the Sotho King. He then says that all of these women gained their thrones through heredity. [This was certainly not the case with Catherine the Great who usurped the throne, murdered two of her predecessors (Peter III, her husband and Ivan VI, his cousin) and held power for 30 odd years, launching wars of aggression in which Poland was destroyed and annexed by agreement between its neighbours.] He then goes on to mention modern women rulers such as Indira Gandhi, Simone Weil and Margaret Thatcher and says of Britain “Despite the collapse of her world-wide Empire & her emergence from the Second World War as a 3rd-rate power, Britain is in many respects still the centre of the world. What happens there attracts attention from far & wide”. This is an assessment that we need to remember.
Why I like this letter is simple. It shows the range and depth of Mandela’s knowledge of history and the world in general. It shows his ability to make an accurate political assessment. It shows, through his praise of women leaders, how modern and forward thinking he could be. It also shows his humanity in his relation to his family, with the references to his daughter, Makaziwe, and to his son, Makgatho. It shows us the man.
One final thing to say about these letters: many of them were not delivered. If you want to know how afraid the apartheid state was of Mandela, even though they had him locked up in maximum security prisons, then the evidence is there in that simple fact. They did not dare to deliver many of these letters. They did not want him to communicate with the outside world. They did not understand that the very fact that he was there in prison was all that the outside world needed to know.