The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela review – the authentic voice of Mandela

It might not outlast Methuselah but the Mandela story still has the power yet

It is extraordinary is how little of the story  was written by Mandela. Photograph:  Louise Gubb/Getty Images

It is extraordinary is how little of the story was written by Mandela. Photograph: Louise Gubb/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 14, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela


edited by Sahm Venter

WW Norton

Guideline Price:

Hitler and Nazis, the publishing trope goes. No matter how time passes, each year more is published on Germany’s fascist deviation. In South Africa another subject joins the hardy perennials – Nelson Mandela.

The anti-apartheid icon died in 2013 but the Mandela publishing fountain still gushes: biographies, children’s books, picture albums, memoirs by family members, friends, associates, lawyers, his old prison guards and even a bossy secretary. Television had tapped in with an execrable reality show called Being Mandela following his wannabe Kardashian granddaughters.

While much of it is tosh, every so often something published does add to our understanding. The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, released on the centenary of his birth, is one such book.


The story’s outline is well known: rural boy from the South African hinterland goes to the big city, Johannesburg; gets involved in politics by joining the African National Congress fighting white minority rule; steers movement from non-violence to militancy; is caught; avoids the death sentence by a whisker; spends more than 27 years in jail; is released to oversee South Africa’s transition to democracy; is elected the first black president; and stands down after one term to enjoy a retirement latterly blighted by infirmity.

Yet what is extraordinary is how little of that story was written by Mandela. A committed party man, he was loth to overshadow his beloved ANC, submitting a draft autobiography to death by committee in the 1970s. It was mangled to such an extent that when it did eventually come out in 1994, as Long Walk to Freedom, his own voice was barely recognisable, so heavily had it been reworked by ghostwriter Richard Stengel.

What makes the collection of prison letters so special is that there is no refashioning. The voice of Mandela is as authentic as we will ever hear it, one that is courteous sometimes stiff; wise and determined; passionate yet restrained.

His modesty about writing memoirs is clear in a 1971 letter to a friend: “What a sweet euphemism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography, they choose to call it . . . I am doubtful I will ever sit down to sketch my background. I have neither the achievements of which I could boast nor the skill to do it.”

But write letters he did despite stringent prison conditions. Censorship was heavy (no politics to be mentioned) with only two letters, each no longer than 500 words, allowed every year when he began his sentence. Guards refused to tell him which made it out so Mandela wrote them first in notebooks and then on writing paper so a duplicate could be re-sent if needs be. In 1985 he reposted a letter first composed 10 years earlier.


Many are to his beloved second wife, Winnie, mostly signed off with “tons & tons of love & a million kisses”. So politicised did she become in the late 1980s, it is touching how the letters project a purer Winnie: Mandela urged her at one point to take up jogging to keep fit, teased her about a beautiful portrait she sent him in prison that had other prisoners expressing the Xhosa equivalent of “phwoar” and wrote intimately about cherishing each March 10th, the anniversary of their first date in 1957.

His frustration at not being able to protect her comes out in letters written to the police requesting help after her life was threatened in a series of attacks at the family home in Soweto. On one occasion it was only the last deep inbreath of a strangler that saved her. She heard enough to stir, gather her senses and fight him off.

While Mandela knew the attacks were perpetrated by the regime as a way to break him, he kept his anger in check as he wrote firm, measured letters requesting protection from the exact same regime responsible for sending the attackers. As a trained lawyer his faith in the law was absolute.

No matter how much one knows about the ghastliness of apartheid, tiny instances of cruelty mentioned here still shock. The barrister – a white Afrikaner called Bram Fischer – who defended Mandela would himself die from cancer while serving a jail sentence for a political crime. He was cremated but the regime lost his ashes.

In a vain attempt to break Mandela they refused to let him out on compassionate grounds to attend his mother’s funeral in 1968. The next year his son, Thembi, was killed in a car crash. This time the authorities simply ignored Mandela’s letter asking for permission to be at the graveside. “Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating & the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze into ice,” he wrote to a friend describing the news of his son’s death.

Moon landings

The years pass and with it the generations. Mandela writes to his children about the moon landings of 1969 and like most fathers writes to urge his children to study hard at school. But unlike other fathers there is a hiatus. He must wait more than a decade to actually see his daughters. Only when they turn 16 would the prison rules allow them to visit. He went into jail with no grandchildren. He left with 12.

As a historical source the letters are not perfect. It is by necessity an incomplete collection such were the vagaries of the censors who deleted some letters partially, threw away others and even ransacked Mandela’s cell and destroyed at least some of the notebooks where he kept the letter originals.

But 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. In a 1970 letter he sought to reassure Winnie that they would one day be together again: “I hope to outlive Methuselah & be with you . . . and look after you in every way.” Politics claimed their marriage with divorce in the 1990s and old age claimed him five years ago. It might not outlast Methuselah but the Mandela story still has the power yet.