The Current

New compilation of Nelson Mandela's letters shed light on his time in prison

Hundreds of letters Nelson Mandela wrote while incarcerated under apartheid rule have been compiled into a new book. The Current discusses the compilation with its editor, Sahm Venter, and Mandela's granddaughter.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela compiles 27 years of late South African president's writings

Nelson Mandela in the prison cell he occupied on Robben Island for much of his time in incarceration. (Reuters)

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​When author Sahm Venter toured Nelson Mandela's former prison cell in 1994, he asked the civil rights icon what he did to pass the time.

"He said, 'I read ... and I wrote letters," said Venter, who has co-edited a number of books about the late South African president.

For the anniversary of what would have been Mandela's 100th birthday, Venter has compiled a new book collecting hundreds of letters Mandela wrote while incarcerated under apartheid rule.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela "takes us into the prison cell with him and let's us hear it in his own words at the time," Venter told The Current's guest host Megan Williams. 

Nelson Mandela walks out of the Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, South Africa, after almost three decades in prison. February 11, 1990. (Ulli Michel/Reuters)

Mandela was arrested in 1962 for his political activism against South Africa's brutal system of segregation. In prison, he spent 27 years in almost complete isolation, with the exception of hard labour duties.

Behind bars he would learn of his wife's detention, his mother's passing, and that his son had died in a car crash.

"He didn't have any way of being with family, of attending the funerals, of doing any of the rituals that are expected of him. It must have just been awful. But throughout this he just remained calm," said Venter. 

"He was all about hope. He would never give up."

"I had never dreamt that I would never be able to bury ma. On the contrary, I had entertained the hope that I would have the privilege of looking after her in her old age, and be on her side when the fatal hour struck."

- The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, Pg. 90

From jail, Mandela continued his political activism despite immense restriction. He was not allowed to reference prison in his letters, but "he learnt how to get by the censorship," explained Venter. 

"He was able to use coded words and write about people without them knowing. For instance he would pretend to be writing about other family members when in fact he was referring to somebody in prison and the recipient would know through the use of nicknames, etc."

Mandela also wrote to political leaders. In these correspondences, he always demonstrated rhetorical prowess and respect, said Venter.

"He used the correct language, a lot of background of history, of rational argument. He was absolutely determined in the correctness of his position ... But he was always very polite."

Nelson Mandela addresses the 49th session of the General Assembly in 1994. (UN photo archives)

Mandela's granddaughter, Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, who wrote a foreward for the new compilation, told The Current the letters reveal as much about the world outside — of apartheid South Africa — as life in Mandela's cell.

"It was an eye-opener to what the real experiences were of my mom and aunts."

"[You] really get to grasp the fullness of what the apartheid government was able to do in terms of really tearing apart families structures, and how my grandfather tries so hard to hold it together."

"One day there will be a new world when all of us will live in happiness and peace."

- The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, Pg. 90. Letter to Makaziwe, Mandel's eldest daughter

For Venter, Mandela's letters to his family also functioned as a source for "being alive" for a man whose physical freedom had been stripped away.

"You see a lot of him harking back to some of the fun days when he would go to the theater and sing with his friends. And beautiful letters to his wife about what they used to do together, or what they could do together," she said. 

"I think he was bringing the colour back into his life, and hope back into his life."

For Dlamini-Mandela, her grandfather's writing reveals his unwavering commitment to the principles that had him imprisoned: hope, love, and fight for the rights of marginalized.

"He had a deep and sense of resolve as to what he wanted to achieve. If it meant giving up his life, that's what he felt needed to be done."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Allie Jaynes.