Robben Island Days
A South African leader’s jailhouse correspondence during apartheid
By Douglas Foster
June 4, 2018
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, edited by Sahm Venter; Liveright, 640 pp., $35
“Dear Sir, My colleagues have requested me to write,” the prisoner began, as if he and the minister of justice had decided to settle into a nice collegial chat over tea. This letter from Nelson Mandela, dated April 22, 1969, must rank as the most politely worded explanation of revolutionary intent in human history. The colleagues he mentioned were comrades in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party dedicated to the overthrow of the white minority government the minister represented. The purpose of this letter? “[To] ask you to release us from prison and, pending your decision on the matter, to accord us the treatment due to political prisoners.”
Much of the correspondence in this volume is published here for the first time, on the centenary of Mandela’s birth. This letter, like many others, received no response. Written from Mandela’s tiny cell in Robben Island Prison, five years into his life sentence for sabotage, the letter would have seemed outlandish to its recipient. By that time, the movement to end apartheid had been crushed, its leaders in prison, hiding, and exile, or hunkered down in guerrilla training camps abroad. Mandela wasn’t exactly bargaining from a position of strength.
Still, he called on universal principles, invoking the Geneva Convention and the right to self-determination, “acknowledged throughout the civilized world as the inalienable birthright of all human beings.” Further, Mandela urged the government to “avert disaster” by negotiating a surrender of political power through the principle of one person, one vote. The alternative, he suggested, was a catastrophic violent confrontation that would cost South African people heavily across lines of race and class. “The obvious solution is to release us and to hold a round table conference to consider an amicable solution,” Mandela wrote.
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Douglas Foster is an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University and the author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa.