Book Reviews - Summer 2018

Robben Island Days

A South African leader’s jailhouse correspondence during apartheid

By Douglas Foster | June 4, 2018
Copyright © Eli Weinberg, University of Western Cape, Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives
Copyright © Eli Weinberg, University of Western Cape, Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives

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.

In this collection, superbly curated by South African journalist and writer Sahm Venter, the reader encounters history as it unfolded. Retrospective accounts, including Mandela’s own 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, often leave the impression that the success of Mandela’s side of the argument was somehow preordained. His prison correspondence is a poignant reminder of how unlikely that prospect once seemed. Mass uprisings, sacrifice, organizing, tightening international pressure, and the dawning realization by apartheid leaders that their own future depended on Mandela’s skills as a reconciler and negotiator: all were required to achieve the long-delayed reckoning.

The volume delivers far more than politics, juxtaposing Mandela’s messages of protest with revealing personal reflections meant for family and friends that are, by turns, whimsical, longing, nostalgic, hectoring, and profoundly self-critical. He died only five years ago, but Mandela, like Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated half a century ago, remains more celebrated than understood. This correspondence offers some insight.

Consider a 1971 letter from Mandela to one of his daughters. “My Darling, Friday the 5th February this year was your 12th birthday,” he wrote. “I sent you a card containing my congratulations and good wishes. Did you get it?” His daughter had been only two years old when he had seen her last, at a clandestine reunion while he was on the run. They cuddled briefly, he recalled, but then “you pushed me aside and started searching the room. In a corner you found the rest of my clothing. After collecting it, you gave it to me and asked me to go home. … You felt I had deserted you and Mummy.”

Mummy, of course, was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second wife. Her shadow falls over much of his prison correspondence. I was halfway through these letters when, on April 2, the woman known as the Mother of the Nation died in Johannesburg at age 81. Winnie and Nelson were star-crossed lovers, whose relationship was upended only a few years after they married by his arrest, subsequent trial, and imprisonment for 27 years. During that time, they could see each other only through thick glass barriers, for 30 or 60 minutes at a time. They had to raise their voices to be heard and were able to visit only under the gaze of prison guards.

Nelson’s letters to Winnie are rife with longing. “I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone & soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you in the rough & fierce ordeals you are going through,” he wrote. “The other day I dreamt of you convulsing your entire body with a graceful Hawaiian dance. … I stood at one end of the famous hall with arms outstretched ready to embrace you as you whirled towards me with the enchanting smile that I miss so desperately.” Closing that part of his letter, he had a request: “The dream was for me a glorious moment. If I must dream in my sleep, please hawaii for me.”

Knowledge that their world-famous relationship later foundered inflects any current reading of his letters to her. While Nelson was incarcerated, Winnie emerged as a leader in her own right. By February 1990, when they left Victor Verster Prison hand in hand, they were thoroughly ill suited for each other, not only as husband and wife but also as like-minded comrades in the struggle. Nelson, on that day, was 71, while Winnie, 19 years younger, was still in her prime. He’d been cut off from the lived experience of mostly poor, mostly black South Africans, and Winnie had experienced repeated cycles of mass repression and mass uprising. She advocated forms of violent resistance, such as the execution of suspected spies by “necklacing,” or forcing a tire on the victim’s shoulders and setting it aflame—a method that other leaders of the movement later criticized.

The couple separated before Nelson’s 1994 inauguration as the country’s first black president, and Winnie grew increasingly critical of him and successive ANC governments for failing to achieve greater measures of socioeconomic justice. In the country’s iconography, Nelson has come to be the kindly Tata (father), known for his outsize devotion to the rule of law and his long-suffering insistence on a peaceful transition to democracy; Winnie, in death as in life, symbolizes a resurgent demand for radical redistribution of land and wealth. “I am not Mandela’s product,” she told a reporter in 1999. “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.” Their competing legacies, as central figures in the founding of a new democracy 24 years ago, lie at the heart of current debates about South Africa’s future in chat rooms, social media, journalistic accounts, comment on the streets, and official statements from the government and the ANC.

The minister of Justice never replied to Mandela, but the minister’s successor ultimately found himself at the conference table his onetime prisoner had envisioned. In the intervening quarter century, Mandela stubbornly placed his bet on the promise, and logic, of universal human rights. Until the end, he also insisted on the possibility of late-stage redemption for white oppressors. His almost religious faith in the power of reason and the value of education comes alive in these letters. Here, too, the reader will find an inkling of the high costs of a dream so long deferred.

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