JULY 21, 2018
IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that Sahm Venter, the editor of The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, did not have a crystal ball when planning the book’s publication date. Despite beginning to assemble this compilation nearly a decade ago, the letters feel eerily resonant in 2018. Mandela’s concerns about free speech, the treatment of protesters by the police, and the humanity of the incarcerated, as well as racial divisions and those who stoke them for political gain, would fit seamlessly on the pages of any leading publication today. But perhaps what feels most timely is Mandela’s struggle to reconcile the ideal — the hope — that most people are good at heart, with the horrifying realities of the day-to-day treatment he and his fellow prisoners endured.
It is a struggle many readers of this collection will relate to — though not perhaps to the extent Mandela did, having faced immense physical and psychological torture during his imprisonment. But as extreme language about race and gender becomes the norm — even among world leaders — trying to assess which direction the moral compass of our society points has become harder, and so does hanging on to hope. The greatest strength of this collection is its ability to renew hope at a time when many of us sorely need it.
The letters, addressed to a diverse list that includes family members, friends, and prison officials, are filled with illuminating insights into Mandela’s life, in and out of prison; among them his friendship with the late US Senator Paul Tsongas, his surprising note to boxer Mike Tyson (following Tyson being awarded an honorary doctorate), as well as his immense appreciation for great artists and great authors. In one letter, he requests that a bookstore send works by Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck to his children. In another to his daughter, he hails the importance of classical greats Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, alongside modern artists turned activists Paul Robeson and Miriam Makeba.
But there are also many letters that, frankly, do little to enlighten the reader on Nelson Mandela the activist, or even Nelson Mandela the person. (Just imagine if every single note you wrote in a single month, from birthday cards to letters to a cousin about family matters, were published. You’re probably cringing at the idea of how mundane some of the correspondence would seem to others. Now stretch that week into years.) But even the most mundane letters of Nelson Mandela are worth reading, if only to find your way to those that are extraordinary. The collection affirms that Mandela was not only a brilliant political tactician and legal mind, but also an exquisite writer. However, what ultimately makes this collection unforgettable is not the language he uses, but the ideals that emerge as central to his worldview and his fight for survival in circumstances that would have broken many of us.
For instance, prison reform has evolved from a fringe issue of the left to a mainstream issue embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. And yet the words “prison reform” tend to focus on foundational issues such as reforming sentencing guidelines, and transitioning from a culture that prizes punishment to one that emphasizes rehabilitation. While these are certainly worthy issues, Mandela’s letters serve as a powerful reminder that in a humane society, ensuring prisoners can maintain ties with the outside world is just as important as ensuring they are fed, clothed, and not physically abused, not only to ensure their survival in prison, but to ensure they have the tools they need to survive, thrive, and contribute to society in a meaningful way when they leave.
While Mandela writes of being deprived adequate food, clothing, shoes, water, and medical care during his imprisonment (as well as deliberate acts by officials to make prisoners ill), he devotes much more of his writing to the “psychological persecution” by prison guards and the resulting devastation. One of the most powerful weapons for psychological torture he cites is the arbitrary withholding, destroying, and excessive censoring of letters between prisoners and their friends and families. Much of this behavior was clearly not arbitrary at all, but a calculated effort to destroy the prisoners by destroying the relationships that gave them the hope they needed to keep going day after day.
“I like you to know,” Mandela wrote to his friend Peter Wellman, “that throughout the many yrs [sic] of incarceration numerous messages of good wishes & hope sent by people from different walks of life, have cut through massive iron doors & grim stone walls, bringing into the cell the splendour & warmth of springtime.” That is precisely why, throughout much of his imprisonment, his efforts to remain in contact with those who loved him were subjected to sabotage. He and other prisoners faced quotas regarding how many letters they could send and receive, and even then, the quota was affected by what kind of correspondence it was and from whom.
Despite this unimaginable obstacle, Mandela found ways to remain an engaged parent and grandparent, bringing a level of detail to his inquiries and feedback regarding his children’s studies, hobbies, and homework that would rival plenty of parents not behind bars. (His engagement was such that in one of the funniest moments in the collection, he addresses his granddaughter’s request for a leather jacket for her 13th birthday. A request that makes it clear that to her, Mandela was not an incarcerated political icon, but merely a doting grandpa.) Though he blames himself, or, more specifically, his incarceration, for some of his children’s missteps, such as when one abandoned his studies, Mandela’s dedication to remaining a present parent emerges as one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking revelations from this book.
While obviously the circumstances are not entirely parallel, the incarceration rates of black men in the United States have proven to be one of the most destructive forces within the black American community, with a particularly debilitating impact on generations of children who have ended up virtually fatherless. But Mandela’s decades of correspondence with his children prove that incarceration does not have to mean that a father must sacrifice a meaningful relationship with his child. It does mean, however, that doing so requires at least two core ingredients — the first being an unquenchable desire by the father to parent (regardless of the obstacles in his way), and the second being a willingness of those outside of prison walls to make maintaining relationships between the imprisoned and their children a priority, something that gets very little attention from any of us who live in societies that prioritize punishment over rehabilitation. In most circumstances, at least one of those individuals needs to be a family member.
Which brings me to Nelson Mandela’s letters to his then-wife, Winnie Mandela, of which there are many. These letters are so lyrically written, spiritually affirming, and intellectually engaging that they cast a large shadow over the rest of the collection. They (along with one specific letter to prison officials I will get to in a moment) are the heart of the collection, and I can’t help but wonder if readers would have been better served had they been published as a separate collection altogether. Every time I read one, I was reminded of the caption the BBC posted to accompany an image from the recent royal wedding between the newly minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex, which read, “Find someone who looks at you the way Harry looks at Meghan.” I think anyone who reads this book will long for someone who writes to them and about them the way Nelson Mandela writes of Winnie Mandela.
In a 1970 letter to her, he describes a vivid dream he’d just had of her doing a Hawaiian dance and notes the joy just thinking of her brings him in such terrible circumstances. Describing “the enchanting smile that I miss so desperately,” he concludes the letter with, “the dream was for me a glorious moment. If I must dream in my sleep, please Hawaii for me. I like to see you merry and full of life.” As the government ramped up its harassment of his family (the Mandela home was broken into more than once and Winnie Mandela was both imprisoned and assaulted) his letters to her become an impressive mix of love, protectiveness, and encouragement, occasionally expressed in a voice resembling a general who clearly believes his best soldier is tougher and more talented than he is, and must lead the troops to victory in his absence.
His letters to her also provide a fascinating window into Mandela’s own evolution politically and personally. A 1979 letter in which he shares his thoughts on various women leaders, during what he dubs “the year of the woman,” sheds light on the transformative sexual politics of the time. Not all of the letters between the couple are brimming with romance and positivity. Some of them provide a heartbreaking window into the toll long separation and political victimization can take on a marriage. In one letter, he alludes to the discord prison officials are clearly trying to sow between the two of them. (They would apparently leave unflattering articles about Winnie for him to see, while simultaneously withholding her correspondence from him at times, and his correspondence from her at others.) Which brings me to what is perhaps the most powerful letter in the book.
In 1976, he wrote to the commissioner of prisons about the inhumane conditions in the prison, citing as one of the key issues efforts to undermine correspondence between family members. He notes that what the commanding officer of the prison is trying to do is
not only to cut us off from the powerful current of goodwill and support that has ceaselessly flown in during the 14 years of my incarceration in the form of visits, letters, cards and telegrams, but also to discredit us to our family and friends by presenting us to them as irresponsible people who neither acknowledge letters written to them nor deal with important matters referred to us by our correspondents.
He also goes on to outline other forms of physical, psychological, and sexual torture prisoners have been subjected to before noting in the conclusion of his letter that “[i]t is futile to think that any form of persecution will ever change our views.”
This letter is just as powerful as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s oft-cited Letter from Birmingham Jail. In fact, Mandela’s letter reads like a blueprint for human rights scholarship, and advocacy, and at over 20 pages long carries enough intellectual heft to stand on its own for publication, like King’s aforementioned letter. Part of me wishes it were published separately, to potentially reach more people, instead of being buried in a larger collection that may end up consumed purely by Mandela superfans. More than any other, this letter captures Mandela’s political philosophy and consciousness. While condemning and conveying indignation toward those who have engaged in horrific abuse, he never wavers in the way he expresses himself — always maintaining a voice of dignity, kindness, and courtesy, even in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
In a separate letter to prison officials confronting them for violating his right to privileged communications with his attorneys, he actually laments that such behavior “make[s] it difficult for us to accord to such officials the respect and courtesy we should like to give to those who are entrusted with our welfare as prisoners.” He describes a prison official, who stands against everything Mandela stands for politically, as someone he “respected” in his role, and who never gave Mandela reason to question his “integrity.” It is hard to fathom what it must have taken for him to consistently try to convey courtesy to those who had done everything in their power to break him physically and spiritually, and yet as the book progresses we see moments where his efforts made a clear difference. In one letter, Mandela pleads to be allowed to contact his daughter to help her with problems related to her studies — not normally the kind of life-or-death matter that would warrant a special review by prison officials. Yet written on the letter by the guard is a recommendation that they honor the request, an unlikely outcome had Mandela not exuded the kind of grace he did for so much of his tenure behind bars.
As I finished writing this review, debates raged regarding the appropriateness of the language choices of comedian Samantha Bee and other critics of President Trump. But after reading The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, I had more pressing questions about their effectiveness. Mandela’s letters make clear that while he believed in employing aggressive political tactics when necessary (if someone pulls a gun on you, kind words won’t do much to protect you), he also believed you can’t win an argument by simply yelling louder than the other guy. Or using more obscene language. After all, there’s a reason the term “kill them with kindness” exists, as opposed to “kill them with cruelty.”
It’s worth noting that Mandela encouraged a family member to read the late minister Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling tome, The Power of Positive Thinking. The book has remained culturally relevant for decades because one constant of the human experience is the search for happiness. Mandela’s book emerges as an unexpected companion piece to Peale’s, illustrating one individual’s ability for coping with, and overcoming, adversity.
Ironically, just before the publication of Mandela’s collection, one of Peale’s ideological and spiritual heirs, Dr. Michael B. Brown, published the book Love Is the Way. Reading Brown’s book and Mandela’s so close together I found a surprisingly natural through line that felt particularly resonant given our current social and political landscape. Anger, cruelty, and obscenity may seem to win in the moment, but in the words of the late Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It also eventually bends toward humanity’s greatest strengths, like love and kindness, instead of its most destructive qualities. Mandela got to be president. The guards who tortured him did not.
In a letter to a prison official following the censoring of a letter from his beloved Winnie, Mandela writes, “Only a person armed with love for his fellow human beings, who cares about others, will succeed where force and power will be applied in vain.” Mandela’s love for his family, his country, and equality shine through in this collection. But it is his commitment to finding the light in the darkest of circumstances and the dark walls of a prison cell that carries this book.