Nelson Mandela’s Letters from Prison

This Summer  The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela was published. It contains over 250 letter, over half of which previously had been unpublished. Tayari Jones, a professor of English at Emory University, said in the New York Times that these letters reveal Mandela was “as vulnerable as any other human,” especially to being stripped of his family and “the “agony of separation.” He lost “decades of intimacy with a young family, growing away from him in his absence.”[1]

The New York Times published a few of these letters from his imprisonment (11/07/62 to 02/11/90).[2]  Here are some tidbits from these letters:

  • On 02/04/69, in a letter to his two daughters, Mandela said, “Nobody knows when [I will come back to you.] But I am certain that one day I will be back at home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.”
  • On 04/02/69 in a letter to his wife Winnie, he said that Rev. Norman Vincent Peale had asserted “that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. . . . Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost.”
  • In a 11/03/69 letter about the death of his son Thembi in a car accident, Mandela referred to the man who in the prosecution of Apostle Paul had called him a “pest”   and “the ringleader of the Nazarene Sect.” But this “’Nazarene Sect’ was to spread to almost every corner of the globe and be embraced by many nations as their state religion. The man who was described as a perfect pest later became a saint loved and respected by millions of Christians throughout the world.”
  • In a 07/01/70 letter to wife Winnie, he said, “ We fight against one of the last strongholds of reaction on the African Continent. In cases of this kind our duty is a simple one — at the appropriate time to state clearly, firmly and accurately the aspirations that we cherish and the greater South Africa for which we fight. Our cause is just. It is a fight for human dignity and for an honorable life.”
  • In a 08/31/70 letter to another son, Mandela said, “It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. Those who want to wipe out poverty from the face of the earth must use other weapons, weapons other than kindness. …This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. . . .Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.”
  • In a 02/01/75 letter to Winnie, he said, “internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others — qualities which are within easy reach of every soul — are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. . . .Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. . . . Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. … No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise and win in the end.”
  • In an 08/19/76 letter to wife Winnie, he said that writing to her is “the only time I ever feel that someday in the future it’ll be possible for humanity to produce saints who will really be upright and venerable, inspired in everything they do by genuine love for humanity and who’ll serve all humans selflessly.”
  • In a 05/27/79 letter to a journalist friend, Mandela said that the “numerous messages of good wishes and hope sent by people from different walks of life, have cut through massive iron doors and grim stone walls, bringing into the cell the splendor and warmth of springtime..”

These letters are truly inspiring to those suffering in prison and to those on the outside. They also instruct us on the outside, as Tayari Jones said, “for people in prison, letters remain the best way to engage with a society that has forcibly excluded them”and “someone, somewhere—in a prison across town, in a border detention facility, in a country you’ve never known—is waiting for a letter.”

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[1]  Mandela, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (W.W. Norton & Co. 2018); Jones, What Mandela Lost, N.Y. Times (July 6, 2018).

[2] ‘Hope Is a Powerful Weapon’: Unpublished Mandela  Prison Letters, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2018).