Regrets, recipes for herbal tea and dreams of Winnie dancing … Mandela’s letters from Robben Island reveal the family man behind the political warrior
In 1969, six and a half years into his 27 year imprisonment, Nelson Mandela wrote to his wife, Winnie: “Since the dawn of history, mankind has honoured & respected … men and women like you darling – an ordinary girl who hails from a country village hardly shown in most maps.” The letter is one of many he wrote to Winnie and it is his love for her that lights up the pages of this mesmerising book of prison letters, many of which have not previously been published.
He had been sentenced to life at a time in South Africa’s history when life meant life, and at first was only allowed to write one 500-word letter every six months, and then only to family members. He wrote drafts in the hardback notebooks he kept in his cell (and at one time was furious that two of these, along with a precious pen, had disappeared). Because the prison authorities would delay his letters – sometimes not sending them – and would hold up or confiscate replies, he never knew whether they’d been received. On one occasion, when he realised that someone had not got his letter, he painstakingly recopied it exactly as it had been a decade before. Thus does time pass slowly in prison.