Book of the week
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela entered prison as an insurgent; 27 years later, he emerged as a giant, said Charlayne Hunter-Gault in The New York Times. During that 1962–90 interregnum, the great South African anti-apartheid leader “fought his case patiently, on lined paper,” writing letter upon letter, “his eloquence inseparable from his rectitude.” Even the missives he sent to family members sometimes touched on politics, guiding them to accept no compromise on achieving a fully integrated nation. But always he modeled optimism and civility. In one 1970 letter of “eerie prescience,” he confessed an undying hope that someday an upright leader would emerge who would consider it his duty to protect the rights of all South Africans—“even his bitter opponents.” Mandela turned out to be that leader, and with this book, readers have been given “the most direct evidence yet of Mandela’s intellectual evolution into one of the great moral heroes of our time.”
The future South African president was an “astonishingly meticulous” correspondent, said Peter Hain in The Telegraph (U.K.). Well aware that his letters were censored or confiscated, he made copies in his notebooks, and the 255 letters included here offer “a kaleidoscope of his life.” Pained to be separated from his young children, he worked hard at remaining close to them. He also studied both law and the language and history of his Afrikaner oppressors. In his letters to Winnie Mandela, his second wife, he poured out his emotions in “a voice that will seem quite unfamiliar to readers more used to his measured political messages.” Clearly he idolized her.
Some missives, because they address mundane matters, “do little to enlighten the reader,” said Keli Goff in the Los Angeles Review of Books. But then comes “the most powerful letter in the book”: a 20-page appeal that Mandela wrote to the commissioner of prisons in 1976. In it, he complains, forcefully but politely, about the mistreatment of his fellow prisoners while insisting that nothing will cause them to abandon their principles. “I should like us to fight over principles and ideas and without personal hatred,” he also wrote, “so that at the end of the battle, whatever the results might be, I can proudly shake hands with you.” The optimism exhibited in that statement may seem unjustified, but Mandela eventually did triumph; humanism did defeat racism. “The greatest strength of this collection is its ability to renew hope at a time when many of us sorely need it.” ■