“An Enthralling Book”: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela – The Cape Town Launch

01 Aug 2018
“An Enthralling Book”: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela – The Cape Town Launch

The first major PEN South Africa event of 2018 was held on Wednesday 25 July, when PEN SA – along with partner organisations, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, The Fugard Theatre, and Penguin Random House – hosted the Cape Town launch of The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, edited by Sahm Venter.

This event was a partner event to those held by our colleagues at PEN Centres in England and the United States, and was open to the public on a free-ticketed basis. With an illustrious panel of discussants, as well as readings of letters from two of Cape Town’s most talented young writer-actors, it was an evening befitting of celebrating the world’s most famous writer in prison.

After a generous reception held by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and an address by its Executive Director (and PEN SA member) Shaun Johnson, attendees filed into The Fugard Theatre for the main programme.

I like you to know that throughout the many yrs 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. No two messages are ever the same & each one has struck a special note.Yours was typical. Frankly, there are moments, like now, when I feel as if the whole world, or at least the greater part of it, has been squeezed into my tiny cell. I have comparatively more time to think & dream, obsessed with a sense of involvement & with far more friends than ever before.

– from a letter to Peter Wellman, friend and journalist

PEN SA President Nadia Davids

This book, said PEN SA President Nadia Davids in her opening address, which collects letters that show “the breadth and depth of Mandela’s vision for South Africa” and have mostly not been available to the public, should re-invigorate and challenge people’s conceptions of Nelson Mandela. “It is,” Davids said, “one of the most important archival collections in our country.”

“Mandela’s unflinching belief in the best of people in the worst of circumstances is not surprising,’ she continued. “But it’s important to note his language, so deeply suffused with the poetic and imbued with a rhythm and understanding of narrative structure. I was struck by this because among the many ways to describe Nelson Mandela – icon, visionary, leader, father – the one word we won’t use often is writer. But writer he was, and our most famous writer in prison.”

The book also emphasises, Davids added, the importance of advocacy for writers in prison, which is one of the main focuses of PEN SA and its international umbrella organisation, PEN International. “I am reminded [by this book],” she said, “of what it means to receive a letter of support, a letter that says, ‘You are not alone’; and, sometimes, a letter that tells those who are doing the imprisoning, ‘We are watching you’.”

Once again our beloved Mummy has been arrested and now she and Daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again.

– from a letter to Zenani and Zindzi Mandela, his middle and youngest daughters

Koleka Putuma and Buhle Ngaba

After Davids’ address, the audience were treated to a reading of letters from the book by Koleka Putuma and PEN SA member Buhle Ngaba. Alternating between letters from Mandela to his then-wife Winnie Mandela and from Mandela to his children, the readings illuminated Mandela’s human desires – for the physical company of his wife, and the seemingly unfathomable depths of his appetite for food. They also situated the too-often figureheaded and whitewashed icon within a complicated and difficult family context, one that is emblematic of the sacrifices made by many freedom fighters during the struggle against apartheid.

After the readings, a discussion followed between Davids and the onstage panel, which consisted of Professor Njabulo Ndebele – who, among many other things, holds the chair of both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation – and Justice Albie Sachs, PEN SA member, former Constitutional Court judge and once writer-in-prison. (Author and academic Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was also billed to be in discussion, but could not be in attendance on the evening.)

Justice Sachs remarked on the content of the readings, saying that, of course, “Part of the story we’re all fascinated by – of Madiba and Winnie  – is covered in this book.” But another great value of the book, he said, is in the book’s meta-narrative: “I’m fascinated by how [Madiba] is playing the game of getting past the censors. It’s an extraordinary challenge to a writer: you want to say and you want to hide at the same time.”

As such, Justice Sachs revealed that the book was an archive of the kind of coded messages that Mandela and other political prisoners managed to get past the scrutiny of prison censors. With no small amount of satisfaction, he gave a reading of a letter with a coded message – a well-wish to a relative, one “Granny Nic”, a possible reference to the Natal Indian Congress – that Justice Sachs suggested editor Sahm Venter might have missed.

That’s why, he added, that so many of Mandela’s letters were sent to women, “not because he was hitting on the wives of his comrades in prison” (he joked), but “because he was using the patriarchal mentality of the prison censors [against them], writing to women [on the surface] about family and health matters”, but actually encoding so much more.

“Those of us in the Struggle would know this,” he said. “He’s not giving instructions, but is keeping in touch. These messages were important. Not to just be a leader, but still evading all of the attempts to rub him out. His picture could not be reproduced, it was a criminal offense to possess a document produced by him.”

“We live in a strange age now. There’s a second blocking out, of the total opposite: the revolutionary, the compatriot, the freedom fighter, the dad. Blotted out. Converted into Mr Nice Guy, the superb darling Mandela, let’s-be-buddy-buddy, everything-is-OK-now.”

“What this book does is restore the freedom fighter, the passionate person, the person who takes into account every circumstance he finds himself under and uses any instrument at his disposal – in this case, the pen – to fight back.”

Davids, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, and Justice Albie Sachs

Professor Ndebele also remarked upon some telling minutiae in the book, particularly Mandela’s particular use of appellations, salutations and sign-offs. “What you find in Madiba’s letters,” he said, “is an almost painful understanding of personal relations, his relation to the world, and what are the codes of engagement. What language do you use to indicate difference, similarity or connectedness?” (Indeed, reading the book, one finds Mandela a person equally at comfort using praise names, staid salutations, or even “Heit, my Bra”, which he uses on one occasion in writing to his son, Makgatho.)

Speaking at length about the letters he had dipped into before the launch, Professor Ndebele also noted how this collection of letters emphasised the tactile and bodily experiences of letter-writing and -receiving, and, related, the interconnectedness of all of those who were at the forefront of the struggle. “What surprised me,” he said, “is how so out-of-the-blue a personal connection can come out of these letters. The theme of these letters is an unending concern for the people he writes to, the advice he gives, but also [the small things], like ordering books for his children.”

“I found this an enthralling book,” Justice Sachs concurred. “But what I would urge the publishers is to make a version that is much more accessible, not just for [people like us] who want to indulge our nostalgia.”

A video of the event will be released soon. Until then, we would again like to thank all that contributed to the event, especially our partner organisations, and to Eastern Acoustics, who sponsored our audio needs, and the Cape Town Mead Company, who supplied sparkling mead for the MRF’s reception.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, edited by Sahm Venter, is out now from Penguin Random House South Africa, and available worldwide.

But a good pen can also remind us of the happiest moments in our lives, bring noble ideas into our dens, our blood & our souls. It can turn tragedy into hope & victory. This is how I felt as I reached the last page of your anthology. Your first effort, darling, arouses the hope that you will produce enduring literary works. May it be so! Tons & tons of love & a million kisses. Affectionately, Tata.

– from a letter to Zindzi Mandela