Magnum Photos

Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, Soweto, 1990; photograph by Inge Morath. It appears in Linda Gordon’s Inge Morath: An Illustrated Biography, just published by the Magnum Foundation and Prestel.

In a speech he gave after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela described the triumph of the South African anti-apartheid struggle he had done so much to lead. “We won peace standing on our feet, not kneeling on our knees,” he proclaimed with evident pride.

Mandela had joined the African National Congress in 1943, and when it was outlawed by the South African government in 1960 (weeks after the Sharpeville Massacre killed some seventy protesters near Johannesburg), he cofounded its armed militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). (MK began a campaign of bombings against power facilities and government posts that, prior to Mandela’s imprisonment, avoided human targets.) In 1962 he made a secret trip to several independent African nations and London, in search of funds and support for the fight against apartheid, and received weapons and sabotage training in Morocco and Ethiopia. Shortly after his return he was arrested, convicted of incitement and leaving the country without a passport, and given a five-year sentence. The next year he was prosecuted again, this time for sabotage, and in 1964, at the age of forty-five, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. As grim as this was, many had expected that he would receive the death penalty.

In those days, few confidently predicted that the struggle against race-based minority rule in South Africa would have a peaceful outcome that blacks could be proud of. The country’s system of governance, based on legally entrenched and violently enforced segregation and white privilege, looked formidably strong at the time, and its leaders were determined to perpetuate apartheid. South Africa’s coffers were brimming with mineral revenues, boosting their confidence. There was little pressure for change from Western governments, whose attention to Africa was driven by the polarities of the cold war; as recently as the mid-1980s, they were still treating Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and Communists (Mandela himself remained on the US international terrorist list until 2008).

The cursory familiarity that many people today have with Mandela’s story of moral courage and triumph has produced a near-universal secular beatification. Mandela enjoys an image akin to that of Martin Luther King Jr. The late South African has, in other words, become an easy-to-claim hero. And in keeping with the often invoked King quote about the arc of the moral universe being long but bent inescapably toward justice—a particular favorite of Barack Obama—from the perspective of the present, Mandela’s ultimate triumph can feel deceptively predestined.

Mandela’s political journey, like that of his country, was far more complex. The black South Africa of the early 1960s did not yet have an obvious leader: it lacked not just a stirringly popular figure, but someone who possessed the tactical acumen and tenacity that would be needed to withstand the assaults of a ruthless racial tyranny, while channeling his society’s energies—and those of the world—in the direction of peaceful liberation. Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla, which is commonly translated as “troublemaker,” and some of the people closest to him worried that this was a bit too fitting. Mandela could sometimes seem both vain and impetuous, excessively given to dramatic gestures that placed him center stage. These were traits for which he would harshly judge himself in succeeding decades, as in a 1970 letter to his wife, Winnie: “I must be frank & tell you that when I look back at some of my early writings & speeches I am appalled by their pedantry, artificiality and lack of originality. The urge to impress & advertise is clearly noticeable.”

Perhaps the most famous example of his troublemaking was his fateful decision to slip out of the country in 1962. Upon his return, by then a wanted man, he rejected the warnings of friends and allies to shave the beard he wore to make himself less recognizable, and he even appeared at a social event that was attended by other activists and almost certainly infiltrated by the police. Mandela was arrested shortly afterward, and would not be free for another three decades.

Other associates of his have said that even as Mandela’s popularity soared in those days, he was initially reluctant to build bridges to other oppressed groups in the country, such as South Africa’s sizable South Asian minority. He had studied law (though he had failed to earn a degree) and impressed almost everyone who encountered him with his spirited intelligence, yet Walter Sisulu, an older ANC leader and mentor who was given a life sentence in the same trial as Mandela, worried early on about his skills as a public speaker in English.


Today’s familiar figure, enormously self-controlled, morally towering, and powerfully eloquent—the man who would ultimately drive South Africa’s peaceful transition to full democracy—was largely shaped during his decades of confinement. Those qualities were forged, deepened, or revealed during years of hard labor and deprivation of many basic human needs, such as a warm blanket and a mattress. During his first several years behind bars on Robben Island, where he would remain until he was transferred in 1982, Mandela was assigned a so-called D Grade, the lowest classification of South African prisoner, with fewer rights and more restrictions than even the most violent criminals. He and his codefendants in the trial that had resulted in his life sentence were regularly subjected to humiliating anal searches in front of other inmates. Even more painful were the limitations his jailors placed on human contact. Initially, Mandela was allowed only a single visitor every six months, and could write and receive just one letter limited to five hundred words during that time. In 1967, this draconian quota was increased slightly, to two letters and two visits.

These were conditions that seemed designed to break ordinary men, but Mandela drew lessons from them. And even as he absorbed innumerable vicious personal blows, he somehow grew stronger. Early in his long years of confinement, these blows included the deaths in quick succession of his mother and his eldest child, his son Thembekile (or Thembi), neither of whose funerals he was allowed to attend. They also included constant orchestrated attacks and harassment against his wife and, finally, press reports fed to him about her extramarital relationships. This last ploy seemed obviously designed to push him into hopelessness after nothing else had worked. Years later, after his release, Mandela’s marriage would founder, partly because of her infidelity, but as long as he was jailed there was no question of giving his tormentors the satisfaction of an open rift between him and his wife. Until late in his prison term most of the letters to Winnie were signed “A million kisses & tons & tons of love,” or some variant of that sugary formula.

This is the picture that emerges with remarkable force from The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which draws on hundreds of letters to loved ones, friends, and, in surprising numbers, to the authorities who confined him. Many are reproduced in his own neat and compact hand. They reveal a man who grew wiser and more resourceful behind bars, who developed a monk-like self-awareness and stoic discipline, and who became both more strategically astute and increasingly generous of spirit toward others, including, ultimately, the men who presided over the country’s morally repugnant government.

Many of Mandela’s missives were composed in tones so even that his voice can sometimes feel flat on the page. When his mother died in 1968, for example, he wrote to an acquaintance who was a traditional chief and official in his native region, then called Transkei. “Her visits had always excited me and the news of her death hit me hard,” he says. “I at once felt lonely and empty. But my friends here, whose sympathy and affection have always been a source of strength to me, helped to relieve my grief and to raise my spirits.”

The pathos mounted, however, along with the toll on his family. A year later, after Winnie had been taken from their Soweto home, jailed for fourteen months, and subjected to solitary confinement, Mandela wrote a letter to his two young daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, which begins:

My Darlings,

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 months or even years before you see her again. For long you may live like orphans without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection Mummy used to give you…. Perhaps never again will Mummy and Daddy join you in House no. 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.

Less than a month later, following the death of Thembi in a car accident, Mandela wrote a letter to his recently jailed wife that reads, in part:

I find it difficult to believe that I will never see Thembi again. On February 23 this year he turned 24. I had seen him towards the end of July 1962, a few days after I had returned from the trip abroad. Then he was a lusty lad of 17 that I could never associate with death. He wore one of my trousers which was a shade too big & long for him. The incident was significant & set me thinking. As you know he had a lot of clothing, was particular about his dress & had no reason whatsoever for using my clothes. I was deeply touched for the emotional factors underlying his action were too obvious.

At such moments of great personal tragedy, Mandela was given exemption from the letter-writing quota.


Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Nelson Mandela acting as a defense lawyer for himself and other members of the ANC on trial for treason, Johannesburg, 1961

Against a backdrop of tragic personal news, important patterns of resistance that would persist for years were already taking shape. Because the tight prison censorship barred any overt political discussion, much of what Mandela did consisted of bucking other people up. To Winnie, who was about to face jail time in 1969 for contravening the country’s Suppression of Communism Act, he writes, “In such a situation your best defense, & one no power on earth can penetrate, is truth, honesty &courage of conviction. Nothing must be done or said which might imply directly or indirectly a repudiation of your principles & beliefs.” In other letters he recommends his prison exercise regime (“I start off my day by jogging and I stretch before I go to bed. Exercise helps with a lot of things, insomnia and helps to keep the body fit and healthy”) and even suggests that his correspondents read Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

The short introduction and brief and discreet editors’ notes that appear sporadically in The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela are full of background and insights that reveal not only new tactics necessarily adapted to prison but also the emergence of a different kind of leader, at once more deft and more courageous than he had been before. Some of the most remarkable letters concern Mandela’s earliest days of imprisonment, and these make clear that although his full transformation took decades, it began almost immediately.

Two of the earliest letters published here were written to influential foreigners. The first was a 1962 letter to the secretary of Amnesty (later Amnesty International), in London, thanking him for sending an observer, L. Blom Cooper, to Mandela’s first trial: “The fact that he sat next to us furnished yet another proof that honest and upright men, and democratic organisations, throughout the civilised world are on our side in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.” On the eve of his receiving a life sentence in June 1964, he wrote a similar letter addressed to the Dutch ambassador to South Africa: “We would like you to know that we regard you as one of our greatest friends, and are sure you will continue to be of assistance to our people in their struggle against racial discrimination.”

Letters like these are forerunners to correspondence that appears throughout Mandela’s twenty-seven years of detention, during which he worked tirelessly to enlarge and sustain a diverse coalition of support for his cause, both domestic and international. The objects of his attentions ranged from traditional monarchs and clan leaders in South Africa, to whom he sent regular greetings, marking weddings, births, and deaths, to allies and sympathizers of South Asian descent to whom he sent letters peppered with Gujarati phrases, to influential foreigners around the world such as the late Paul Tsongas, whom he calls a “good family friend.” About the Massachusetts senator, he writes, “I was very disturbed when I read in the Time Magazine that our friend [Tsongas] is suffering from some form of cancer & that, as a result, he will not seek election for a second term.”

The other frequently used tactic is what might be called peaceful but active resistance. One of the first editors’ notes in the book relates Mandela’s response when he was physically threatened by a guard: “You dare touch me, I will take you to the highest court in this land, and by the time I’m finished with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse.” Another anecdote, more famous, recounts how Mandela urged fellow prisoners to simply ignore the commands of prison guards to walk fast when they were being marched about. This was as much a moral lesson as a tactical one, a demonstration that prisoners and even slaves always retain some modicum of power; over time, as the book makes clear, Mandela would use such stratagems to gain increasing leverage over his captors.

About the first of these incidents, Mandela later told an interviewer, “I was frightened; it was not because I was courageous, but one had to put up a front and so he stopped.” It seems likely that success with this tactic may have prompted what soon became a torrent of letters, many included here, which protested details of his treatment and prison conditions generally. Through them, Mandela became not just a thorn in the system but a leader for many other prisoners. One of them described Mandela as a “battering ram,” saying he could not be ignored, “not only because of his status but because he would ‘not let them do it.’”

Although there were always constraints on the content of his correspondence, in early 1969 the government began to ease the tight restrictions on the number of letters that he could write, beyond the letters he could address to the wardens who held him or to the system itself, which were unlimited. There is unfortunately no tabulation of the numbers of letters or a breakdown of them by category in this six-hundred-page book, but page after page contains correspondence of this kind, as Mandela petitions, prods, and challenges his jailers with remarkable insistence, and mostly in a courteous and almost starchily formal voice. Requests typically begin with “I should be pleased if you would kindly…”

In the early years these efforts seemed practically Sisyphean, as if Mandela were chipping away at a granite boulder with a mere chisel, but over hundreds of pages one can witness the prisoner slowly winning various forms of grudging relief. His complaints almost always have a subtext that goes beyond the narrow matter of deplorable treatment and dismal prison conditions; they use moral arguments to appeal to his oppressors’ sense, however vestigial, of fairness, justice, guilt, and ultimately plain human decency.

Throughout his time in prison, Mandela overcame petty obstacles in order to study not only law—he finally finished his LLB degree in 1989—but also the Afrikaans language, the better to understand his adversaries. In a 1969 letter, after seven years in prison, he used the history of Afrikaner revolt against Britain to highlight the hypocrisy and cowardice that underlay his treatment, seek acknowledgment that he was being held as a political prisoner, and demand his release:

In the past the governments of South Africa have treated persons found guilty of offenses of this nature as political offenders who were released from prison, in some cases, long before their sentences expired. In this connection we refer you to the cases of Generals Christiaan De Wet, JCG Kemp and others who were charged with high treason arising out of the 1914 Rebellion. Their case was in every respect more serious than ours. 12,000 rebels took to arms and there were no less than 322 casualties…. These acts of violence were committed by white men who enjoyed full political rights, who belonged to political parties that were legal, who had newspapers that could publicise their views. They were freely to move up and down the country espousing their cause and rallying support for their ideas. They had no justification whatsoever for resorting to violence.

The white men he names had been sentenced to terms of six and seven years, but were released after less than a year in prison.

In 1985, sixteen years later, Mandela still made the same moral argument. The end was near, but by no means in sight. “As far as we are concerned we have long ago completed our life sentences,” he writes with his fellow prisoners and former codefendants from 1964 to South African president P.W. Botha. “We’re now being actually kept in preventive detention without enjoying the rights attached to that category of prisoners. The outdated and universally rejected philosophy of retribution is being meted out to us, and every day we spend in prison is simply an act of revenge against us.”

When the government learned that the aging Mandela had serious health problems—first prostate cancer, then tuberculosis, likely related to the cold and damp conditions of his detention—the tables began to turn. Mandela is in jail, but now it is he who, in a sense, holds the state hostage. South Africa’s white leaders realized that they were lucky to have an interlocutor as sober and as morally grounded as Mandela, who by this time was the world’s most famous prisoner. As protests engulfed the country, their panicked attention shifted to how to arrive at a settlement with him before he died.

First there were dark plots about further harming his health and then releasing him in a greatly diminished state as a way of avoiding a potentially explosive martyrdom. Then, inevitably, the government sought to entice Mandela to accept a conditional release involving a move to his native Transkei region and the renunciation of violence. He rejected this maneuver, calling it a “shrewd and calculated attempt to mislead the world.” “Apartheid, which is condemned not only by blacks but also by a substantial section of the whites, is the greatest single source of violence against our people,” he writes. “As leader of the National Party, which seeks to uphold apartheid through force and violence, we expect you to be the first to renounce violence.” For good measure, he adds, “the vast masses of the oppressed people continue to regard you as a mere broker of the interests of the white tribe, and consequently unfit to handle national affairs.”

In 1989 Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk, who showed a greater willingness to engage Mandela on the prisoner’s terms. This was made possible not only by Mandela’s steel will but also by the end of the cold war and the protests in black townships that were making South Africa close to ungovernable. By this time, Winnie Mandela had emerged as an important political leader in her own right, and was seen by many youth as the most stirring symbol of resistance. With demonstrations against apartheid becoming common throughout the West and American corporations forced by divestment campaigns to pull out of the country or reduce their stakes there, it was becoming clear that South Africa would have to accept change.

Despite this, in the final phase of Mandela’s detention, some voices, even within the high councils of the African National Congress, worried that the government, by engaging in solo discussions with him and preventing him from consulting freely with his fellow ANC leaders, was still seeking to pull a trick card from its sleeve, perhaps in the form of a negotiated settlement that would deliver something less than full political freedom and unfettered majority rule. In the end, though, Mandela insisted that other senior members of the ANC who had, like him, been imprisoned for decades be released before he was. He finally left prison on February 11, 1990.

After his release he stuck to convictions expressed in some of his earliest prison writings. The essence of his thinking is contained in a strikingly defiant 1967 letter from Robben Island addressed to the “Liquidator,” a prison administration office at the Department of Justice. In it, Mandela defended himself against charges that he was a Communist, while pointedly refusing to renounce his movement’s Communist allies:

My one ambition in life is, and has always been, to play my role in the struggle of my people against oppression and exploitation by whites. I fight for the right of the African people to rule themselves in their own country.

[But] although I am a nationalist, I am by no means a racialist…. The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs, will live side by side in perfect harmony.