Cover image for The prison letters of Nelson Mandela / edited by Sahm Venter ; foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela.
The prison letters of Nelson Mandela / edited by Sahm Venter ; foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., [2018]
Physical Description:
xv, 620 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), map ; 25 cm
Foreword / Introduction -- A note on the letters -- Nelson Mandela's prison numbers -- Pretoria Local Prison, November 1962-May 1963 -- Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, May 1963-June 1963 -- Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, June 1964-March 1982 -- Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, March 1982-August 1988 -- Tygerberg Hospital & Constantiaberg MediClinic, August-December 1988 -- Victor Verster Prison, December 1988-February 1990 -- Supplementary information.
"An unforgettable portrait of one of the most inspiring historical figures of the twentieth century, published on the centenary of his birth. Arrested in 1962 as South Africa's apartheid regime intensified its brutal campaign against political opponents, forty-four-year-old lawyer and African National Congress activist Nelson Mandela had no idea that he would spend the next twenty-seven years in jail. During his 10,052 days of incarceration, the future leader of South Africa wrote a multitude of letters to unyielding prison authorities, fellow activists, government officials, and, most memorably, to his courageous wife, Winnie, and his five children. Now, 255 of these letters, many of which have never been published, provide exceptional insight into how Mandela maintained his inner spirits while living in almost complete isolation, and how he engaged with an outside world that became increasingly outraged by his plight. Organized chronologically and divided by the four venues in which he was held as a sentenced prisoner, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela begins in Pretoria Local Prison, where Mandela was held following his 1962 trial. In 1964, Mandela was taken to Robben Island Prison, where a stark existence was lightened only by visits and letters from family. After eighteen years, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, a large complex outside of Cape Town with beds and better food, but where he and four of his comrades were confined to a rooftop cell, apart from the rest of the prison population. Finally, Mandela was taken to Victor Verster Prison in 1988, where he was held until his release on February 11, 1990. With accompanying facsimiles of some of his actual letters, this landmark volume reveals how Mandela, a lawyer by training, advocated for prisoners' human rights. It reveals him to be a loving father, who wrote to his daughter, "I sometimes wish science could invent miracles and make my daughter get her missing birthday cards and have the pleasure of knowing that her Pa loves her," aware that photos and letters he sent had simply disappeared. More painful still are the letters written in 1969, when Mandela--forbidden from attending the funerals of his mother and his son Thembi--was reduced to consoling family members through correspondence. Yet, what emerges most powerfully is Mandela's unfaltering optimism: "Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark & grim, who try over and & over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation & even defeat." Whether providing unwavering support to his also-imprisoned wife or outlining a human-rights philosophy that resonates today, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela reveals the heroism of a man who refused to compromise his moral values in the face of extraordinary punishment. Ultimately, these letters position Mandela as one of the most inspiring figures of the twentieth century."


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
968.065092 MAN Book Adult General Collection

On Order



The first, and only, authorized and authenticated collection of correspondence spanning the 27 years Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner.

While incarcerated in South Africa in four prisons as a sentenced prisoner between 1962 and 1990, Mandela wrote hundreds of letters to loved ones, followers, prison authorities, and government officials documenting his plight as the most prominent political prisoner of the twentieth century. Here, the letters--many of them never before seen by the public--have been assembled from the collections held by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the South African National Archives, and the Mandela family, amongst others, together with a foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, granddaughter of Nelson Mandela. With accompanying facsimiles of some of the actual letters with generous annotations, the book provides a personal and intimate portrait of the lawyer and political activist as husband, parent, friend, and political prisoner, reflecting on everything from the trajectory of the anti-apartheid movement to the death of his beloved son, Thembi, in Cape Town in 1969. Quietly impassioned and (despite occasional heavy censorship) eloquent, they reveal both the extraordinary compassion of a father and the unbending will of a man who refused to compromise his ethical values in the face of the most extraordinary human punishment and psychological abuse. The volume covers every aspect of life behind bars for the future South African leader, whose voice the apartheid government attempted to stifle at every possible opportunity. The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela form a new autobiographical vision.
Images throughout

Author Notes

Nelson Mandela (1918--2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist, who served as the first democratically-elected President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Mandela established the Nelson Mandela Foundation as his post-presidential office in 1999. It is a not-for-profit organization which has, since 2004, been transformed into an archive and trusted voice on his life and times. It carries out its mandate to promote Mandela's vision and work by convening dialogues and creating platforms for engagement around critical issues to promote social justice.

Sahm Venter is a former Associated Press reporter (who covered and was witness to Mandela's release from prison in 1990) and a longtime researcher. She has co-edited several previous books, including Notes to the Future: Words of Wisdom with Sello Hatang and Doug Abrams); 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, with Swati Dlamini; and Something to Write Home About: Reflections from the Heart of History, with Claude Colart; and co-wrote Conversations with a Gentle Soul with the late anti-apartheid struggle hero, Ahmed Kathrada.

Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela was born in 1979 in Welkom, South Africa, close to the town of Brandfort to which her grandmother, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was banished by the apartheid regime. She works as a business developer and is a public speaker and a self-described serial entrepreneur. In 2017 she launched her luxury fashion range Swati by Roi Kaskara. She is the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela and Nomzamo Nobandla Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The value of this epistolary trove isn't limited to scholars of the decades-long struggle against apartheid, though Venter's diligent collection and annotation is certainly tailored for research purposes. Drawn from Mandela's letters to family, friends, comrades, admirers, and even his own jailers, this dense and vivid archive goes from his 1962 incarceration on the infamous Robben Island to his 1990 release from Victor Verster Prison, paving the way for his election in 1994 as South Africa's first black president. Throughout, his insistence on correct legal procedure and unflinching advocacy for his beliefs demonstrates the conviction that marked Mandela as a leading statesman, even while behind bars. More personal correspondence, such as those mourning the death of his oldest son in his absence, reveal the high price the South African government exacted from him. Always thoughtful, Mandela is particularly eloquent when engaging his oppressors directly, as in a 1971 letter (originally in Afrikaans) to the commander of Robben Island: "Only a person armed with love for his fellow human beings, and who cares about others, will succeed where force and power will be applied in vain." Anyone seeking to understand one of the guiding lights of the antiapartheid fight will find these letters a vital resource. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, dozens of journalists and television camera crews from all over the world descended on South Africa and made their way to the dusty street outside his Soweto home. I was among them. We shared the same goal: to get Mandela to give us some insight into his 27 years in prison and to tell us his plans for the future. My turn finally came toward the end of that warm day, after he had sat for hours in suit and tie, always composed, despite the fact that he'd had virtually no experience being in front of a TV camera when he went to prison, in 1962. I began by trying to open a door none of the other journalists could, telling him how I identified with the struggle against apartheid, given my younger years in America's segregated South before the civil rights movement. Before I could finish my sentence, Mandela's eyes lit up brighter than I had seen them all afternoon, and for the first and only time that day, he provided a small glimpse into his prison life. "Oh," he said, "do you know Miss Maya Angelou?" I nodded, and his reserved demeanor briefly fell away. "We read all of her books when we were in prison!" he said. That was about all Mandela or any of the other political prisoners incarcerated with him on Robben Island gave up to me or to any other journalist for the longest time. When I next traveled to South Africa, for the "PBS NewsHour," in May 1994, just before Mandela was sworn in as president, I inquired about interviewing some of the former Robben Islanders. "You know, those old guys only talk about those years among themselves," one of their friends told me. But eventually Mandela did talk about those years, in graphic detail, in his monumental autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom" (1994), a book that his fellow prisoners Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada persuaded him to begin, with their assistance, in prison, and that didn't leave much to the imagination. Now, during the centenary of his birth, we have "The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela," containing 255 of his handwritten letters and displaying unedited his raw emotions, heartbreaking and inspiring, from the period of his imprisonment, first on Robben Island; then in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, outside Cape Town; and finally, in 1988, at Victor Verster Prison, near Paari, where he held the talks with government officials that ultimately led to his release. This book confronts readers with the most direct evidence yet of Mandela's intellectual evolution into one of the great moral heroes of our time. It was assembled over 10 years by Sahm Venter, a South African journalist and author, who obtained the letters from a variety of sources, among them a collection named for a policeman who, after Mandela's release, returned notebooks confiscated from his cell in 1971 into which he had carefully copied his letters before passing them on to warders to be mailed. Mandela knew that the warders screened his incoming and outgoing correspondence, often withholding both, sometimes for months, or censoring portions. Many of the letters portray Mandela the loving husband and attentive father to five children - his three older ones by his first wife, Evelyn, and his two with his second wife, Winnie. (Just 3 and not quite 2 when he went to prison, they were prohibited from visiting him until they were 16.) The letters make clear Mandela's efforts to stay connected to his extended family, who sometimes consulted him on tribal matters. (Venter provides footnotes translating his occasional phrases in isiXhosa and identifying people he mentions.) He refused to condone the apartheid regime's ploy of establishing separate homelands for black South Africans, in effect isolating them from white society, at one point declining a request for a visit from his nephew K. D. Matanzima, a Thembu chief who went along with the plan. Mandela scolded Matanzima in a letter for "using our relationship to involve me and my organization [the African National Congress] in Bantustan politics." Yet in the same letter, Mandela insists on his family bond, telling his nephew that he was "disturbed by recent press reports which indicate the existence of a tragic turmoil in family affairs." (In a footnote Venter speculates that Mandela was referring to Matanzima's conflict with another paramount chief, who fled the country after offending Matanzima's dignity.) Regardless of their political differences, Mandela continues, "touchiness and intemperate language is no model for my own approach to people and problems." The letter ends with the words "I miss you all." Others convey the legal training he had as a law student before his arrest (for inciting worker strikes, to which charges of sabotage were later added). In a long letter he wrote in 1979 to the commanding officer of Robben Island, and ultimately intended for the minister of prisons and police, he politely elaborated a list of grievances and demands, including requests that political prisoners "be released on remission, parole or probation," "be allowed to acquire radios and newspapers," to "study any course or subject with a recognized educational institution local or abroad" and to "train in some skill or trade." With words as his only ammunition, Mandela fought his case patiently, on lined paper, his eloquence inseparable from his rectitude. "I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands," he wrote to a senior prison official in 1976, in another letter of grievance. "But even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme form, I should like us to fight over principles and ideas and without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the results might be, I can proudly shake hands with you because I feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honor and decency. But when your subordinates continue to use foul methods then a sense of real bitterness and contempt becomes irresistible." Eventually Mandela acquired the textbooks he needed to study for his law degree, which he finally obtained in absentia from the University of South Africa a few months before leaving prison. He was 70 years old. Two of the volume's most heartbreaking letters are ones he wrote after the deaths of his mother and eldest son, whose funerals he was not permitted to attend. His mother's death "hit me hard," he wrote to his nephew Matanzima. "I at once felt lonely and empty." Mandela's letters to Winnie - who, when she was finally allowed to visit him, was denied any physical contact until after he arrived at Pollsmoor prison in the early 1980s - are tender, often addressing her as "My darling Mum" or by one of her clan names. In one, he calls her "the most wonderful friend I have in life." In another, he recalls "touching your hand or hugging you as you moved up & down the house, enjoying your delicious dishes, the unforgettable hrs in the bedroom, made life taste like honey." There is no indication that the relationship would end in divorce, as it did six years after he left prison. In August 1970, he wrote to Winnie, who was also in prison at the time, a letter of eerie prescience: "One day we may have on our side the genuine & firm support of an upright & straightforward man, holding high office, who will consider it improper to shirk his duty of protecting the rights & privileges of even his bitter opponents in the battle of ideas that is being fought in our country today; an official who will have a sufficient sense of justice & fairness to make available to us not only the rights & privileges that the law allows to us today, but who will also compensate us for those that were surreptitiously taken away. In spite of all that has happened I have, throughout the ebb & flow of the tides of fortune in the last 15 months, lived in hope & expectation. Sometimes I even have the belief that this feeling is part & parcel of my self. It seems to be woven into my being." 'One day we may have on our side the genuine & firm support of an upright & straightforward mem.' CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT is an author and prizewinning journalist who lived and worked in and out of South Africa for 17 years.

Library Journal Review

Compiled from various collections over ten years and edited by Venter (491 Days), this collection of 255 prison letters written by the late revolutionary and former president of South Africa provides a unique glimpse of Mandela during his 27-year incarceration, which he served at four different prisons. Context regarding the significance of these letters is provided throughout, including how prison authorities censored and regulated prisoner correspondence by controlling what words could be used and limiting the number of words written. Many of the letters found within this work never made it to the intended recipient owing to their being lost or thrown away, but Mandela made a point to record each letter, many word for word. Both intimate and diplomatic, these writings showcase Mandela's various roles as a husband, father, friend, and lawyer. Photographs, scans of letters, footnotes, and a glossary referencing individuals and events are found within the letters. VERDICT An important work for library collections and voracious readers of history.-David Miller, Farmville P.L., NC © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela
Forewordp. vii
Introductionp. ix
A Note on The Lettersp. xiii
Nelson Mandela's Prison Numbersp. xvii
Pretoria Local Prison, November 1962-May 1963p. 1
Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, May 1963-June 1963p. 9
Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, June 1964-March 1982p. 19
Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, March 1982-August 1988p. 431
Tygerberg Hospital & Constantiaberg MediClinic, August-December 1988p. 503
Victor Verster Prison, December 1988-February 1990p. 511
Supplementary Informationp. 573
Appendix A Glossaryp. 574
Appendix B Prison Timelinep. 592
Appendix C Map of South Africa, c.1996p. 596
Endnotesp. 599
Letters and Collectionsp. 601
Acknowledgementsp. 605
Permissions Acknowledgementsp. 609
Indexp. 611