Prison Notebooks Reveal Mandela's Pain

Roundup: Talking About History

Unsigned, Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia), 12/08/04

The contents of two notebooks written by former South African president Nelson Mandela when he was jailed on Robben Island have been revealed.

The letters were made public at the same time as news broke of Mr Mandela's only surviving son being in a critical condition in a Johannesburg hospital.

A spokeswoman from the Nelson Mandela Foundation said Makgatho Mandela's illness was a private family matter and would not reveal any details.

The notebooks contain 70 letters written to family and friends between 1969 and 1971, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper reported.

In the letters, Mr Mandela reveals how much he missed those people closest to him.

Retired police officer Donald Card presented the former president with the two black-jacketed notebooks in September.

Mr Mandela wrote the letters during the early years of his sentence on the prison island, off the coast of Cape Town.

In one letter dated April 1971, he writes:"There are times when my heart almost stops beating, slowed down by heavy loads of longing. I would love to bathe once more in the waters of Umbashe, as I did at the beginning of 1935."

He also writes of how much he thinks about where he grew up in the former Transkei.

In one notebook there is a National Geographic picture of a dancing woman from the Andaman Islands near India.

Mr Mandela said he kept the picture because he saw it as a celebration of life.

The notebooks and their contents have been verified by University of Fort Hare historian Cornelius Thomas.

Verne Harris, from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said Mr Mandela was a conscientious record-keeper and always wrote drafts of letters in his notebooks.

Mr Harris said Mr Mandela had no recollection of the letters, but did recognise his handwriting when shown the notebooks.

"He did not remember them at all . . . and so we went through a process of verification and even called in (another)," Mr Harris is reported as saying in The Sunday Times.

"We compared the handwriting with other documents he had written during that time."

In the notebooks, Mr Mandela writes of his heartache when his mother and his eldest son, Madiba Thembekile, both died between 1968 and 1969 and he was forbidden from attending their funerals.

Madiba was killed in a car crash.

Under apartheid, Mr Card had to sift through material from political prisoners checking for coded messages and censoring correspondence.

He decided to keep the the notebooks, which otherwise would have landed in a garbage heap, and he found them in his home earlier this year on top of a wardrobe.

The letters were written in English to ensure quick clearance by prison officials, who checked all letters to and from Robben Island prisoners.

Mr Card had given evidence against Mr Mandela during his trial in 1963.

Mr Card said he did not have the heart to sell the books, now valued at about $3.5 million.

"I obviously could have sold them but they are not mine," Mr Card said.

"I was a cop and honesty was the prime thing.

"I could not go and become a crook and sell something that was not mine."

1918: Nelson Mandela born in the Eastern Cape.
1956: Charged with high treason, but charges dropped.
1964: Charged again, sentenced to life.
1990: Freed from prison.
1993: Wins Nobel Peace Prize.
1994: Elected South Africa's first black president.
1999: Steps down as leader.

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