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The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

Edited by Sahm Venter

Foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela


The Book

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 plea¬sure 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.

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.
— Nelson Mandela

The Authors

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the Transkei, South Africa, on 18 July 1918. He moved to Johannesburg in 1941 where he entered the African National Congress as one of the co-founders of the ANC Youth League in 1944; opened South Africa’s first black law firm with his ANC comrade Oliver Tambo in 1952; and became the father of five children. A leading figure in the ANC’s armed struggle against the government’s apartheid policies, he was already serving a five-year sentence for leaving the country without a passport and inciting workers to strike in 1962 when he was charged with sabotage in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment the following year. By the time he was released in 1990, after more than twenty-seven years of incarceration, his image and story had become synonymous with the international anti-apartheid movement. He was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. He is the author of the international bestseller Long Walk to Freedom and its sequel, Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years. He died in December of 2013.

Sahm Venter worked as a journalist for over twenty years, mainly covering the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 for The Associated Press, and South Africa’s transition to democracy. Venter was a member of the editorial team for Nelson Mandela’s books Conversations with Myself and Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years. She has edited and co-authored a number of books with some of South Africa’s most prominent freedom fighters including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. She is currently senior researcher at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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.


Click here to visit the Nelson Mandela Foundation website.
Should you be interested in publishing The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela in your country or language, please contact Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton:
For all other enquiries, please contact Blackwell & Ruth:
Copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Blackwell and Ruth Limited.
Video footage courtesy of Videovision Entertainment. Musical accompaniment courtesy of