Letters from Robben Island

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

The English poet Stephen Spender once wrote of people he deemed ‘truly great’. He wrote of those ‘who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun. And left the vivid air signed with their honour’.
Among the ranks of the ‘truly great’, Nelson Mandela has a high place. Convicted for his efforts to achieve human rights for the black people of South Africa, he spent 27 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. He emerged from jail in 1990. Devoid of bitterness, he made peace with his opponents, he made peace with his oppressors. In 1994, he was elected President of South Africa. It was the first election in which he was allowed to vote.
Much has been written about Mandela as various factions seek to claim his legacy. His authentic voice emerges in his prison letters, which have been published to mark the centenary of his birth on July 18, 1918.
The 250 letters in the book were written under trying conditions. For 18 of his 27 years in jail he was incarcerated in a cell on Robben Island, measuring 9ft by 7ft. Much of each day was spent in the prison yard breaking rocks to gravel with a hammer. At the start of his sentence he was allowed to send on 500-word letter every six months, and then only to family members. The letters were censored, and some of them were never sent. He once wrote to his wife, Winnie, that he did not know whether she’d ever ‘get this particular letter nor those of July 18th, August 1st and 18th, and, if you do, when that’ll be’. He kept cards of his letters in hard-backed log books.
There is no anger or despair in the letters. There is, however, a profound sense of desolation. It is the desolation of one separated from family and friends, with no end in sight. When he had been sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa in 1963, life meant life.
In 1968, he was refused permission to attend his mother’s funeral. The refusal hurt him deeply. Years afterwards, he recalled her visit to him in jail. As he watched her return to the boat taking her to the mainland, he had a premonition he would never see her again.
The following year Thembi, a son of his first marriage was killed in a car accident. He described how his blood turned to ice when he heard the news and returned to his cell, which was ‘the last place a man stricken with sorrow should be’.
The most moving letters are to Winnie, his second wife, and their children. In 1969, he wrote to her, saying “Since the dawn of history mankind has honored and respected men and women like you darling – an ordinary girl who hails from a country village hardly shown in most maps.” He teased her about her beauty and cherished March 10, 1957, the anniversary of their first date. He dreamt of her in jail ‘doing a graceful Hawaiian dance’. “You whirled towards me with the enchanting smile that I miss so desperately.”
He was acutely aware of the burden of single parenthood that his imprisonment had placed on her. He wondered, “Is one justified in neglecting his family on the ground of involvement in larger issues. Is it right for one to condemn one’s young children and aging partners to poverty and starvation in the hope of saving the wretched multitudes of this world?”
He was deeply saddened that his children were not allowed to visit him until they were 16. He had not seen them for over a decade. His letters to them are full of fatherly advice. He encourages them to study at school. Aware that his daughter Zenani is a fan of Elvis Presley, he advised her to listen also to Paul Robeson and Beethoven.
Also moving is his letter to the University of London, where he is trying to complete his law degree by correspondence. He pleads for extra time given his special circumstances: “As a prisoner doing hard labour I am experiencing considerable difficulty in preparing to unite four subjects in one examination, and any concession you can offer in this regard will give me a fair chance of showing competent knowledge in each subject I offer.”