Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison chart his heartbreaking struggle against apartheid

Nelson Mandela wrote hundreds of letters during the 27 years that he was imprisoned; heartbreaking letters to his family, more mundane notes requesting spectacles from prison governors, and letters to officials, authorities and supporters continuously demanding change and an end to apartheid.

His correspondence was always thoughtful and elegantly composed and yet he was aware that many of his letters would never reach their intended destination. To commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday, a book of 250 letters has just been published, providing a remarkable insight into the man, his tenacity and endurance and the struggle for his country’s freedom.

To Zenani and Zindzi Mandela, his middle and youngest daughters, 4 February 1969

My Darlings,

The nice letter by Zindzi reached me safely, and I was indeed very glad to know that she is now in Standard 2. When Mummy came to see me last December, she told me that both of you had passed your examinations and that Zeni was now in Standard 3. I now know that Kgatho and Maki have also passed. It pleases me very much to see that all my children are doing well.

I hope that you will do even better at the end of the year. I was happy to learn that Zeni can cook chips, rice, meat, and many other things. I am looking forward to the day when I will be able to enjoy all that she cooks.

Zindzi says her heart is sore because I am not at home and wants to know when I will come back. I do not know, my darlings, when I will return. You will remember that in the letter I wrote in 1966, I told you that the white judge said I should stay in jail for the rest of my life.

It may be long before I come back; it may be soon. Nobody knows when it will be, not even the judge who said I should be kept here. But I am certain that one day I will be back at home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.

Do not worry about me now. I am happy, well and full of strength and hope. The only thing I long for is you, but whenever I feel lonely I look at your photo which is always in front of me. It has a white frame with a black margin. It is a lovely photo. For the last two years I have been asking Mummy to send me a group photo with Zindzi, Zeni, Maki, Kgatho, Nomfundo [Mandela’s niece] and Kazeka. But up to now I have not received it. The photo will make me even more happy than I am at the present moment.

Many thanks for the wonderful Christmas cards you sent me. Apart from yours, I received one from Kgatho and another from Mummy. I hope you received more.

Mummy visits me two or three times a year. She also arranges for Kgatho and others to see me. Father Long of the Roman Catholic Church, St Patrick, Mowbray, Cape Town, still visits me once a month. In addition, I am allowed to receive and write one letter every month. All these things keep me happy and hopeful.

Please pass my fondest regard to Father Borelli and tell the Mother Superior that I am greatly indebted to her and all the sisters there for the help and guidance they are giving you. Perhaps someday I may be able in some small way to return this kindness.

In December 1965 I received a letter from Zeni in which she also asked me to come back home, just as Zindzi says in hers. The English was good and the handwriting clear. But I was completely surprised to get one from Zindzi. Her English was also good and the writing was just as clear. You are doing well, my darlings. Keep it up.

With lots and lots of love and a million kisses.




To Knowledge Guzana, attorney and leader of the Transkei homeland’s Democratic Party, 14 October 1968

Dear Dambisa [Knowledge Guzana’s clan name]

Two days ago my brother-in-law, Timothy Mbuzo, informed me that you attended my mother’s funeral and I should like to thank you for this considerate gesture. Only a keen sense of public duty would enable a man in your position, and on whom there must be heavy and pressing demands for his services, to find time to devote himself to the public good, and I should like you to know that I am greatly indebted to you.

It was never easy for one anywhere to lose a beloved mother. Behind bars such misfortune can be a shattering disaster. This could easily have been the case with me when I was confronted with these tragic news on September 26, which ironically enough was my wife’s birthday. Fortunately for me, however, my friends here, who are endowed with virtues far in excess of anything I can hope to command, are remarkable for their ability to think and feel for others. I have always leaned heavily on their comradeship and solidarity. Their offers of goodwill and encouragement enabled me to face this tragic loss with resignation.

Sibali [“brother-in-law” in Xhosa] Mkhuze told me that my relatives and friends responded admirably and rallied to the graveside. This was a magnificent demonstration of solidarity which gave me a shot in the arm, and it is a source of tremendous inspiration for me to count you among those who gave me this encouragement.

I have also written to your friend and head of the Tembu [sic] Royal House, Jonguhlanga, to thank him for undertaking the strenuous task of planning the funeral, and this in spite of his declining health and heavy commitments. His touching devotion to his relatives, friends and people generally has created a profound impression far and wide. I only hope that his health might improve.

This is a special letter allowed me only for the purpose of thanking you for attending the funeral and it is not possible to refer to wider issues. It is sufficient for me to say that I am happy to note that the interest you showed in public affairs as a student at SANC 30 years ago has not flagged. I hope that in this note I have succeeded in placing on record not only my deep gratitude to you for honouring the occasion with your presence but also in indicating to you the regard I have for you and family.

Yours very sincerely,



To the Commanding Officer, Pretoria Local Prison, 8 October 1963

I should be pleased if you would kindly arrange for my eyes to be tested by an eye specialist. I have used reading glasses since 1945 and the pair I am presently using is apparently worn out. The eyes are sore and, in spite of the treatment prescribed by the Prison Medical Officer, which I have used during the last three weeks, the position continues to deteriorate.

The specialist who has previously tested my eyes is Dr Handelsman of Johannesburg and I should be pleased if you would kindly arrange for me to be examined by him again. I might add that the optician from whom I propose to obtain the spectacles, and who has made all my glasses previously, is Dr Basman, also of Johannesburg. There is naturally the advantage of a discount if I obtain the glasses from him.

I am able and willing to finance the costs of the test and spectacles from my funds in your possession. I might also mention that this application is made on the recommendation of the Prison Medical Officer.

N R Mandela

Prisoner No. 11657/63


To the Commanding Officer, Pretoria Local Prison, 25 October 1963

I refer you to my letter of the 8th instant in which I applied for my eyes to be tested by a specialist. In the letter aforesaid, I indicated that the application was being made on the recommendation of the Prison Medical Officer. I must add that the condition of my eyes is deteriorating very rapidly and I must ask you to give the matter your urgent attention.

I must further add that I am seriously handicapped in the preparations for the forthcoming trial against me on the 29th instant. The said preparations entail the reading of numerous documents as well as a lot of writing. I find all this trying and dangerous to my health.

Finally, I must ask you to allow me to use my own clothing outfit for the purpose of appearing in court on the 29th instant.

N R Mandela

Prisoner no. 11657/63

‘The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela‘, edited by Sahm Venter, is published by Liveright (£25)

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