Beyond the icon: Mandela’s prison letters lay bare his heartbreak

People around the world revere Nelson Mandela as an icon who emerged after 27 years in jail, not filled with corrosive hate but with a desire to make peace, unify and serve. But, as he would be the first to admit, Madiba was a complex and imperfect flesh-and-blood man – and nothing illustrates this more than his poignant prison letters.

The theatre production Letters from Mandela was conceived and directed by Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo to mark the second anniversary of Madiba’s death, and was revived for an affecting one-off performance on 18 July 2018 – the very day Tata would have turned 100 years old.

Before an appreciative full house at the Market Theatre complex’s John Kani Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg, actors and personalities such as Vusi Kunene, Azania Mosaka and Robert Whitehead, and Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang, brought a selection of his prison letters to life. Their monologues were interspersed with music, song and dance interludes, and enhanced by large-screen projections of photos, illustrations and animations.

After the finale, comprising an upbeat rendition of Brenda Fassie’s Black President, the show closed off on a note of hope and jubilation, leaving the audience feeling enriched and moved by the intimate insights into Mandela’s vulnerable side.

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James Ngcobo's Letters from Mandela brought the house down on what would have been the great man's 100th birthday. (Image: funkymadhatter/Instagram)

The human frailty radiating from his carefully penned words serves to make the celebrated statesman more real and relatable, and his sacrifices therefore more palpable. The letters he sent and received were clearly his lifeline to the outside world, one he clung to with hope, hungry for news to sustain him through the long days and months.

Presented as a non-chronological patchwork of vignettes, the show lays bare Mandela’s loneliness, and exposes his sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of the extreme hardships his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his children and his loved ones were being subjected to in apartheid South Africa.

We share in his grief and utter devastation when, in 1969, he learns of his eldest son Thembekile’s death in a car accident from a telegram containing the sparsest of details, and is barred from attending his funeral. Compounding his pain is the loss of his own mother just a few months earlier, and the fact that his wife is languishing in solitary confinement, leaving the young Zindzi and Zenani effectively parentless.

Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island at the time, pours his heart out on paper, fully realising that his words will probably be redacted by beady-eyed security police.

Mandela Statue Union Bldg
An imposing statue of Nelson Mandela below the Union Buildings in Pretoria. (Image: thisisyarbrough/Instagram)

His musings – drawn from the hundreds of missives he sent during his incarceration – are by turns eloquent and touching, impassioned and fiery, impregnated with longing but also with lighter moments of nostalgia and humour.

For example, Mandela writes fondly of Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, recalls the colourful characters at the boxing gym where he honed his amateur pugilist skills in Orlando East, and expresses his pride at the academic achievements of his children and grandchildren, each of which he meticulously documents.

The torture of his isolation shines through in his often-poetic prose, and his anguish is particularly evident in his ardent outpourings of love and longing directed at his young wife.

But, as the letters reveal, Mandela’s spirit may have been bowed but it certainly was not broken, and in later years he was able to transform the gall of injustice that tormented him so into the nectar of an anticipated freedom for all.

It’s not clear if Letters from Mandela will receive a longer run, but there are two collections of his prison writings available for those wishing to gain deeper insight into the man behind the icon. The play was based on Mandela’s collection Conversations with Myself (Pan Macmillan), while The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (edited by Sahm Venter), an authorised collection of his correspondence during his time as a political prisoner, has just been published by Penguin to commemorate what would have been Mandela’s centenary year.