Journals and letters reveal a stark picture of brutality and injustice.
In 1969, five years after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage, Winnie Mandela was rounded up with other anti-apartheid activists and jailed for 16 months. The journal she kept during her imprisonment forms half of this book; the other half consists of letters by Nelson to his wife, daughters, relatives and prison officials. Throughout, the author documents sadistic maltreatment: a diet consisting mainly of insect-infested porridge, filthy cells, and, for many prisoners, daily beatings. Bright lights made it impossible to tell day from night; prisoners exercised for 10 minutes three times a week; visitors were rationed. Solitary confinement was unbearable. “Being held incommunicado,” writes the author, “was the most cruel thing….I’d communicate with the ants; anything that has life. If I had lice I would have even…nursed them.” Despondent, she decided to commit suicide by progressively weakening her body—she did not want the shame of suicide to put her family in jeopardy. But her attempt resulted, instead, in severe illness and recurring hospitals stays. By the middle of her incarceration, she was taking 12 pills per day for various ailments. Although footnotes provide perfunctory information, readers unfamiliar with anti-apartheid history may find some names and references confusing. Nelson Mandela’s letters, on the other hand, are richer in detail and carefully crafted. He clearly knew that others besides the recipients would read them, and he calculated their effect. “My sense of devotion to you,” he wrote to Winnie after her arrest, “precludes me from saying more in public than I have already done in this note which must pass through many hands. One day we will have the privacy which will enable us to share the tender thoughts which we have kept buried in our hearts during the past eight years.”
Taken together, these documents afford a chilling perspective on the Mandelas’ personal and political struggles.