Inside the mind of Nelson Mandela

A collection of 80 years of private papers reveals his intimate thoughts on everything from apartheid to Robben Island, marriage – and freedom. Cahal Milmo gains an insight
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The Independent Online

When Nelson Mandela handed the private papers he had collected over a lifetime to researchers, he warned them to expect a "treasure house ... full of surprises, crossing paths, dead ends, painful reminders and unanswered questions".

Some five years after archivists at the Nelson Mandela Foundation began the task of sifting through thousands of pages of diaries, letters, prison records and calendars, it would seem that the documents also provide an emotive and unvarnished insight into the personal toll the fight against apartheid took on Mr Mandela.

From the notes that he scribbled down for the speech that he made from the dock in 1964 while expecting the death penalty, to his failed exams, to a grief-stricken letter written from his prison cell following the death of his son in a car crash in 1969, the archive has been turned into a new book on South Africa's first black president.

Entitled Conversations with Myself and released today in 22 countries, the volume presents a more human picture of Mr Mandela that is in keeping with his concern that he has been wrongly mythologised as a living saint. In unpublished notes for an autobiography which are woven into the book, he wrote: "I never was one, even on the basis of the earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

The documents present a remarkably candid picture of the former ANC leader over a period of 80 years, including his 27 years as a prisoner of the apartheid regime, ranging from a memo entitled "From the Office of Nelson Mandela" and decorated with a picture of the cartoon cat Garfield on which he noted the address details of Graca Machel, now his third wife, to the yearning and romantic letters he sent to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second wife, from prison on Robben Island.

Throughout his imprisonment, the private letters make clear Mr Mandela's awareness and sorrow for the effects that his dedication to his political goals had on his family, ruing the fact that he had been deprived of the simple pleasures of "giving [the children] a bath, feeding, putting them to bed with a little story".

In the letter he sent to Winnie following the death of his 24-year-old son Thembi in 1969, Mandela noted how the young man had taken to wearing his trousers in his absence, adding: "For days thereafter my mind and feelings were agitated to realise the psychological strains and stresses my absence from home had imposed on the children."

A year later, he wrote again to his wife revealing his anger at the repeated arrests and harassment she suffered from the police: "I feel I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through."

The book is intended as a more intimate follow-up to Long Walk to Freedom, his 1995 autobiography which has sold six million copies worldwide. Mr Mandela seeks to lay to rest long-standing suggestions that he was responsible for violence in his first marriage, to Evelyn Mase, saying that she had once threatened him with a red-hot poker and he had twisted her arm to take it away from her. He also tackles difficult subjects such as the justification for violence in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Much of the most telling detail is found in the collection of prison calendars kept in Mr Mandela's painstaking, neat handwriting in which he recounted dreams alongside mundane facts about jail life. In December 1984, he remarked on the results of his attempt to pass an advanced law degree: "Failed all six subjects." While in November 1980, he wrote in Afrikaans: "As long as the Afrikaners think they are the super race and have the right to force solutions on others, the future will remain bleak."

The book also reveals flashes of Mr Mandela's mischievous humour. While being treated in hospital for tuberculosis, he was presented with a breakfast of bacon and eggs which a guard warned him was contrary to the order from his doctor to eat a cholesterol-free diet. The now 92-year-old freedom fighter replied: "Today, I am prepared to die; I am going to eat it."

Letters to Winnie and views on the Queen


Letter to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1969, after he was informed of the death of his son

"I find it difficult to believe that I will never see Thembi again. On 23 February this year he turned 24. I had seen him towards the end of July 1962 a few days after I had returned from a trip abroad. Then he was a lusty lad of 17 that I could never associate with death. He wore one of my trousers which was a shade too big and long for him. The incident was significant and set me thinking. As you know he had a lot of clothing, and was particular about his dress and had no reason whatsoever for using my clothes. I was deeply touched for the emotional factors underlying his action were too obvious. For days thereafter my mind and feelings were agitated to realise the psychological strains and stresses my absence from home had imposed on the children."

Letter to Winnie in 1976

"My main problem since I left home is my sleeping without you next to me and my waking up without you close to me, the passing of the day without my having seen you."


Notes written on 20 April 1964 for the climax of the Rivonia Trial for treason in which he expected the death sentence

"1. Statement from the dock

2. I meant everything I said

3. The blood of patriots in this country have [has] been shed for demanding treatment in conformity with civilised standards

4. That army is beginning to grow

5. If I must die, let me to declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man"

Diary note, 1981

"At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard."

After prison

On taking criticism, from unpublished autobiography: "It is a grave error for any leader to be oversensitive in the face of criticism... A leader should encourage and welcome a free and unfettered exchange of views. But no one should ever question the honesty of another comrade, whether he or she is leader or ordinary member."

On being elected President in 1994: "My installation as the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me much against my advice."

On letter writing while in office: "Writing letters to friends used to be one of my favourite hobbies and each letter gave me a lot of pleasure. Pressure of work now makes it impossible for me to engage in this hobby."

The Queen, and other heads of state

On meeting the Queen: "[She] is one of the longest reigning monarchs and she is a fine lady... Very sharp. There may be a great deal of formality around her, but as an individual she is a very simple person, very plain. I formed a good impression of her."

On Pope John Paul II: "Gee whiz, the Pope is also an outstanding person. Humble, very humble... He made the statement that he fully supports the struggle against apartheid and he wished us well and strength. Yes, he's a linguist man! Did you know that he also plays the guitar? He's quite a wonderful chap."

On Fidel Castro: "I noticed that he will greet a white person, then he goes to greet somebody who's dark. I don't know whether that was purely accidental or deliberate... I then realised that this enthusiasm and waving was not really for me as we were driving through the city; it was directed to Castro. Nobody bothered about me at all."