BunnyChow Card #7:
13 Dec 2018:
When you think your life is shitty, think of Nelson Mandela.
Bring back Nelson Mandela,
Bring him back home to Soweto
I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa
Bring back Nelson Mandela,
Bring him back home to Soweto
I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela
—Hugh Masekela (Bring Back Nelson Mandela)
You must watch this song by Hugh Masekela. It will make your day, I promise.
I’m reading THE PRISON LETTERS OF NELSON MANDELA edited by Sahm Venter. I know. To cheer me up of course.
I was two-minded actually. I didn’t expect much, other than his views on the struggle against apartheid and mundane facts like what he had for breakfast (mealie pap slush) and what work he did (carry limestone back and forth for no purpose other than to keep the prisoners busy).
Madiba was one of those old-school grandpa’s who didn’t weep into his sleeve in public like we do nowadays with our social media outpourings. He was the definition of stiff upper lip. He could have been the Queen herself. Can you imagine him—6’4” black dude with a magnificent crown, lavender-colored gown, complete with long white gloves and blue silk sash.
Never mind, I digress.
Anyway I thought I knew it all from LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. But I didn’t.
What I saw in these letters were glimpses of the anguish, the frustration, the love, and the incredible dedication of the man behind LONG WALK.
For the first ten years he was allowed, only one visitor every six months. And every six months he was allowed to write, and receive, only one personal letter of 500 words. Let me repeat that—one visitor, receive one letter, send one letter every SIX months.
Every letter, sent or received, was read and censured. Words and paragraphs redacted. Often the letter was never sent and he would learn of this only months later.
When first incarcerated at the age of 44 he was the father of 5 children—Thembi (17), Kgatho (15), Maki (8), Zeni (3), Zindzi (2). He was only allowed to see his kids after they turned 16.
Sept 1968 Madiba’s mother died. Eight months later his wife, Winnie, was arrested, his youngest kids were 9 and 10 then. Winnie was kept in solitary confinement for 18 months! And then, two months after Winnie’s arrest, his eldest son, Thembi ~23, died in a car accident.
He was not allowed to attend the funeral of his mom or his son.
He refers to Winnie as Darling. Ends off with “tons and tons of love to you darling and a million kisses.”
Simple things we take for granted become an issue. “I should be pleased if you would kindly arrange for my eyes to be tested by an eye specialist. My reading glasses are worn out.”
He asks the university to postpone his exams as he doesn’t have the textbooks and “it is dangerous to attempt the exams without these textbooks.”
He writes endlessly to the prison authorities for books for himself and fellow prisoners, for the law journal, permission to run study groups, and to defend himself in court, especially when the government tried to have him disbarred.
Some of his letters to the prison authorities were as long as twenty pages. He often defended himself legally and as such demanded the ‘privileges’ of a lawyer’—no quarry work, travel to Pretoria to use the law library and a desk, chair and good lighting. Usually the government would withdraw the case rather than let him travel out of prison, or provide him with these ‘privileges.’
He had pet names for lots of people e.g. Winnie was also Zami. Adelaide Tambo was Kgaitsedi yaka (my sister in Sesotho and Setswana), Nyana Othandekayo (beloved son) for his nephew.
Xmas eve 1970 he writes to the medical officer that his blood pressure is very high. Also asks for 4lbs if honey (that’s like 5 cups!) to treat his blood pressure. Medical officer writes a handwritten reply: honey is not a therapy for hypertension.
Because of the attacks on Winnie he asks the minister of justice to
grant her a firearms license. Cheeky! Like the government would arm Winnie.
His attraction to Winnie was undeniable. When she sent photos: “the big one is a magnificent study that depicts all I know in you, the devastating beauty and charm which ten stormy years of married life have not chilled. I suspect you wanted the picture to convey a special message that no words could ever express. Rest assured I have caught it. All that I wish to say now is that the picture has aroused all the tender feelings in me and softened the grimness that is all around me. It has sharpened my longing for you and our peaceful home. “ (He does sound just a little horny here, no?)
Most heartbreaking are the letters to his children. To Zenani and Zindzi in grade 2&3 respectively a letter written in 1969 (remember he’s only allowed to write and receive one personal letter every six months – so it took 3 years for this correspondence with his second youngest daughter): “Zindzi says her heart is sore because I am not home and she wants to know when I’ll come back. I do not know my darlings. 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, or it may be soon. Nobody knows. But I am certain that one day I will be back home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.” Ends “with lots of love and a million kisses.”
To his eldest daughter Maki: “One day there will be a new world when all of us will live in happiness and peace. That world will be created by you and me, by Kgatho, Zeni and Zindzi, by our friends and our countrymen. When you become a doctor or scientist and use your knowledge training and skill to help your people, who are poor and miserable and who have no opportunity to develop, you will be fighting for that new world.” Maki studied and in 1993 got her PhD in anthropology from UMass Amherst.
So… this year, on the 100th anniversary of his birthday and the 5th anniversary of Madiba’s death, I’m remembering Madiba the leader, a true leader, not someone who is in office to line his own pockets. But especially Madiba the man, the father, the husband, the lover, the son. A man who spent decades in prison and still came out to forgive his captors and heal a nation.
And the next time I think my life is shitty, I shall be reading this blogpost and knowing that it could be so much worse.
Aluta Continua (the struggle continues)