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Nelson Mandela's prison letters chart his heartbreaking struggle behind bars

The centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth this week is a rare opportunity for the faded rainbow nation to unite.

There are celebrations of his life, fond memories and glowing tribute. Barack Obama will give a key-note speech.

But it all rings a little hollow.

For these are tough time; not just a failing economy that’s left millions without work, or disintegrating pubic services that rob so many of decent education or housing.

Or the corruption that seems so endemic.

It’s the queasy sensation that South Africa is falling further behind the vision, for a flourishing non-racial democracy, a beacon of hope for the world, articulated so brilliantly by its first president.

Nelson Mandela the day after his release from prison, with his wife Winnie Credit: AP

‘’We’ve seriously regressed to a place he wouldn’t be happy about,’’ Zamaswazi Dlamini Mandela, the great man’s grand-daughter, tells me.

‘’I find it frightening when I speak to young people and they don’t really understand what his contribution was. That’s really scary, because how can they value it, how can they cherish it, how do they look after it.’’

She’s speaking at the launch of a new book, the Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which charts his struggles as a husband, father and political leader in absentia for 27 years.

Prison Letter of Nelson Mandela published by W W Norton Credit: W W Norton

The letters to his family – especially to the children he was forbidden from seeing - are heart-breaking.

I do not know, my darlings, when I will return.

Not even the judge who said I should be kept here. But I am certain one day I will be back home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.

– Nelson Mandela writing in 1969

Zamaswazi is unable to read the passage without dissolving into tears.

‘’You can experience it the way he experienced it. He was tormented. But at the same time he had a lot of hope,’’ she says. ‘’He tried to encourage people, even though he was the once incarcerated.’’

That hope, resolve and determination come out in the letters to friends and comrades and in the end, to a bitter adversary.

IN 1985, the prisoner commanded the :

If your government seriously wants to halt the escalating violence, the only method open is to declare your commitment to the end of apartheid.

– Mandela's letter to apartheid President, P W Botha

"What the authorities wanted to do was to lock him away, hope the world would forget him, to break him. Well they didn’t win,’’ says the book’s editor Sahm Ventor.

Mandela showed Bill Clinton his cell no.5 in the former prison on Robben Island Credit: AP

In some quarters, it has become acceptable to blame the failings of South Africa on Mandela, a ‘’sell out’’ who left unchallenged the economic power of the white mintory.

It’s true that the divisions between black and white can seem as sharp as ever.

Yet it is also easy to forget that South Africa was on the verge of civil war by the time the apartheid government realised it had run out of time. Mandela saved the nation, but he left it a work in progress, not the finished article.

‘’We are in a very precarious time in terms of our country,’’ says his granddaughter. ‘’I do hope that in this centenary we can go back the ideals that he lived. We can’t rest everything on one person. He did what he needed to do. Now we need to take the country forward.’’

  • The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela is published by W W Norton