Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Donald Card collection at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory consists of two notebooks that belonged to Nelson Mandela. The notebooks comprises of copies of the letters that Madiba wrote to other people while incarcerated at Robben Island for the period 1969 to 1971. During a raid by prison warders of his cell, the notebooks were confiscated and then sent to Donald Card who was an intelligence officer as well as a Warder. However, Card had resigned from both posts, and just kept the notebooks in his garage at his home in East London. He was to look for hidden coded messages in the notebooks.

The National Archive of South Africa has a letter where Mandela complains to the authorities that he was given permission to have the notebooks and was annoyed that they were confiscated. Fast forward to 2004 - Card asked to meet Madiba and handed the two notebooks over when he visited.

This piece focuses on the selection of letters written by Madiba to mam-Winnie and other people when mam-Winnie was imprisoned from 12 May 1969 until her release in October 1970. This period highlights the hardships that family went through.

On 20 May 1969 Madiba writes to his lawyer wanting to find out about the date of the arrest of his wife, the charges, whether she has been released or not, other people who were also detained,  if she received the letter that he wrote to her in April and who is in charge of his house in her absence. Subsequent to the letter to his lawyer, he wrote to his daughters Zenani and Zindzi on 23 June 1969.  To his daughters he outlines mam-Winnie’s life, her difficulties prior to this arrest and tries to put them at ease by mentioning that they have a brave mom and they need not worry as they have lots of friends who will look after them (the children) until mummy returns home.

In a letter to mam-Winnie, he informs her that he received information of her arrest on 17 May. He shares his disappointment of not receiving her visit as he was looking forward to it. He gives words of encouragement and states how proud he is by writing “It is precisely at the present moment that you should remember that hope is a powerful weapon & no power on earth can deprive you of; & that nothing can be as valuable as being part & parcel of the history of a country.” He continues by giving her advice about things that can make being in prison manageable. He assures her of his love and devotion.

On 15 July, he wrote to Niki Xaba, mam-Winnie’s sister. To Niki he opens up about his concerns about the arrest of mam-Winnie and that of her younger sister Nonyaniso, known as Nyanya.  He goes on to share the active support that mam-Winnie played when he was on Robben Island and during the Rivonia trial when she visited him every day. He calls her arrest a disaster - because of her courageous nature and her ability to organise; she ensured that other members of the family, including his mom, were able to come to Johannesburg to provide support in his previous trials. He feels powerless now that mam-Winnie is in prison and needs to support her but is unable to do so. To Niki he also talks about his concern about the devoted mother that mam-Winnie is to her children and mentions that this might be the reason for her ill health.

As Madiba was still dealing with the arrest of mam-Winnie, he received the devastating news of the death of his eldest son Thembekile, known as Thembi, in a car accident. He requests to write two special letters, one to mam-Winnie and another one to mam-Evelyn, his first wife and the mother of Thembi.  To mam-Winnie, he pours out feelings by mentioning, “To lose a mother [his mother died in 1968] & a firstborn & to have your life partner incarcerated for indefinite period, and all within a period of ten months is a burden too heavy to carry even in the best of time.” To mam-Evelyn, he consoles her by saying “I know more than anybody else living today just how devastating this cruel blow must have been for you for Thembi was your first-born & the second child that you have lost. I am also fully conscious of the passionate love that you had for him & the efforts you made to prepare him to play his part in a complex modern society.”

As months pass by Madiba then writes the “Dade wethu” (translated to “our sister”) letters to Mam-Winnie from 11 November 1969 to August 1970, to Pretoria Prison where she is jailed.

The first Dade wethu letter on 11 November focuses on the impending trial where mam-Winnie and 21 others may be charged with the sabotage act or contravening the suppression of communism act. Madiba tries to prepare mam-Winnie for the difficult trial they may have based on the severity of the charges. He also encourages her by reminding her that since their marriage in 1958 there have been several attempts to arrest her. He explains the new salutation of Dade wethu that he will be using from this letter going forward saying “But on this occasion I can claim no such prerogatives because in the freedom struggle we are all equals and your responsibility is as great as mine.

We stand in the relationship not as husband and wife but as sister and brother until you return to 8115 or some appointed place this is how I will address you. Ok?’’

The January 1 letter of 1970 comes with quotes from the book by Langehoven, an Afrikaner writer, Die skaduwees van Nasaret who uses biblical scriptures. Another major concern is the fact that mam-Winnie was hospitalised; he is relieved that she is now receiving the best medical care.

He gives her reassurance and encourages her. On June 1, 1970 he wrote a letter to Leabie Piliso, his sister, congratulating her on her marriage.  He informs her that he was planning to request mam-Winnie to enrol her daughter in the same boarding school where his daughters are studying, but with mam-Winnie’s arrest, the plan cannot be effected. Towards the end of the letter, he asks Leabie to write to his daughters, as they sometimes get lonely during the school holidays. 

He also writes to Zenani and Zindzi on June 1, 1970 focussing on several letters that were he had written but which it seems they had not received. He updates them on family matters, and tells them how brave mommy is and asks them to write him letters or send photos.

He wrote another Dade wethu letter on June 20, 1970. He quotes Shakespeare and informs her about the lonely years in prison.  He mentions that he is aware that she is not well and lifts up her spirits by saying “I know mntakwethu that every piece of your bone, ounce of flesh, drop of blood, your whole being hewed  in one piece out of granite, that nothing whatsoever including ailment can blow the fire that are burning in your heart.’’  He then continues to update her on family matters, the house in Johannesburg and encourages her to remember the date March 10 [the date on which she accepted his marriage proposal] as that is the source of their strength.

The August 1 Dade wethu letter questions the lack of response to the July letter and informs Mam-Winnie about the difficult time that the family experienced. Madiba informs her that nothing can stop a determined revolutionary. He further encourages her by writing, “to a freedom fighter hope is what a lifebelt is to a swimmer- a guarantee that one will keep afloat & free of danger.”

 The letter dated August 31, Madiba responds to mam-Winnie’s July 2 letter saying it lifts him up and that it surpasses all the other letters that he has received thus far from her.

On 17 September 1970, he wrote a letter to the minister of justice about the state of poor health that mam-Winnie is going through and domestic matters that they need to discuss.

In the letter of 0ctober 1, 1970 Madiba addresses Mam-Winne as Darling, and writes: ”a respite at last” - this is in response to the news that mam-Winnie has been released.

Having read these letters one wants to know more about the contents in mam-Winnies responses, which we unfortunately do not have. From Madiba letters one can identify that there are severe challenges that the family went through because of mam-Winnie’s incarceration. Despite these difficulties and the challenges that they had, they had hoped that fighting for freedom was not only for the good of their family but for all of South Africa.