Nelson Mandela Foundation

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On 5 December 2013, the death of Nelson Mandela ushered in a period of international mourning, nowhere more than in his native South Africa. With the commemoration of his death two years later, however, tributes made in his name have increasingly focused on celebrating the life he led and the legacy he left behind.

One such tribute, performed at South Africa's historic Market Theatre on the anniversary itself, Saturday 5 December 2015, was Letters from Mandela, a performance piece of song and dance based on Mandela's personal letters during his time in prison on Robben Island.

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Singing and dancing took place before a series of photographs and illustrations from Mandela's life. Photo by the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Rather than educate the audience on the facts of Mandela's life – much of which is publically known – Letters from Mandela focused on the man behind the public figure: the father, the son, the comrade. It afforded an insight into the man that many did not know, glimpsed through intimate letters between him and his family, friends and colleagues. The resultant production emphasised his warmth, humility and humanity – his essential humanness.

"I think it's important that we recognise the arts because the arts played an important role in our freedom," said Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. "Tonight was particularly special because it was the arts saying, 'This is how we'd like to honour Madiba: through music, through poetry, and also using his own words through the letters he wrote while in prison.'"

The letters were all taken from Mandela's book, Conversations with Myself.

"One of the core threads that put this book together," said Hatang, "is the subject of death. How Madiba, in 27 years [in prison], lost so many people. And he at some point said, 'I wonder how many people I'll find when I come out of prison.' And that's the kind of sacrifice that Madiba had to make, and people like George Bizos, Steve Biko who passed on, Robert Sobukwe and many others.

"And I think, to thank them, we have to do the hard work that they started, because it's only when we do that kind of hard work that we can bring about change in our society."

Letters from Mandela featured diverse elements, including spoken word, music and dance, performed in front of personal photographs of Mandela’s life as well as milestones that took place during the course of his political career.

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The letters were selected by the production's director, James Ngcobo. Photo by the Nelson Mandela Foundation

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While one of Mandela's letters is recited, two dancers battle themselves out of handcuffs. Photo by the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Brand Africa's Thebe Ikalafeng, who summited Kilimanjaro as part of Trek for Mandela earlier this year, said: "This, to me, was the very best Saturday I've ever spent post Mandela's passing to celebrate his legacy. You know, I remember the day so precisely when Jacob Zuma came on stage to announce his passing. I cried so hard, I got out of my bed, and I went to Houghton to sing and to celebrate. To me, today brought that back home again ... Today is a reminder that we should never ever lose hope in our country. Because if Mandela could be so hopeful in the 27 years he spent not among us, we have a lot to look forward to as a country and we should never ever give up that work. We have Mandela's legacy, which is really the foundation of our hope for South Africa."

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Thebe Ikalafeng of Brand Africa, Lebo Bodibe of the Industrial Development Corporation and Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, were three of the climbers who tackled Kilimanjaro as part of Trek for Mandela this year. Photo by the Nelson Mandela Foundation

The event was attended by stakeholders, donors and long-standing friends of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and of the man himself. Special guest of honour, advocate George Bizos, who was part of the team that defended Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki during the Rivonia Trial, stood up at the end of the performance and said in a voice quaking with emotion, "My friend Nelson would have been very well pleased with what happened here tonight, and may it happen for many more years to come ... This is what Nelson Mandela wanted."

Mandela's lifelong passion and support for young people influenced the choice of performers, all of whom were talented, spirited youngsters.

"All the actors who are here," said Hatang, "are all young for a reason: because we wanted fresh talent. Most of them have just graduated from university."

"I'm honoured to be a part of it [the production]," said one of the actors, Lucky Ndlovu. "I'm a student at the Market Theatre Lab, just graduated from my first year. James [Ngcobo – artistic director] came over and he auditioned us, and when I heard the news, I was really excited. It's great to work on a collaborative production ... I believe that every actor – all my co-actors – we all had the same vision of what was expected of us and I'm just grateful to be a part of it." 

During the production's finale, the audience rose spontaneously to its feet and joined the cast in singing and dancing in what became a tangible and powerful celebration of the life of Mandela.

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The production's standing ovation began before its close, when the audience spontaneously began to sing, dance and applaud. Photo by the Nelson Mandela Foundation

The creative team behind Letters from Mandela included James Ngcobo (artistic director), Gregory Maqoma (choreographer), Tshepo Mngoma (musical director) and Nadya Cohen (set designer).

The Nelson Mandela Foundation partnering with the Market Theatre for this event, said CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation Annabell Lebethe, was an obvious one: "We've been part of the struggle as an arts organisation for nearly 40 years, so there's a resonance in finding these two partners [the Market Theatre and the Nelson Mandela Foundation] and presenting what we did here today on stage in a way that, I think, is not a sad remembrance but is a very commemorative, celebratory kind of remembrance.

"We've been talking for a while with Sello [Hatang] about the kind of thing we need to do together as organisations, and as particular organsiations that are very rooted in South African society, and want to further discourse in whatever space. We thought that this was an opportune time to use this as a point of connection."

"The arts must continue to be that critical voice that reminds us of our responsibility towards the legacy that we have and what we have to be proud of," said Hatang. "So tonight was special for that reason and we hope that many others in their own profession will continue to honour Madiba in the best way that they can."