Mandela's lost thoughts

The South African leader imprisoned under apartheid gets a look at some of his old letters, hidden by a policeman for decades, and says it's time for a nationwide "recovery of memory."

Published September 24, 2004 2:03PM (EDT)

For three decades the notebooks gathered dust in a cupboard, unknown to the world, forgotten even by their author, but cherished by the secret policeman who sensed history in their pages. As an apartheid agent, Donald Card's job involved the decoding of confiscated writings of Robben Island prisoner 46664, to read between the lines about where the liberation movement was headed.

Except by the time he received the two books in 1971 Card had lost faith in South Africa's white regime, and so without telling anyone he locked away the private thoughts of Nelson Mandela in a cupboard at his home in eastern Cape. This week the two notebooks surfaced when the retired spy handed them over in an emotional ceremony of restitution that Mandela said was the signal for a nationwide "recovery of memory."

The books will remain private until Mandela has read them. However, the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg Thursday revealed the contents of two pages, dated April 1, 1971, and addressed to "My dear Sisi," believed to be a sister.

Banned from political commentary, the author reminisced about escapades from his adolescence; whether he was trying to cheer up himself or his sister was not clear. "Thinking about you and home does me lots of good. For most of the times such thoughts give me plenty of fun ... there was the unforgettable occasion when you scolded me for stealing green mealies from Reverend Matyolo's garden. You turned to me and said: 'Why do you disgrace us by stealing from a priest?'"

Mandela recalled another occasion when his friend Justice fled after infuriating a clan chief, who then mistook the future statesman for the reprobate. "I suddenly realized that I had been left to handle the baby."

The author turned serious in paying tribute to a mentor, Chief Jongintaba. "He inspired me to set goals for myself which I hope will be judged to be in accord with the interests of the community as a whole. Our hopes and aims center around these ideals above all."

This week the foundation also unveiled a previously unknown photograph of Mandela gardening on Robben Island in 1977. Published here for the first time, the picture shows Mandela with one hand on his hip, the other grasping a shovel. The future Nobel laureate wears a floppy hat, sunglasses and a scowl, furious at what he believed was an attempt by the apartheid regime to take his picture without permission and manipulate world opinion.

The day guards guided journalists around the island, the prisoners were given extra cartons of milk and an unusually soft job weeding but no chance to speak to the visitors. Mandela, the star attraction, tried in vain to hide behind a bush.

"The reporters and cameramen stormed down upon us like excited visitors to an agricultural show," the prisoners wrote in a letter of complaint to the governor. Ironically the photograph was never used because Mandela's image was banned, and it was stored, forgotten, in the bowels of state broadcaster SABC.

But this week Mandela welcomed the photograph as part of a trove of newly discovered archive material, especially the manuscripts, which he hoped would galvanize efforts to collect other lost fragments of the struggle. "What you have just witnessed could be described as one old man giving another old man two old books," smiled the former president, and indeed the books were as worn and creased as their guardian and author. "The history of our country is characterized by too much forgetting. The [notebooks] represent the hope that we can recover memories and stories suppressed by the apartheid regime."

Adding up to 150 foolscap pages in fastidious, neat handwriting, the books comprise drafts of 79 letters written between 1969 and 1971 when Mandela was barely into his 27-year jail term. "These two manuscripts probably constitute the best primary source of Mr. Mandela's thoughts and emotions at that time," said Cornelius Thomas, a historian who is the only person, besides Card, to have read them.

The remarkable tale of how the letters were safeguarded, and the reverence with which they were displayed Thursday, bears testimony to Mandela's spell over South Africa.

When contacted by Card, Mandela had no recollection of the red-bound, black-covered books confiscated all those years ago. But after reading three letters, he remembered. Letters from Robben Island could be no more than 500 words, so Mandela polished drafts in notebooks before sending them. But for security many were destroyed by recipients. Others were burned in a fire in Soweto in 1988, said Thomas, who was commissioned by the foundation to authenticate the manuscripts.

The dearth of documentation meant Mandela's memoir "Long Walk to Freedom" skipped through 1969-1971 in under five pages, said the historian. "These letters will now help nuance that period," said Thomas. He would not elaborate beyond saying the author emerges as a man of faith and principle.

A firm believer in apartheid, Card was sent volumes of confiscated correspondence after recruiting an informant who offered to decode political meanings in apparently innocuous personal letters. However, under the influence of the campaigning newspaper editor Donald Woods, the policeman decided Mandela was not a terrorist and resigned from the force in 1971. Because of an administrative error the correspondence continued arriving. Recognizing the notebooks' value, he hid them, and after Mandela's release in 1990 he made several attempts to hand them over, finally succeeding when the foundation set up a center of memory and commemoration and paid attention.

The unspoken urgency is the former president's frailty. His spirits remain high, but these days the 86-year-old Mandela, known universally and affectionately by his clan name Madiba, sits when he speaks. Aides have slashed his engagements since his retirement from public life this year. "Don't call me, I'll call you," he said, and meant it.

By Rory Carroll

MORE FROM Rory Carroll

Related Topics ------------------------------------------