She remembers the first letter she wrote to him well.
She was 10 years old and was pleading with her grandfather to buy her a fur coat so that she too could look snazzy like the other girls living on her street in Orlando, Soweto.
Ndileka Mandela (53), former president Nelson Mandela’s eldest granddaughter, reflected on that letter she sent her grandfather while he was imprisoned on Robben Island, during his 27-year separation from his family.
Last week a new book titled The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, which collates that letter and others Madiba wrote and received in prison – many never before seen – was launched as part of the statesman’s centenary celebrations.
“It’s bittersweet you know,” Ndileka told City Press on Friday.
“On one hand, it’s been five years since his passing so it’s still hard on us, on the other, we as a family are still so humbled by how he’s still so celebrated.”
The launch of the book on Wednesday coincided with the 55th anniversary of the apartheid police raid on Liliesleaf Farm raid, where most of the men accused during the Rivonia trial were arrested. Mandela was already in prison by that time.
“I remember being asked permission by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to publish the letter and it’s so heart-warming for me … in my mind at the time, I was just a 10-year-old girl asking for a coat, it never dawned on me that he was in prison,” Ndileka said.
Actress Hlubi Mboya-Arnold, the master of ceremonies at the exclusive launch event, said the book provided new insight into how Madiba maintained his spirit while in prison.
“It’s an insight into how he kept his inner spirits, his self-respect and his dignity while living in almost complete isolation. For the first time after having read a number of his other books, I felt an authentic connection to his vulnerability as a father and as a husband … it made me realise how much I take for granted the fundamental freedoms we enjoy today,” she said.
Ndileka said part of what made the book bittersweet for her was its release at a time when some people, including prominent politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, have labelled her grandfather a sellout.
“It hurts us as a family hearing people talk like this, especially since he didn’t sell out … all he did was informed by the context of the time,” she said.
“I wish people could understand that he left a family behind and while we won’t stop people from voicing their opinions, such things do hurt us.”
The book’s editor, Sahm Venter, said at the launch: “This journey for me started in February 1994 when, as a journalist, I visited Robben Island with Madiba and a lot of other journalists and we had breakfast as he told us what it was like in prison. He took us into his cell and, because it was so tiny, only a few of us could go in at a time,” she said.
“When I was in, I asked him, ‘What did you do in this tiny cell every day?’ And without missing a beat he said to me, ‘I read and wrote letters’.”
In 2009 Verne Harris, the director of archive and dialogue at the foundation, introduced Venter to the “Letters Project” and with Madiba’s blessing, Venter was sent to the national archives in Pretoria to look through Madiba’s prison records and 50-odd boxes that contained letters. It took Venter years to go through them all, painstakingly arranging, classifying and transcribing.
Venter was asked to edit the book by New Zealand publishing house Blackwell and Ruth in late 2015.
“My deepest acknowledgment must go to Mam’Winnie. Without her assistance and whole-hearted enthusiasm in the book, readers all over the world would have no idea who some of the people are in this book,” Venter said.
“It wasn’t even difficult, at the age of 81 she had the most marvellous memory. I’m sure she would have loved to be here, hold this book in her hands and know this work was worth it.”