Mandela’s Conversations

Nelson Mandela was released from prison on this day in 1990. The recent anthology Conversations with Myself samples from decades of diary entries, speeches, letters, and other archived material, in an attempt to “give readers access to the Nelson Mandela behind the public figure.” “Here is not the icon or saint elevated far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals,” says the introduction. “Here he is like you and me.”

It would be nice to think so. Excerpted below are two letters written in 1975-76, Mandela then about halfway through his twenty-seven years of confinement. The first passage is from a letter to Winnie Mandela, at that point beginning several months of imprisonment herself; the second passage concludes Mandela’s twenty-two-page letter to the commissioner of prisons, protesting conditions at the notorious Robben Island prison. Taken together, they show Mandela taking the highest approach to his personal and political battles:

[T]he cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters…. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others — qualities which are within easy reach of every soul — are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.… At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you…

…I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands. But even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme forms, I should like us to fight over our principles and ideas and without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the result might be, I can proudly shake hands with you, because I feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honour and decency.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at