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Nelson Mandela: Letters


Already isolated on Robben Island, financial constraints and interference by the authorities made it even harder for Nelson Mandela to see his family. Writing letters was a practical way of conducting his affairs with the outside world and a way of maintaining an emotional bond to those closest to him. The following are extracts from letters that Mandela sent to Winnie Mandela and his daughters.


Winnie Madikizela Mandela
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Dear Winnie

July 19 1976

Your affectionate letters, Xmas, birthday and wedding anniversary messages always arrive at the right moment, leaving me with the hope of getting an equally stimulating letter the following month. Hearing from the same person every week for fourteen years should have created that familiarity which takes away the freshness and joy of novelty. But I light up immediately when your letter comes and I feel like flying where eagles cannot reach.

January 21 1979

Last year I collected a harvest of fifteen visits and forty-three letters. Of these, fifteen came from you. There were seven birthday cards and the card from Helen Joseph was in the form of a letter. I had five more visits than in '77 but although the letters were more than in the previous year I have not reached the record number of fifty that I got in '75. These wonderful visits and lovely letters make the atmosphere around me relatively pleasant and the outlook bright.

January 21 1979

Your visit last month was quite unexpected and that may be one reason why I enjoyed it so much. At my age I would have expected all the urges of youth to have faded away. But it does not appear to be so. The mere sight of you, even the thought of you, kindles a thousand fires in me.

February 10 1980

I love you all the time, in the miserable and cold winter days and when all the beauty, sunshine and warmth of summer returns. My joy when you're bursting with laughter is beyond measure. This is how I always think of you our Mum with plenty to keep her occupied: with a smiling face whatever the circumstances.


Zindi Mandela
Zindzi Mandela

Dear Zindzi

September 4 1977

It pleases me that you're taking driving lessons and hope you will be as careful a driver as Mum is. Thembi could drive the colossal Oldsmobile at ten. But if you get your licence, you'll have done better than Mum and I. We were twenty-six and thirty-three respectively when we got ours. Good luck darling!

September 4 1977

I'm also pleased to learn that you're a True Love columnist and that you have already received your first cheque... Writing is a prestigious profession which puts one right into the centre of the world and to remain on top, one has to work really hard, the aim being a good and original theme, simplicity in expression and the use of the irreplaceable word.

March 25 1979

I have reminded you before now, and I do so again, that you are one of the luckiest girls in the country. You have the whole world at your feet if you make proper use of your opportunities. You have ripened before your time and already you have made achievements which are a source of real pride and happiness not only to the family and relatives, but to friends and members of the public who have never met you. You have a lovely personality and people take easily to you. Your picture on my bookcase between that of Mum and Zeni reflects your personality very well. You look alert, full of go and relaxed; at peace with yourself and the world. If you consciously remember this, moments of depression will be at a minimum.


Zindi Mandela
Makaziwe Mandela

Dear Makaziwe

March 11 1978

My darling Maki, thank you for your letter of 15/2 and for your telegram which I got on 2/3. It read as follows: Registered at Fort Hare with borrowed money. Fees not yet paid. Lectures start March 1. Doing BA. A week later I received a letter from Messrs Mkentane telling me that you were going back to school. I am really happy to know that you are at varsity at last and I wish you the best of luck in your studies. You have been out of school for seven years and you may probably be rusty, but I am confident that you will soon recapture your old form and do well.

June 8 1978

I would like to tell you again that I am very sorry to learn of the breakdown of your marriage and the rough experiences you have had. Such a turn is always disastrous to a woman. I must remind you, darling, that members of the family and close friends had a high opinion of you as a girl. They were full of hopes for your conduct inside and outside school, for your serious-mindedness and your natural intelligence. I once hoped that the profession of your choice would match you in these qualities and I urge you to develop them. Divorce may destroy a woman but strong characters have not only survived but have gone further and distinguished themselves in life. I want to think that you are such a strong person, that far from discouraging you, this experience will make you richer. This is the challenge, darling, please take it. We love and trust you and are confident that a wonderful future awaits you.


Zenandi Mandela
Zenani Mandela

Dear Zenani

October 30 1977

I got the three pictures you sent via Mum even though I become terribly homesick when I see you look well and it pleases me very much to see you full of smiles, to know you are with close family friends. Zazi's picture at once reminded me of you shortly after your Mum returned from Baragwanath maternity ward in 1959. You'd be fast asleep even as she bathed, dried, smeared you with olive oil, turned your skin white with Johnson's baby powder and stuffed your little belly with shark oil. It's family photos, letters and family visits that keep on reminding me of the happy days when we were together, that makes life sweet and that fills the heart with hope and expectation. Thanks a million, darling.

March 26 1979

I hope the telegram in which I congratulated you on the arrival of Zuzeka Zanele reached you in time. Every sentence and every word in this letter has been inspired by the pride and joy of being two times a grandpa. I am looking forward to seeing Zuzi as soon as it will be safe for her to fly down and sail across the waters of the Atlantic. I hope Zazi will love the baby as a sister and future playmate who will complement her life in many ways.

July 1 1979

I want you to know the old hope we have been discussing since 1977 - education. I hope you will leave for the USA as soon as Zazi is old enough to feed on a bottle. I am getting really disturbed by all these delays. This is the third year in which you have been out of school and Mum and I will be terribly disappointed if for any reason you do not leave for the USA before next June. I have already asked her to contact some of our friends there to make arrangements should it be necessary for you to leave without Muzi. It would be tragic if Mum has neglected that request.