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Nelson Mandela’s prison letters reveal his unwavering vision

This week marks 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela, who led a struggle against apartheid and brought his country to a new democratic future, while setting a political and moral example recognized around the globe. Now a new book that offers insight into Mandela's remarkable story through his own words. Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look with special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week marks 100 years since Nelson Mandela's birth.

    The longtime prisoner under apartheid and later president of South Africa was a giant of the 20th century, a man who led his country to a new democratic future. He set a political and a moral example recognized around the globe. Mandela stepped down from office in 1999, and he died in 2013 at the age of 95.

    Jeffrey Brown has more on a new book that offers insight into Mandela's remarkable story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Nelson Mandela told much of his own story in the 1994 memoir "Long Walk to Freedom." A follow-up volume was published just last year.

    Now comes a different look at the man, again in his own words, "The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela," 255 letters written over the more than 27 years he spent as a political prisoner, from 1962 to 1990.

    My colleague Charlayne Hunter-Gault was there the day Mandela was released and covered him and the epic-making events in South Africa in the years that followed, and joins me now.

    It's, first of all, nice to see you again.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Nice to be here again.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, what emerges from these letters that we perhaps didn't know, this man who was both private and public?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Actually, Jeff, I think that we get into the interior man, some of the pain that he went through, some of the principles that he continued to stand for, no matter the terrible conditions under which he and the fellow prisoners lived, and then the love of his family, starting with Winnie and his children, and the larger family.

    So it's things we never heard before.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Let's start with that part.

    We have pulled some excerpts from some of these letters. And I want to start with one that is very personal.

    This is from after he got a photo from Winnie.

  • Narrator:

    "April 2, 1969. All that I wish to say now is that the pictures has aroused all the tender feelings in me and softened the grimness that is all around. It's sharpened my longing for you and our sweet and peaceful home. All of these have come back again as I examine the portrait."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, the grimness, but also the tender feeling.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    It is so clear throughout that his love for Winnie was undiminished, and his caring for her and the children in ways that you didn't see particularly in "Long Walk to Freedom."

    These are very intimate moments when he's writing to her.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You talked to him in 1990, and I want to show you a video excerpt of that where he's talking about how he coped with that.

  • Nelson Mandela:

    We decided to fight back right from the beginning. Nobody would order us to run. We refused to do that. And we said that the (INAUDIBLE) must stick to regulations and wouldn't do anything outside the regulations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now, this goes to this — the resistance that he and other prisoners, their acts of resistance while in prison. That comes through in the letters, too.

    There is another excerpt that I want us to listen to now which goes to that.

  • Narrator:

    "July 12, 1976. It's futile to think that any form of persecution will ever change our views. Your government and department have a notorious reputation for their hatred, contempt and persecution of the black man."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's from a letter to the minister of justice, keeping up the resistance.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, absolutely.

    What was amazing was that he would write these long letters to the minister of justice, to the head of the prisons, and it would be very legalistic almost, you know, because he had studied to become a lawyer, although it took many years in prison for him to finally earn his degree.

    But he would write these long letters that were legalistic, but at the same time, they were impassioned about the things that he was complaining about. Like, he demanded that the prisoners be released and that they stop being treated in terrible ways that they were.

    One man was once put into a hole, and you could only see his head like this. Now, and Mandela was often put in solitary confinement himself. But he let the prison authorities know that their heads were, in effect, bloody, but unbowed, in terms of why they were there.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There is that. There is that strength, but also coming through is a kind of painful powerlessness, right, of having to deal with, of not being able to be there.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, sure, because this comes out, again, most forcefully and poignantly when he wasn't able to go to his mother's funeral.

    And he talked from his heart about how pained he was that they wouldn't allow him to go.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We have another excerpt I want to listen to, which is, again, to Winnie, as she was about to go on trial.

  • Narrator:

    "November 16, 1969. You're engaged in a contest with an adversary who possesses vast resources and wealth and means of propaganda and who will be able to give facts any twist he considers expedient."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So here he is offering advice prisoner to prisoner in a sense.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, he was actually demanding that he be allowed to come and represent — help represent her.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And to her and to everyone else, the eye on the goal never wavered, right, this future that he envisioned?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    What's amazing is that — what I found amazing about the letters is that, from time to time, he would talk about, when I see you or when we get together again.

    And I asked Max Sisulu, who is a son of one of the prisoners with Mandela, Walter Sisulu, was he just psyching himself, or did he really think he would get out?

    And he said, look, those guys focused on their vision of the future, and they were willing — they were prepared to die. And so this helped to keep the vision alive.

    It wasn't that he thought he might get out, but his vision for the country was something that kept him going.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Here's one more excerpt that goes to that.

  • Narrator:

    "August 1, 1970. One day, we may have on our side the genuine and firm support of an upright and straightforward man holding high office who will consider it improper to shirk his duty of protecting the rights and privileges of even his bitter opponents in the battle of ideas that is being fought in our current today."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, he's saying, one day, we may have such a man. And it turned out to be — he turned out to be, of course, that man.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, you know, it's hard to know whether he thought he would ever be, but he certainly laid down the principles that he believed in as a person who was fighting for a free South Africa.

    I mean, he talked about how he visualized a world where there would be no famine, no war, no racism.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, we think about this long arc. He was, of course, released. He became the president of a democratic South Africa.

    You and I have talked about this. I was there just last year looking at that legacy. And that legacy, by a younger generation, is still questioned, right? How much change has there really been? How much change did he and his generation really effect?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, I have heard that the younger generation are, you know, complaining about what he did and didn't do.

    And it reminds me of a point in the book where he talks about how a younger group of prisoners were brought in after these older guys had been there for a while, and they were all up in the air about, how come you didn't do this, and why aren't you doing this?

    And he eventually won them over. And I'm sure that someone with the principles of Nelson Mandela and the commitment today could address some of the lingering problems in the country, because…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Because they do exist.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    They exist.

    And, as Martin Luther King often said, and I'm sure Mandela believed this, the arc of the moral universe is long and involves a lot of struggle. But, in the end, it bends toward justice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new collection is "The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela."

    Charlayne Hunter-Gault, nice to talk to you.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Jeff, it's great being with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's great to be looking at Mandela through the eyes of Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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