The people sent a hero to prison, but generally ignored the fact that he had responsibilities and dependants. Nelson, in the loneliness of his cell, worried about the survival of his family. He had left behind a mother, a wife and five children. But his sense of responsibility did not stop with them; it extended to his sisters and to their children and to their children of kinsmen who had supported him.

Winnie Mandela breaks her government bans and returns to her home in Soweto. April 1986, Soweto. (©Louise Gubb)

The R200 Mum sent me in April is finished. Things are expensive and I also went on a spree buying essential literature which ate deeply into my funds. Neither you nor Mum work. If you think it is wise please ask Benjie [Benjamin Pogrund, political journalist of the Rand Daily Mail] to send me at least R250.

9 September 1979

These expensive air trips must have sucked the family dry. I had hoped things would improve a bit from the end of this month when Mum gets her first pay packet after living on the dole for so long.

15 April 1976

This is a special letter Ngutyana [Winnie's clan name], which I would like you to treat as a matter of urgency. Can you telegram me by return post R300 for my personal requirements. Not only are my funds exhausted, but I have also overdrawn the account. As it is I have not even got the cash to make my Christmas orders. Will you be able to raise it? I was also anxious to register for law as early as possible and I hope you are experiencing no difficulties in the matter.

1 December 1980

I note that you recently had an interview with Sigma Motors. I do not possess sufficient facts to be able to give you good advice on the question. I am still as uncertain of your financial position as I was on 15/5/77 when you were deported to that isolated country village. But I consider it dangerous and unwise to move to any new place these hectic days, other than back to Johannesburg.

1 June 1980

Nelson's main worry in prison has always appeared to be the education of his children and the children of those he accepts as having a claim on him. At times the claimants' demands irritate him, but at all times he feels responsible; his irritation flowing out of helplessness rather than the fact of the demands. He complained to Winnie:

The children do not appreciate that in my current position I am powerless to help them. Xoliswa [a niece] has written again to say that she left the University of the Transkei because of the inferior tutelage there. She now works in the Department of Justice, and her ambition is to be a professor in Political Science. She would like me to arrange for her to study abroad. Chrissie [a niece] wrote to make a similar request. She is now twenty-five and she would like to settle down with her man, George, in Europe or America. She sent me two photos. Next week I will write to Mr Fletcher [Leabie's contact] to find out how Leabie [a sister] is doing. She would like me to arrange for the education of Phathiswa, the daughter of Leabie. For this purpose I should like to write to Alan Paton to arrange for a scholarship for her, but am no longer certain of his address. In view of the assistance he gave to Rennie [Makgatho's first wife, now divorced] it would be better to entrust him with this additional task as well, so as to avoid the impression that many people and agencies unknown to one another are being used.

27 May 1979

Yesterday I also received a letter from Nandi [grandaughter] writing from Inyanga High School, Engcobo. She explains that her application for admission to St Philomena was refused. According to her she will go to the Inanda Seminary next year and she expects me to pay her school fees. She reminds me of my promise to pay but adds. 'But you aren't paying none. I am paying my school fees with my fixed deposit.' Her birthday card which I sent to St Johns was returned. By the way she adds, 'At the present moment I am stranded about pocket money. Please ask Grandmother living at Brandfort to send me pocket money.' The load I keep piling on your shoulders is colossal and I am amazed you have not developed a hunchback. It is to me quite understandable if my darling now and again betrays a flashy temper like a Penelope whose chastity has been questioned.

15 April 1977

But if he apologized to Winnie for such impositions he also sounded a note of reprimand if she questioned the requests:

You don't need anybody's consent, no matter how close or helpful, to arrange for Xoliswa's overseas bursary. She is as much our child as any other. Her father's kindness to us is a debt we are bound to repay.

25 May 1979

I would also like you to give attention to the position of Dan [a nephew]. He has unusual literary potential, especially in poetry and his skill would even be more developed with a university background. Bear in mind that those boys love you and it is your duty to give them all the assistance they need. You could confer with Mpilo [Bishop Desmond Tutu] with regard to the funds for both Ntonto and Dan. There is a sense of desperation in me about Ntonto [a niece] and I know you will not falter on Dan, if he still wants to carry out the promise he gave me.

Perhaps Christina [a niece] will do much better in Germany. I wish to know her address so that I could continue to be of some help to her. I never stop thinking that some of the children are unable to fulfil their life dreams simply because I am not there to help them solve their numerous problems. I will ask Aunt Judie [Nelson's cousin] to send me her address if she has it.

9 September 1979