Apart from a prostate operation in 1985 and equally successful treatment for TB in 1988, Nelson's health had been good.
At a time when the Press reported that he had cancer, he wrote to Winnie:
Mhlophe, I feel tremendous both in flesh and spirit. I am active during the day, relish both my physical and mental work, trot around in the early morning as I used to do with Jerry Moloi in the 1950s. My appetite is good and I sleep well. Above all, strength and supreme optimism runs through my blood because I know you love me and that I enjoy the good wishes of countless family members. I wish neither to be sick nor sickening. Only twice in my life have I ever been to hospital, for only two days; in 1937 due to minor stomach complaint, and for the removal of tonsils in 1945. I've never been to Groote Schuur Hospital at all and last saw that place from the road in 1961. An occasional indisposition is but natural and in this regard I've had my share of ailments of a minor nature but I can't remember suffering from a major illness during the last fifteen years. Several times during this period the country as a whole has been hit by epidemics, but not once did I go down. This is not a boast Kgaitsedi [Winnie's clan name], but a statement of fact to one who is conscious about sensational but completely unfounded press reports on the breakdown of my health. The day I catch that mischievous reporter I'll harpoon him to the ring and hammer him out in his own corner. I can't predict what will happen tomorrow but at the moment I am right on!
24 May 1976
Do you still remember 20 December many years ago when you found me with a deep cut on the left eye and my head in bandages. I've hardly seen you so upset as you were on that occasion. To this day that painful look across your face still haunts me. I gave you all the facts but one day our nephew Zwangendaba will give you a little detail I omitted to tell you then ”¦ My eyes are quite alright, Ngutyana, and health good.
18 July 1976
On 16/8 I saw an orthopaedic surgeon and he examined my right heel which worries me now and again. I will discuss the matter further with Dr Edelstein on his next round to the Island.
27 February 1979
I have already sent you a medical report in my last letter. I must again assure you that I feel well and alert.
1 July 1979
We took off the plaster of paris on 19/11. The cut looks fine and according to the report of the orthopaedic surgeon the recovery will be uncomplicated. I have started using the foot.
25 November 1979
On 9/5 1 saw an eye specialist in Cape Town. A virulent virus had been eating up my eye since 28/3 but the poor creature had no idea of just how strong in me is the will to live. I have eaten it up and the infection has cleared.
The specialist who also attended to me for the same complaint on 7/4/76 says my eyesight is excellent although the test revealed some slight changes in the eye since the last time. I changed reading glasses in 1972. He felt that the change was so small that he would not recommend that I get new glasses unless I wanted a fancy frame, but he nevertheless gave me a prescription just in case. I was somewhat relieved when you and Zindzi did not turn up on 3/3. I injured my left eye with a tennis racket on 28/2 and by 1/3 it had swollen up with a black ring around it. I must also tell you that the left heel has been troubling me for some time. It pains when I run and has thus considerably reduced my mobility. To the naked eye it would seem that there is something wrong with the bone formation. Last month the local X-ray pictures revealed that your hubby has an extra toe in each heel. On the painful spot there is a scar, perhaps an injury long forgotten. On 17/5 I had a cortisone injection and we hope that it will at least subdue the pain.
27 May 1979
The heel is healing well and I walk around in slippers without a walking stick. Maybe that sometime in February I will resume light exercises. I am not used to seeing parts of my body loose and sagging as if I am sixty-two. You know well that I am only forty-five and hardly anyone will have courage to challenge that statement when I resume my exercises.
On 23/5 I saw a radiologist in Cape Town who X-rayed my right heel. Though I have not yet seen the plates, he remarked there was hardly any difference between the right and left heels. The same morning I also had a cardiogram test. I had last seen the heart surgeon on 3/5/77 on the occasion the blood pressure was a bit up. It remained stable until the early hours of 30/4 when there were symptoms that it was high. Late on 1/5 an official from the prison hospital tested the pressure. He pumped the instrument and listened carefully as he released the pressure. Suddenly he exclaimed, 'What?' and quickly pumped again, his face distorted by concern and his eyes shining. The needle shot up and again he listened to the heartbeat. This time he abandoned the instrument still wrapped around my arm and phoned the doctor. The doctor and sister were quite unruffled and relaxed and their apparent calm made me feel better. They confirmed that the pressure was disturbingly high. An Aldomat a day brought it down significantly on the next morning and in the afternoon of 3/5 it was back to normal and I stopped the Aldomat treatment. I don't know what raised it in the first instance. The specialist thought it might have been due to family worries which I naturally pooh-pooh. As if to stress this speculation the night I came back from Cape Town I had one of my perpetual dreams.
I June 1980
But he worried about the family's health:
I had no idea whatsoever, darling, that you and Zeni are allergic to certain foods and that several doctors have been trying to find the cause. I hope that both of you will accept Dr Variawa's offer and be admitted to Coronation for medical tests. To find the cause of your allergy is normally a difficult matter and the sooner they begin the better. What form does the allergy take? Please give me all details in the next letter. But the important thing is not to worry about disorder at all. Remember that regular sports, especially those that involve running around, go a long way in controlling physical and psychological disorders.
5 March 1978
I'll be happy to know that your injury has healed, and your health improved. You've hardly paid attention to my pleas in regard to your physical appearance. I just never get used to you; every time we meet I get a shock. You don't look well at all to me even though you claim to be, I don't know exactly how to put it, Msutu, but you look spent, run down. It is not good. I know you will say you're not on show and that you would prefer that people should accept you as you are. But you have always been fresh and full of blood.
What a sense of pride and joy it would have been to me to know that my concern over your appearance during the last thirteen years would have jolted you to do something about it. My anxiety would have gone. I've a conscience and every time I see you carrying visible signs of suffering, I am tortured by a sense of guilt and shame. Nevertheless, you look wonderful to me even when you appear like one whose lungs have been eaten away by a pack of impundulu [witchcraft birds]. You should know that if you wish me to be at ease, you'll write one day and tell me that you are back to your old form and that you have put on at least five kilograms.
1 October 1979