The Robben Island prisoners settled down to the mindless timetable of imprisonment, filling hours with manual labour which mercifully distracted them from dwelling on their plight and aching for the social contact they had lost. At night their bodies slumped in sleep through sheer exhaustion. The work routine repeated itself in the endless rising and setting of the sun, in the waxing and waning of the moon.

The waiting for letters and visits, the joy of expectations fulfilled, the despondency following disappointment, the letter counting, letter - and visit-treasuring, are expressed in the following extracts from Nelson's letters to the family.

Winnie Mandela with Joyce Sikhakhane, Zinzi and Mrs Iris Xaba, Winnie's sister after the acquittalof 19 of the 20 people tried under the Terrorist Act. 1970. Benjamin Sello Ramotse's plea was rejected. © Bailey's African History Archives


I have been fairly successful in putting on a mask behind which I have pined for the family, alone, never rushing for the post when it comes until somebody calls out my name. I also never linger after visits although sometimes the urge to do so becomes quite terrible. I am struggling to suppress my emotions as I write this letter.

I have received only one letter since you were detained, that one dated 22 August. I do not know anything about family affairs, such as payment of rent, telephone bills, care of children and their expenses, whether you will get a job when released. As long as I don't hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert.

I recall the Karoo I crossed on several occasions. I saw the desert again in Botswana on my way to and from Africa - endless pits of sand and not a drop of water. I have not had a letter from you. I feel dry like a desert.

Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.

Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth, that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love.

26 October 1976

I feel sad that I write letters to you and you never receive them.

26 May 1978

You witch! You've numerous ways of keeping me hitched to you. But this is a new one. I've not heard from you for more than a month now. Your last letter to me being that of 17/8 which came on 30/8. Maybe that you've written as you've done in the past but that we're having the usual bottlenecks which occur in our correspondence the moment you're hardpressed.

1 October 1975

You left me in high hopes when you visited me in January and promised that Zeni would visit me and it would be your turn in March. But then I knew you could not afford the visit since you had just been released from prison. Yet my heart longs for you.

27 March 1977

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.

21 January 1979

During this year you were here six times and I got nine letters from you, each one bringing more love and good wishes. Apart from the several telegrams you sent. I also received from you, birthday and Xmas cards. All these help to iron out the wrinkles of advancing age, make old limbs flexible and the blood to flow smoothly.

27 January 1980

Last year I got fifteen visits which I enjoyed very much. This year I did not think I would have as much as ten since on request from the SAP [South African Police] you did not turn up in February and March and since Zindzi could not come on 5/4 due to illness. With you and Zindzi coming down this month I expect to have a total of fourteen, which is as much as that of last year. I have received no letter for December except four Xmas cards. December is always my worst month in this regard. In 1977 I got only two and in 1978, three, quite a poor harvest in comparison to what I normally get. Nevertheless for the year I received no less than sixty-seven, sixteen from you, all of which have been most en j oyable. I am quite happy and always try to hide my joy. Not all of us are as fortunate. But I'd like you to know that you have spoilt me very much and a spoilt baby is always difficult to control.

3 February 1980


Your disappointment with my brief letters is quite reasonable because it coincides with my own feelings when I get a stingy note, or nothing at all, from those I much love.

4 September 1977


By the way, do you know how many letters I got from you this year? Believe it or not, a whole twelve, as against only thirteen I received during the period 1967-78. That is a fine harvest for 1979 already. I hope you will keep it up.

2 September 1979

I should like to mention that I am surprised that you attach no significance whatsoever to such important things as birthdays and Christmas cards. Not only have you never sent me one, you have never even had the simple courtesy of thanking me for the numerous birthday and Christmas messages I have sent you during the past eight to ten years. Every year I get beautiful greetings from many well-wishers, messages which I value. But I always feel that there is something missing, a message from you and Makgatho. Nevertheless, your letter has made up for all that. It has brought springtime into my heart and I feel really proud of you. Looking forward to seeing you in January. Tons and tons of love and a million kisses. Affectionately, Tata.

31 December 1978

I think of Mum and all the children, of the pride and joy you all give me. Among us is Nobutho, the beautiful Mantu, whose love and loyalty, visits, letters, birthday and Xmas cards are essential parts of the efforts of the family to help me endure many of the challenges of the last two decades.

1 March 1981