Prison to peace: a life in letters

Emily Koda


Researcher for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and author Sahm Venter is visiting Whittier College to speak to students about living under apartheid, the life of Nelson Mandela, and the letters that Mandela wrote throughout his time in prison. On Tuesday, Feb. 12, she gave a talk based off the findings of her book, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. Prior to the books release in July of 2018, little was known about Mandela’s private correspondances during his 27 year long prison sentence.

Venter worked as an anti-apartheid journalist for over 20 years and was exposed to much of the violence and atrocity that befell South Africa when the apartheid regime still held power, until 1991. Her background is in researching the imbalances, and the tragedies of the country, —which she called gross human rights violations  as it was before the fall of apartheid. “To hear [her] first-hand experiences with Mandela and life in South Africa during the civil rights movement made an impact that is unforgettable,” said second-year Sabrina Van Beek.

Venter knew Mandela when she was a journalist, and had always been impressed with his desire to stay off of the pedestal that people seem to place him on. He was always the “hot topic” back then, yet he did not show off or distance himself in person. “I thought it was very empowering to hear her speak with such respect and devotion. She has dedicated a portion of her life to document his values, principles, and overall journey from his experiences in some of the most disheartening conditions,” said fourth-year Marina Daroca Bazán.

After his time as president, Mandela opened up his home to people to continue spreading his positive influence. He began running his office from his home, and, eventually, this office became the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Venter began working for the Nelson Mandela Foundation by accident. She was talking with friends over dinner one night and mentioned her collection of tapes from her journalism days. This led to her being directed to someone who worked for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, who wanted not only her tapes, but her expertise as well. Before she knew it, she was working for the foundation. Her most recent project was compiling the letters from Mandela’s time in prison into a single anthology.

Later that evening, Venter spoke about her journey in compiling the letters Mandela had written while he was in prison. She began her search in the South African National Archives, working her way through over 70 boxes containing aspects of Mandela’s life. While sifting through boxes containing prison documents and letters to prison officials, a box of spectacles, amid other things, Venter collected the letters available and set about organizing the story that lay within them. Some letters are most likely in personal collections, but some were given to Venter to use in the book.  This story was about the time Mandela was in prison, and thus, was to be told by Mandela, through his letters which served as records of his thoughts in the moments where each event occurred. Mandela mainly wished to keep the apartheid protests peaceful but when peaceful protests were met with violence and death, he turned to militarizing. 

Before Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, he wrote a letter to the government asking for a non-racial conference to work towards a new constitution and an end to white-minority rule.  His letters were ignored despite a threat of a nationwide strike.  After he was released from prison, he repeated his call for this conference.  Mandela had  been put on trial not only once, but multiple times, with the last time ending in a sentence of life in prison for leaving the country without a passport and for encouraging workers to strike. 

Political prisoners were given the highest level of security , were afforded the lowest level of rights, and limited to one 30 minute visit and one 500 word letter every six months.  However, he was able to write any number of letter to prison officials; he used this ability to write about the many abuses that he and his fellow prisoners faced.  Such conditions were meant to cripple and weaken Mandela but he used it as a source of strength. In prison, all letters to the outside world were carefully regulated and anything deemed political was censured.  Mandela recorded his letters secretly in books so that he could have record of what he sent out and what was censured. He was not allowed to leave the prison to attend the funerals of both his mother and his eldest son.  He was still able to parent his children and act as a grandfather through letters and short visits, despite being behind bars.  While he was imprisoned, his wife Winnie was also imprisoned for over a year where she was tried and acquitted twice. During this time, Mandela had to reach out to friends and family to find out where his two youngest daughters were, as letters between Winnie and him were not being delivered.

 Before, during, and after his 27 and a half years in prison, Mandela worked to uphold justice, equality, and human rights and he aimed to inspire people to do similar work.  In his later years, he took a step back from leading to hand the reins off to the younger generation.  

When asked what she would like for students to take from her book, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, and Mandela’s life story, Venter replied, “Well, I think young people need to learn that firstly, they are the future of the world and they have the power to ensure that wherever they live, whatever city, country, town they live in.” She went on to continue, they can stand up to injustice.  They don’t need to go out and have huge protests or do something dramatic, but if they see someone being treated badly or anything like that, they must stand up in solidarity with them and in that way they would be really walking in the shoes of Nelson Mandela.”