Letters from jail

"It was all quite amusing," wrote the South African inmate of a gathering some 17 years earlier. "Do you still remember? It was New Year’s Eve, wasn’t it? Little did we know then what 1963 would bring. The watershed that changed so many of our lives! For you, marriage and children – and eventually England. For me, Rivonia and jail."

Fast forward to today and the lives of the inmate, Ahmed Kathrada, and the recipient, Robert Vassen, remain intertwined.

Jailed as a saboteur for more than a quarter century along with Nelson Mandela and four others, Kathrada ultimately emerged as one of Mandela’s key comrades.

Facing arrest, Vassen fled to London in 1964 where he continued to agitate against apartheid. Now the associate director of Michigan State University’s English Language Center, he has edited 86 of Kathrada’s prison missives as Letters from Robben Island (Michigan State University Press, 266 pp., $22.95). Kathrada is beginning a monthlong U.S. book tour this week, which brings both men to Detroit on Friday. (The reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, however, is by invitation only.)

"I would hope that people get the message of hope, the message that justice will prevail, a message that you can’t suppress people," Vassen said recently. "I think the letters have those elements in them."

By the New Year’s Eve referred to in his letter, Kathrada, then 33, had already spent more than two decades fighting apartheid and its forerunners, first among Indians, later with blacks and whites in the African National Congress. His Johannesburg apartment became a hub of activism.

"People would say, ‘Oh, I’ll meet you at Flat 13,’ and everybody knew exactly what was meant by that," Vassen recalled. ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli, later to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was a houseguest; Mandela practiced law there.

In that watershed year of 1963, Kathrada went underground; the ANC, giving up on nonviolent tactics alone, was planning guerrilla warfare. The headquarters were a farm near Rivonia where Kathrada and others were nabbed.

Spared the death penalty and sentenced to life, Mandela, his three black co-defendants and Kathrada were shipped to Robben Island (apartheid dictated that white defendant Dennis Goldberg serve elsewhere). Were it not for the extraordinary character of Mandela and his colleagues, they might easily have been destroyed, writes Anthony Sampson in his recently issued biography Mandela.

"With him were some of his closest friends, who could reinforce each other’s morale and purpose, and develop a greater depth and self-awareness. … At an age when most politicians tend to forget their earlier idealism in the pursuit of power, Mandela was compelled to think more deeply about his principles and ideas."

Privations, tedium and resilience all come through in Kathrada’s letters:

A few days ago, one of the nicer warders got talking to me and said he wondered why I got "mixed up" in all this business, meaning politics generally. How does one explain to a chap like him that to live a life of humiliation and without dignity is not worth living? …

So much depends on one’s mental attitude. I found quite early on already the wisdom of trying not to be unduly affected by the hundred and one pinpricks and hazards that are part and parcel of prison life. I found that if one allows oneself to be excited and carried away by every triviality, life can become miserable.

I read somewhere that the years roll by very quickly in jail – it’s the minutes and hours that go rather slowly. … This year, for the first time in 12 years, we’ve been provided with hot showers. …

Ironically, it is in jail that we have closest fraternization between the opponents and supporters of apartheid; we have eaten their food, and they ours; they have blown the same musical instruments "soiled" by black lips; they have discussed the most intimate matters and sought advice; a blind man listening in to a tête-à-tête will find it hard to believe it is between a prisoner and a warder.

Letters often concern family and friends and attempts to stay abreast. He writes of children who must be now grown; in one letter he reckons 80 friends have died during his then 21 years behind bars.

He writes of "days and weeks and months and years" that "feed the insatiable appetite for retribution." But in the same letter he talks of being able to look back "without bitterness and regret. … For undoubtedly jail is a great teacher."

To Sampson, who credits Kathrada as his chief source, prison steeled Mandela and his circle in the convictions and negotiating crafts that led to their freedom, ended apartheid without a bloodbath, and culminated in South Africa’s first post-apartheid government – with Mandela at its helm and Kathrada in Parliament.

Vassen recalled that when he and other activists in London received letters, Kathrada would chastise them for not circulating photocopies. MSU Press now plans to publish the full archive of Kathrada ’s 900-plus letters to help scholars fathom a calamitous time.

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