Unseen Mandela Letter from Robben Island Cell Offered at Bonhams
A reflective and tender letter written by Nelson Mandela from his prison cell on Robben Island to the daughter of his friend and fellow anti-apartheid activist, Michael Harmel is to be offered at Bonhams South African Sale in London on September 14, 2018. It is estimated at £50,000-100,000.
The letter, which has never been published, is addressed to Barbara Lamb and sends condolences on the death of her father Michel Harmel, news of which had only recently reached Mandela. At the time – October 1974 – the future South African President (Prisoner 466/64) was ten years into a life sentence, following his conviction for sabotage at the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
Mandela first met Harmel at a Communist Party meeting in the 1940s, and he writes movingly about his initial failure as a young college graduate to appreciate the older man’s gifts: “I was convinced that he did not deserve the honour of being placed amongst the elite. It was some years later that I came to accept his simplicity as a virtue on which one could model his own life…”.
Over time their friendship grew. Harmel’s wife Ray – a seamstress and ardent supporter of the anti-apartheid movement – made Winnie Mandela’s wedding dress at Nelson’s request and the famous post-wedding photograph of the newly married couple was taken at the Harmel’s house.
Elsewhere in the letter, Mandela reflects, “He was one of those men who fully understood the meaning of their life as part of mankind generally & as individuals. His peep into the future very often coincided with one’s most intimate hopes & dreams. May he rest in peace for ‘his work on earth is done’.”
The conditions under which Mandela lived when the letter was written were brutal. Although by 1974 he had progressed from a Grade D to a Grade A prisoner, and was able to maintain more contact with the outside world, he was still sleeping every night on a stone floor, breaking stones in the yard every day during the week, and was confined to his cell 23 hours a day at the weekends.
Despite the hardships and the sad circumstances that prompted him to write, Mandela maintains a sense of perspective and humour. Looking forward to his freedom he promises to take his European ‘sisters’ – close friends who had supported him in the days of struggle – to a feast and then to invite them to join in Umngqungpo, the Xhosa dance performed by elder women to celebrate girls who are coming of age.
The letter closes with a characteristically thoughtful interweaving of the personal and the philosophical. “It has been said that faith is like an oak tree, it grows steadily but, once established, it endures for centuries. Ever ridden a horse in your life, or seen a horse race? Hope is the horse on which you ride & travel to your destination, to reach the winning post. My only fortune in life is to have friends who taught me these things, amongst whom was your beloved Pa. Fondest regards & sincere good wishes to all. Sincerely, Nelson”.
According to Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams Director of the South African Sale, “When Nelson Mandela wrote this letter he had endured 10 years of appalling treatment with no prospect of release, yet he retained his humanity, his sense of humour and his faith in the future. He writes with almost conversational grace and ease. It is a wonderful letter.”
April 22, 2021
April 21, 2021