Over the years Nelson Mandela has received thousands of gifts, awards and honours from around the world. He has shared these with his family, friends and charitable organisations. Substantial collections were donated to the South African state (his 1994-1999 Presidential Collection) and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Not surprisingly, given Mandela’s love of reading, books are frequently offered to him as gifts.
A part of the Centre of Memory’s gift collection is an accumulation of books given to him by authors and containing inscribed messages by the authors.
Here is a selection of some of the books and their inscriptions.
“One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release.”
“One of the sad realities today is that very few people, especially young people, read books. Unless we can find imaginative ways of addressing this reality, future generations are in danger of losing their history.”
Nelson Mandela is a great reader. At school he read widely, and while in the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly as he was trying to establish a liberation army, he devoured whatever he could on armed struggles all over the world. In prison, he read whatever books he could get his hands on. He is also a great strategist, whether as a young boxer when he strategised about how to outwit his foes in the ring or as a chess player or a political activist, he would always think through his next move. He often spoke of non-violence as a strategy, rather than as a principle. Here he focuses on the strategy of the Russian army.
Robben Island prison had a library for each section of the prison. The libraries were staffed by prisoners and a fair amount of interesting literature escaped the censors who tried to ensure that subversive material did not get into the hands of the prisoners. One of Nelson Mandela’s close comrades, Ahmed Kathrada, was at one stage a librarian in B Section where he, Mr Mandela, and about two dozen other prisoners were held. If books arrived in the library they could be read. Books that just mentioned the name ‘Mandela’ for example did not make it. Here Mr Mandela talks about some of the books he read on Robben Island.
One of the books Nelson Mandela read in prison was the biography of one of apartheid’s leaders, Prime Minister John Vorster. This story about the book also reveals another of Mr Mandela’s characteristics – that he always tries to “take something out” of a situation or an experience. Things and people are usually neither all bad nor all good. He detested what Vorster stood for as Prime Minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978, but in this conversation he shows that he found something upon which to compliment him.
When Nelson Mandela went to prison he studied the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans. He also studied the history of the Afrikaner as well as their struggle against the British. He read some of the Afrikaans writers in Afrikaans and enjoyed the books. One of the authors whose work he enjoyed was one of South Africa’s foremost writers, CJ Langenhoven, who also wrote the national anthem Die Stem for the apartheid state. Langenhoven was a member of parliament who worked to have Afrikaans recognised as an official language in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was in prison only English and Afrikaans were official languages. When he became president of the country he included nine African languages.
Photographer — Ardon Bar-Hama
Photographer — Matthew Willman
Research & Curation — Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Staff