What Books Did Nelson Mandela Read?

“I had no time to brood. I enjoyed reading and writing letters and that occupied my mind completely…”

By The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela's office (2008) by NMF/Matthew WillmanThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A passion for books

Nelson Mandela was 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 was 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. Here are 15 books that Mandela read...

#1: Grapes of Wrath
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.

#2: War and Peace
Nelson Mandela often spoke of non-violence as a strategy, rather than as a principle. Here he focuses on the strategy of the Russian army.

#3: John Vorster's biography
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.

#4: LCJ Langenhoven
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.

Nelson Mandela's memories (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

“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.”

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. Here is a selection of some of the books and their inscriptions.

Soul on Ice coverThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#5: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Written in Folsom State Prison in 1965, and published three years later, it is Cleaver's best known writing and remains a seminal work in African-American literature.

Soul on Ice Inscription: Soul on IceThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Burger’s Daughter Burger’s DaughterThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#6: Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
A political and historical novel by the South African Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Nadine Gordimer.

Burger’s Daughter Inscription: Burger's DaughterThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

A Century of Black Journalism in Britain A Century of Black Journalism in BritainThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#7: A Century of Black Journalism in Britain by Lionel Morrison.
The history and development of Black journalism in the UK.

A Century of Black Journalism in Britain Inscription: A Century of Black JournalismThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

The Political Memoirs The Political MemoirsThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#8: The Political Memoir by Malcolm Fraser
The memoir of Australia's former Prime Minister.

The Political Memoirs Inscription: The Political MemoirThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental FreedomsThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#9: Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Inscription:Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental FreedomsThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from one of the authors.

The Day Gogo Went to Vote The Day Gogo Went to VoteThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#10: The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Batezat Sisulu
The children's book follows 6 year old Thembi and her 100 year old grandmother through the process of Africa having the ability to vote for the first time.

The Day Gogo Went to Vote Inscription: The Day Gogo Went to VoteThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Memoirs Cover: MemoirsThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#11: Memoirs by David Rockefeller
Memoir of the American banker who served as chairman and chief executive of Chase Manhattan Corporation.

Memoirs Inscription:MemoirsThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Dearest DearestThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#12: Dearest by Atiq Nasser Al-Bader
Captivating book by the former ambassador.

Dearest Inscription:DearestThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Democracy Matters Cover:Democracy MattersThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#13: Democracy Matters by Cornel West
American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual shares his thoughts on democracy in America.

Democracy Matters Inscription:Democracy MattersThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Into the Past – A memoir Cover: Into the Past – A memoirThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#14: Into the past - A Memoir by Philip Tobias
Captivating biography of the the first 40 years of author's life and his discoveries in the Palaeoanthropology Research Unit in the Wits Anatomy Department.

Into the Past – A memoir Inscription: Into the Past – A memoirThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Rajiv Cover: RajivThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

#15: Rajiv by Sonia Gandhi
A portrait of Rajiv Gandhi by the person who knew him best: his wife Sonia.

Rajiv Inscription: RajivThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

A note to Madiba from the author.

Great-Grandson Ziyanda Manaway (Mandela) 01 (2009-09-10/2009-09-10)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

“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

Credits: Story

Discover more about Nelson Mandela here

Photographer — Ardon Bar-Hama
Photographer — Matthew Willman
Research & Curation — Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Staff

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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