From The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela – Edited by Sahm Venter – Published by Penguin
“The chopping down of the tree & the scattering of the fruit will remind her [Winnie] of the loving peach tree that stood next to our bedroom window & the harvest of tasty peaches. Her dreams must have been haunted by the picture of a merciless wood-cutter whose trade is to demolish what nature has created & whose heart is never touched by the lament of the falling tree, the breaking of its branches, the scattering of its fruits.” – Nelson Mandela to his daughter Zindzi, 10/02/80
My darling Mantu,
The other day I was reading through the notes I took from Black as I Am. Unfortunately, the actual book is no longer in my possession, & although I can now read the collection a little more carefully, I do not have the advantage of studying each poem with the help of the accompanying photographs [by Peter Magubane].
Nevertheless, when I first saw the anthology, I took the necessary precaution that may help me to remember the associated picture whenever I dealt with a particular poem.
Reading a tree was chopped down with the picture of the dry tree above it clear in my mind, & with the shanties & mountain range in the background, I was immediately fascinated by the symbolism of contractions that clearly looms from the lines.
It is this type of contradiction that is inherent in almost every aspect of life. In nature & society these contradictions are in the centre of every phenomenon & can stimulate the urge for serious thinking & real progress.
Without the lines below, the tree would look less than ordinary. Hardly anybody would notice it. It seems to have been struck by lightning during the Stone Age & its sap to have been drained by a thousand vampires.
If inanimate objects could become ghosts, that tree would easily have been one.
Age or disease have destroyed it. It can no longer tap the energy of sunlight nor draw the vital water supplies from the soil below. Its branches & its leaves, its beauty & dignity that once caught the eye of nature lovers & game of all kinds have disappeared.
The tree is no more than firewood on roots. It is as barren as an iron-stone & few people will easily believe that at some stage in the course of its history it could bear fruit.
Yet the metaphor has turned that same dead spectacle into a living object of tremendous meaning, more significant than a young & healthy tree in a fertile & well-watered valley; with a range as wide as that of David’s sling of Biblical fame.
There must be few things in nature that are so dead & deadly at one & the same time as that wretched looking tree. But in verse it ceases to be an insignificant object in a local area & becomes a household possession, part of world art that helps to cater for the spiritual needs of the readers in many countries.
The skilful use of the metaphor makes the tree the centre of a conflict that is as old as society itself; the point where two worlds meet: The one that was & the other that is; the symbol of a dream house raised to the ground, of hopes shattered by the actual reality in which we live our lives.
Good art is invariably universal & timeless & those who read your anthology may see in those lines their own aspirations & experiences. I wonder what conflicts in Mum’s thoughts & feelings must have been aroused by the anthology.
Happiness & pride must have been galore.
But there must be moments when your pen scratches the most tender parts of her body, leaving it quivering with sheer pain & anxiety, all of which would turn her bile ever more bitter.
The chopping down of the tree & the scattering of the fruit will remind her of the loving peach tree that stood next to our bedroom window & the harvest of tasty peaches. Her dreams must have been haunted by the picture of a merciless wood-cutter whose trade is to demolish what nature has created & whose heart is never touched by the lament of the falling tree, the breaking of its branches, the scattering of its fruits..
Chldn on the ground & out of reach! I immediately think of the late Thembi & the baby Makaziwe I who succeeded him & who has slept at Croesus [Cemetery in Johannesburg] for the last 3 decades. I think of you all in the wretchedness in which you have grown & in which you now have to live.
But I wonder whether Mum has ever told you of your brother who died before he was born. He was as tiny as your fist when I left you. He nearly killed her.
I still remember one Sunday as the sun was setting. I helped Mum out of bed to the toilet. She was barely 25 then & looked loving & tasty in her young & smooth body that was covered in a pink silk gown.
But as we returned to the bedroom she suddenly swayed & almost went down. I noticed that she was also sweating heavily & discovered that she was more ill than she had revealed. I rushed her to the family doctor & he sent her to the Coronation Hospital where she remained for several days.
It was her first dreadful experience as a wife; the result of acute tensions brought on us by the Treason Trial which lasted more than four years. ‘A tree was chopped down’ reminds me of all these harsh experiences.
But a good pen can remind us of the happiest moments in our lives, bring noble ideas into our dens, our blood & our souls. It can turn tragedy into hope & victory.
This is how I felt as I reached the last page of your anthology. Your first effort, darling, arouses the hope that you will produce enduring literary works. May it be so! Tons & tons of love & a million kisses. Affectionately, Tata
Ms Zindzi Nobutho Mantu Mandela, 8115 Orlando West, P O Orlando (1804), Johannesburg.” DM
The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is solar-powered.