Themba Hadebe  /  AP
Former South African President Nelson Mandela examines Tuesday some of the personal letters he wrote at Robben Island prison more than 30 years ago, during the opening of the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory and Commemoration in Johannesburg.
updated 9/21/2004 4:06:37 PM ET 2004-09-21T20:06:37

A former apartheid policeman who helped jail Nelson Mandela 40 years ago has given back to him two notebooks of letters written in prison.

At the opening Tuesday of the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory and Commemoration, retired policemen Donald Card told the former president he had waited more than three decades to return the notebooks, in which Mandela wrote drafts of prison letters between February 1969 and April 1971.

“Thirty-three years have flown by since 1971, when I put these two notebooks on my wardrobe,” Card said.

Card had testified against Mandela and his co-defendants in their sabotage trial. All were sentenced to life in prison in 1964. Mandela was released in 1990 and was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Now 86, he said earlier this year he had retired from public life.

“What you have just witnessed could be described as one old man giving another old man two old notebooks,” said Mandela, dressed in a shirt emblazoned with his prison number, 46664. He thanked Card for returning the notebooks rather than keeping them or selling them.

The center is an archive of Mandela’s papers and records.

“The history of our country is characterized by too much forgetting,” Mandela said.

“One of our challenges as we build and extend democracy is the need to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of our oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all,” he said.

Hunt for ‘coded messages’
In the early part of his imprisonment, Mandela was allowed to write and receive only one 500-word letter every six months. Since the letters were heavily censored by prison officials, he painstakingly drafted most of them in notebooks before putting them on paper to be mailed.

Card said he once helped authorities read the letters, looking for “coded messages” in them.

“I decided against returning the letters (to authorities),” the ex-policeman said. “I decided that these were very valuable documents that could be lost or destroyed.”

Photographs of the prison and some of Mandela’s personal records are displayed at the center. Included are several “diaries” in Mandela’s neat handwriting on tiny spaces on a series of desk calendars from 1976 to 1989. “Documents removed without my consent” said one entry.

A list of Mandela’s visitors shows that his wife at the time, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was only allowed to see him two months after his imprisonment and not again for two years.

His daughter Makaziwe and his son Makgatho only visited him after four years, and his two youngest children, Zinzi and Zenani, went 11 years without seeing him.

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