Poetry and ‘taal’ in letter

2013-12-12 00:00

A SMALL, private moment nearly three decades ago between a Cape Town publisher and an incarcerated Nelson Mandela has come to light.

Last weekend Elmari Rautenbach, head of Media 24’s New Media Publishing, posted a letter on her Facebook page written by Nelson Mandela to her father, Danie van Niekerk, when he was head of Tafelberg Publishers in the seventies.

In the letter, which bears a Robben Island Prison stamp, Mandela thanked Van Niekerk “warmly for the beautiful book gift”.

“DJ Opperman’s anthologies are of special value and I appreciate it much more than I can put down in words,” wrote Mandela on February 27, 1975.

“Die Groot Verseboek [The Big Book of Poems] contains numerous comprehensive and different poems of a substantial cross section of our population … Perhaps I will one day have the opportunity to express my gratitude to you.”

Contacted this week, Rautenbach said her father, who is now 85 and lives in Century City, did not want to comment on the letter, but she pointed to the explanation he gave her, which she posted on her Facebook page last weekend along with the letter.

“The preamble was a letter — in Afrikaans — that arrived out of the blue, addressed to him, written in small, neat handwriting on blue paper and signed NR Mandela, saying the writer came across the Junior and Senior Verseboeke in the Robben Island library and would like to order them. Included was a postal order ‘to cover costs’,” she wrote.

“My dad wrote back, sending him both books plus the big old Groot Verseboek, returning the postal order. In return, he received the said beautiful Afrikaans ‘thank you’ note.”

She added that “the letter mentions an ‘influential person in the public domain’ who referred Madiba to my dad. This person was most likely a well-known professor, Jakes Gerwel.”

Eloise Wessels, CEO of Media 24 books, said the letter was discovered when she joined the company several years ago.

“We were clearing out the safe and a messenger found it. I knew immediately it was a gem and had it copied and put up in the foyer of our offices, so the staff could see this wonderful bit of history. Everybody comments on it. It’s written in beautiful Afrikaans and Tafelberg is the biggest Afrikaans publisher in the world. The thought that there was this link between one of our greatest leaders and the language we speak, is special.”

The letter now lies in the Tafelberg archives.

•To see it go to www.witness.co.za

Translation of Nelson Mandela’s letter

Robben Island

February 27 1975

Dear Sir,

I would like to thank you warmly for the beautiful book gift that I have received from you today.

DJ Opperman’s anthologies are of special value and I appreciate it much more than I can put down in words. Die Groot Verseboek (The Big Book of Poems) contains numerous comprehensive and different poems of a substantial cross section of our population. The biographical details in the junior- and senior verseboek (book of poems) provide a representative cross section of the figures who have played an important role in the development of Afrikaans literature. Perhaps I will one day have the opportunity to express my gratitude to you.

Relating to this, I would like to mention that I have very recently expressed to a prominent and well-known figure in our country’s public affairs my wish to have Opperman’s poetry. Perhaps you are aware of that. If that is the case, may I request you to convey my gratitude to him?

Yours truly

N.R. Mandela

The Manager

Tafelberg Publishers

PO Box 879

Wale Street

Cape Town

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