Willem Boshoff
Secret Letters


a wall piece reflecting on the days Mr Nelson Mandel spent in prison after the Rivonia trial 10 large spray-painted wooden panels, lined with rosettes of white cloth containing text that is difficult to read, and cards containing a legible text

each panel: 206 x 85cm, 8cm deep

The rosettes resemble small crumpled letters pushed secretly into holes in a wall so that the text is well hidden. The crumpled-up 'letters' are interspersed with clearly readable date cards that indicate important events Mr Nelson Mandela missed while he was in prison and to give an awareness of date-line that his prison period occupies. Together the secret 'letters' and date cards add up to exactly the 9377 days Mr Mandela spent in prison.

Nelson Mandela and the other prisoners on Robben Island often received letters in secret. They had little way of finding out what was going on in the outside world and their own communication was severely restricted. Letters received in the normal post took very long because the wardens had to censor them with great care - hardly any news of consequence got through. Prisoners also smuggled out letters written on toilet paper which was freely available to them and was not suspected of being a suitable writing surface. Such 'soft' letters were easily hidden in small places by carriers. Letters smuggled in would be crumpled up and buried at great risk to the far side of the prison premises. At one time the inmates were highly perturbed when it looked like a wall was to be built on their secret site.

A small love letter, especially one smuggled to the beloved, is a billet-doux - French for "sweet note". In the days of the inquisition, if the church or state discovered an illicit love affair conducted by billets-doux the death penalty was meted out. In war, secret letters are capons when they are sent in the succulent meat of stuffed fowls, from capon - a castrated cock. These hidden letters on Robben Island reminded me of the letters left by devout Jews in the wailing wall, also called the HA-KOTEL HA-MA'ARAVI, in Jerusalem.'

detail view

2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.