Los Angeles Times

Nelson Mandela's letters detail his 27 years as the world's most famous political prisoner

"The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela," edited by Sahm Venter; Liveright (640 pages, $35)

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As a Times correspondent in South Africa during the final violent spasms of the apartheid regime and the jubilant election of the country's first black president in 1994, I noticed something odd about Nelson Mandela's speeches.

Mandela would get thunderous cheers when he took the stage. Even from a distance, the world's most famous former political prisoner was instantly recognizable: taller and broader than most Africans, beaming his 1,000-watt smile, and always sporting one of the flamboyant "madiba" shirts designed especially for him.

But the crowd would grow restless after Mandela began to speak. He had a stilted, droning cadence that could turn an eloquent address into a reading from the telephone book. He invariably got more applause at the start than at the end. His personal and

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