Nelson Mandela (1918-2013): The Zulu Beadwork Letter, South Africa, and North Carolina

The world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5 at the age of 95. We pay special tribute to him here by examining a unique object in the Rare Book Collection: a beadwork Zulu love letter from South Africa.

Zulu beadwork letter
Zulu beadwork letter

In 1937, Daniel M. Malcolm, Chief Inspector of Native Education in Natal, South Africa, brought the letter to UNC-Chapel Hill as a visual aid for a lecture he gave at that year’s “Conference on Education of American Negroes and African Natives.” Malcolm explained that the letter was written by a girl to her beloved. The white beads indicate the purity of her heart, and the red beads show that her heart is broken and bleeding for her beloved. The four black squares represent four questions about their relationship that he must answer. Malcolm gave the love letter to UNC and its Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book. It subsequently became part of the RBC’s “Curiosities Cabinet,” which houses many other non-codex objects of significance for the history of the book, such as cuneiform tablets and papyrus fragments.

Dr. Malcolm’s visit to Carolina was before the implementation of apartheid segregation in South Africa in 1948, although black South Africans had been severely restricted by the 1913 Natives Land Act, which reserved the majority of the country’s land for whites. In fact, Nelson Mandela had studied at South Africa’s prestigious University of Witwatersrand in the 1940s, after attending Fort Hare University, the South African Native College. Witwatersrand, along with the University of Cape Town, followed a policy of academic non-segregation, which began because of inadequate training facilities for black natives to study medicine. The University of Witwatersrand remained an “open” university until 1959, when the government passed the Extension of University Education Act, also known as the Separate Universities Act. Witwatersrand, although “open” until then, was not a particularly hospitable environment for blacks, as the research of B.K. Murray indicates. Mandela failed to gain his law degree, going on to become Witwatersrand’s “most famous non-graduate.”

The first African-American students at Carolina arrived in 1951, four law students and one medical student, because there were no equal facilities for them in the state, according to a federal court ruling. In 1954, the Supreme Court abolished segregated public schools, and Carolina admitted its first undergraduate black men the next year. Fifty years ago, in 1963, Karen Parker became UNC-Chapel Hill’s first African-American female undergraduate. And the following year, the Civil Rights Act ended public segregation in Chapel Hill and the United States. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was tried for sabotage in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. International pressure led to his release in 1990, and in 1994 he became the first black president of a democratic South Africa.

The Zulu beadwork letter is a tangible artifact of the parallel and divergent histories of segregation and education in South Africa and North Carolina. In the 2004 motion picture Zulu Love Letter, an adolescent girl makes a letter for her mother, who is haunted by the horrors of her past under apartheid. Its images of solitude, loss, hope, and love are intended to encourage the mother not to give up the fight. In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, we turn to our own Zulu love letter and remember a great man, a man who did not give up the fight.