Friday, March 15, 2024 #37

 History traditionally has been both executed and documented by men, from a masculine perspective. Nevertheless, there is another aspect to the history of each man’s biography, that cannot be reduced to those archaic words, ‘help-mate’…the woman or women in his life. March 8, this week, the world celebrated International Women’s Day, and at the risk of being accused of tokenism, this piece is an attempt to identify and to elaborate the significant contribution of women, especially to the lives of Mandela, Gandhi and Tutu. We start with Mandela.

Clearly, the longest and most impacting relationship with a woman in Mandela’s life was with the woman the world knows as Winnie whose full name was Nomzamo Winnifred Madikezela, a graduate in Social Work from the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. And while the relationship began prior to his divorce from Evelyn, his first wife, Mandela writes about their courtship:

I was both courting her and politicizing her. As a student, Winnie had been attracted to the Non-European Unity Movement, for she had a brother who was involved with that party. ….After (their first lunch), I took her for a drive to an area between Johannesburg and Evaton, an open field veld  just past Eldorado Park. We walked on the grass, grass so similar to that of the Transkei where had both been raised. I told her of my hopes and of the difficulties of the Treason Trial*. I knew right there that I wanted to marry her –and I told her so. Her spirit, her passion, her youth, her courage her willfulness---I felt all of these things the moment I first saw her…..The Treason Trial was in its second year and uit put a suffocating weight on our law practice. Mandela and Tambo (Law Firm) was falling apart as we could not be there, and both Oliver (law partner) and I were experiencing grave financial difficulties…..We had gone from a bustling practice that turned people away to one that was begging for clients. I could not even afford to pay the fifty-pound balance still owing on the  plot of land that I had purchased in Umtata, and had to give it up. I explained all this to Winnie. I told her it was more than likely that we would have to live on her small salary as a social worker. Winnie understood and said she was prepared to take the risk and throw her lot in with mine. I never promised her gold and diamonds and I was never able to give them to her. (Mandela, LWTF, p 214-215)

At the wedding reception, Winnie’s father put the relationship into perspective, as the father of the bride:

He took note, as did everyone, that among the uninvited guests at the wedding were a number of security police. He spoke of his love for his daughter, my commitment to the country, and my dangerous career as a politician. When Winnie had first told him of the marriage, he had exclaimed, ‘But you are marrying a jailbird!’ At the wedding, he said he was not optimistic about the future, and that such a marriage, in such difficult times, would be unremittingly tested. He told Winnie she was marrying a man who was already married to the struggle. He bade his daughter good luck and ended his speech by saying, ‘If your man is a wizard, you must become a witch!’ It was his way of saying that you must follow your man on whatever path he takes. (LWTF, p.216)

Mandela writes a kind of confessional, on the days following the wedding:

There was no time or money for a honeymoon, and life quickly settled into a routine dominated by the trial. We woke very early in the morning, usually at about four. Winnie prepared breakfast before I left. I would then take the bus to the trial, or make an early morning visit to my office. As much as possible, afternoons and evenings were spent at my office attempting to keep our practice going and to earn some money. Evenings were often taken up with political work and meetings. The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison. Though I was on trial for treason, Winnie have me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new a second chance at life. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead. (LWTF, p. 217)

Never one to be surprised by the opinions and determination (stubbornness) of another, Mandela recounts Winnie’s response to the proposal to give their daughter, Zenani (‘What have you brought to the world’?) a Xhosa baptism by calling in an inyanga, a tribal healer, to give the baby a traditional herbal bath. But Winnie was adamantly opposed, thinking it unhealthy and outdated, and instead smeared Zenani with olive oil, plastered her little bod with Johnson’s Baby Powder, and filled her stomach with shark oil. (LWTF, p 226)

A similar kind of narrative unfolded when Nelson attempted to teach Winnie how to drive.

Driving, in those days, was a man’s business; very few women, especially African women, were to be seen in the driver’s seat. But Winnie was independent-minded and intent on learning, and it would be useful because I was gone so much of the time and could not drive her places myself. Perhaps I am an impatient teacher or perhaps I had a headstrong pupil, but when I attempted to give Winnie lessons along a relatively flat and quiet Orlando road, we could not seem to shift gears without quarreling, Finally, after she had ignored one too many of my suggestions, I stormed out of the car and walked home. Winnie seemed to do better without my tutelage than with it, for she proceeded to drive around the township on her own for the next hour. By that time, we were ready to make up, and it is a story we subsequently laughed about. (LWTF, p. 226)

Nevertheless, throughout his trials, imprisonments, and detentions, Winnie was always ready to visit, to comfort and to support and sustain her husband, until near the end.

On April 13, 1992, at a press conference in Johannesburg….I announced my separation from my wife. ….I read the following statement.

The relationship between myself and my wife, Comrade Nomzamo Winnie Mandela, has become the subject of much media speculation. I am issuing this statement to clarify the position and in the hope that it will bring an end to further conjecture….Comrade Nomzamo and myself contracted our marriage at a crucial time in the struggle for liberation in our country. Owing to pressures of our shared commitment to the ANC and the struggle to end apartheid, we were unable to enjoy a normal family life. Despite these pressures, our love for each other and our devotion to our marriage grew and intensified…During the two decades I spent on Robben Island she was an indispensable pillar of support and comfort to myself personally…Comrade Nomzamo accepted the onerous burden of raising our children on her own…She endured the persecutions heaped upon her by the Government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the freedom struggle. Her tenacity reinforced my personal respect, love and growing affection. It also attracted the admiration of the world at large. My love for her remains undiminished…However, in view of the tensions that have arisen owing to differences between ourselves on a number of issues in recent months, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each of us. My action was not prompted by the current allegations begin made against her in the media…Comrade Nomzamo has and can continue to rely of my unstinting support during these trying moments in her life. I shall never regret to life Comrade Nomzamo and I tried to share together. Circumstances beyond our control however dictated it should be otherwise. I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed of her inside and outside prison for the moment I first met her. Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will appreciate the pain I have gone through. (LWTF, p 599-600)

In the words that following the transcript of his public statement, however, tell a deeper and more personal story:

Perhaps I was blinded to certain things because of the pain I gelt for not being able to fulfill my role as a husband to my wife and a father to my children. But just as I am convinced that my wife’s life while I was in prison was more difficult that mine, my own return was also more difficult for her than it was for me. She married a man who soon left her: that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all…s I said later at my daughter Zindzi’s wedding, it seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters to have unstable personal lives.  When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made. (LWTF, p. 600)

Is it reasonable to conjecture that our public acclaim, achievements and accolades can and will never either erase or even outshine our most profound regrets? Our public lives, however exemplary, honourable, and even admirable to some extent, are always profoundly compromised by those ‘inner’ caves of regret, depression, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness and emptiness. And whether our struggles are political or psychological, those struggles consume the vast proportion of our time, energy and even our identity…whether or not we are conscious of that consumption in the process. Indeed, it may well be a that a paradox of ‘over-achievement’ is a mask that both covers and helps us to avoid, deny and take responsibility for our other ‘responsibilities’.

Especially as men, we are indoctrinated to go away on our ‘adventure’ of discovery. And the ‘hero’ option, irrespective of its specific domain, narrative structure or outcome, comes with the ‘territory’ of being an ambitious, self-respecting and courageous man. Mandela, while his ‘heroic’ story is considered epic, globally, nevertheless bears all the hallmarks of the profound price he paid.

*in 1956, the whole executive of the ANC were arrested, along with some one hundred plus, all of whom were being arrested on charges of high treason and an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the state. LWTF, p. 200


Next, we plan to take a look at the contribution to his life that women made to Gandhi.


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