BY CHIOMA IGBOKWE
Nelson Mandela ducked out of an arranged marriage when he was a student, then went on to wed three times. His first two marriages collapsed under the strain of politics, but the third time around, he found enduring happiness with Graca, widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel.
In sharp contrast to Graca Machel and his feisty second wife Winnie, Mandela’s first wife was a demure country girl who kept well away from politics.
Like him, Evelyn Wase hailed from the rural Transkei and had come to Johannesburg in the early 1940s to carve out a living in the big city.
She was the cousin of African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Walter Sisulu and met Mandela in Sisulu’s home in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, in 1944.
They married months later, in the same year that Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo formed the ANC’s Youth League and politics of struggle against white minority rule came to consume his life.
Descriptions of their first year tell of Evelyn as the happy housewife with Mandela bathing their three babies and helping with the cooking when his work at his law practice and political meetings were done.
But by 1954, Evelyn had buried herself in religion like her husband had in politics and bitterly resented his absence.
Nelson Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Mandela, who quit the couple’s marriage after telling him to choose between her and the African National Congress liberation movement, died April 30 at the age of 82, South African newspapers and news agencies have reported.
The Johannesburg Star reported that she had died of respiratory ailment..
Ms. Mandela, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination, separated from Mr. Mandela in 1955 after what her husband described in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,’’ as an irreconcilable conflict between politics and religion.
‘’I could not give up my life in the struggle, and she could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and her family,’’ he wrote. ‘’I never lost my admiration for her, but in the end we could not make our marriage work.’’
Evelyn Mandela, a cousin of the legendary anti-apartheid figure Walter Sisulu, married Nelson Mandela in 1944. The couple had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Mr. Mandela acknowledged in his autobiography that he was a ‘’too-often distant father,’’ and that the children grew up largely without his help.
Ms. Mandela said little of their relationship until 1994, as South Africa held its first democratic election, when she said that her former husband was primarily responsible for her black countrymen’s right to vote.
Ms. Mandela remarried in 1998, to a retired businessman, Simon Rakeepile, and lived in Soweto, in southern Johannesburg. Mandela remarried in 1958, to the fiery activist Winnie Nomzamo. They were later divorced, and he is now married to Graça Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, Samora Machel.
When Mandela was arrested for treason the first time, he came home on bail to find Evelyn had gone, leaving behind their two youngest children.
She returned to the Transkei, ran a shop and remarried in her seventies.
Winnie came into Mandela’s life at the start of a second treason trial, which would see him jailed for 27 years, and they married in June 1958.
She too came from the country, but took to the city, and once she met Mandela, also dived into politics with alacrity.
Soon after their wedding she was arrested for an incendiary speech, leading Mandela to remark — proudly and prophetically — “I think I married trouble.”
The couple had two daughters before the prison doors slammed behind Mandela in 1964. In the coming years Winnie would be in and out of jail as the police hounded her in a bid to demoralise him.
In 1969, she was held in solitary confinement for 13 months on terrorism charges and in 1973 endured another six months in jail, but when the 1976 student riot revolt broke out in Soweto, Winnie was unbowed, urging crowds to “fight to the bitter end”.
The police saw her as a mastermind of the uprising. She was locked up for five months, then banished to the desolate town of Brandfort for seven years.
When she returned to Soweto, the firebrand militant-martyr became a liability for Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1986, at a time when suspected traitors were being burned alive in the volatile townships, Winnie declared that South African blacks would be freed “with our matchboxes”.
She surrounded herself with a band of thugs christened the Mandela United Football Club who murdered a young activist called Stompie Sepei.
Her bond with Mandela had endured through letters and visits to prison and when he was released in 1990, Winnie was there holding his hand, but in private she rejected him for a young lover.
Mandela stood by her when she was convicted for kidnapping Sepei and only in 1992 announced their separation.
Winnie’s six-year sentence was suspended on appeal and in 1994 she was appointed a deputy minister in his government, but was later sacked for insubordination.
By the mid-90s, Mandela was courting Graca Machel — a serious but warm woman 27 years younger than him who studied in Lisbon before she became a freedom fighter for Samora Machel’s Frelimo movement, and eventually Machel’s education minister and wife.
Graca’s first contact with Mandela came in 1986 when her husband died in an air crash many believe was orchestrated by the apartheid regime, and he wrote to her from prison.
When they met in Mozambique’s capital Maputo in 1990, Machel was still in mourning. But two years later Mandela became the godfather of her stepchildren and in 1996 they were spotted at President Robert Mugabe’s wedding.
Mandela was smitten and let the press in on their love story, telling reporters: “Late in life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me.”
On July 18, 1998 — Mandela’s 80th birthday — Machel broke her vow that she would not marry another president.
“He is simply a wonderful husband. We met in life at time we were both settled. We were grown up, we were settled, we knew the value of a companion, of a partner. Because of that, we have enjoyed this relationship in a really special way. It’s not like when you are still young, you are too demanding. No, no. We just accept each other as we are. And we enjoy every single day as if it is the last day. Because of that, it has been wonderful to have him as a husband.” Graca Machel said in an interview with CNN.
“When we married, we didn’t know we’d be given 10 years together. We have been very lucky. Very grateful for that.” Machel concluded.
While clearly a proud husband, Mandela sometimes found it hard to keep pace with the younger woman.
“She is busier than I am. We meet for lunch, go off and then only see each other again for supper. I wish I had married a wife who was less busy,” he quipped to students at a ceremony in March 2007.
Winnie Madikizela: Divorce that shook the world
Winnie Mandela was born in 1934 at Bizana, Pondoland, in the Transkei.
She qualified as a social worker in 1953 and met her future husband, Nelson, while working at a hospital in the black township of Soweto in 1957. They married in June 1958, despite her father’s objections that Nelson was too committed to politics and, at the age of 41, too old for her.
Their early married life was punctuated by raids as the police cracked down on the ANC and by periods when Nelson was absent – either in hiding or in prison awaiting trial. Eventually, Nelson was jailed for life in 1964.
Until then, Winnie had been involved in ANC politics but was not at the forefront of the struggle. Now she began to assume the mantle of Nelson Mandela’s political heir, and to tread the path, which led to her becoming known as ‘Mother of the Nation’.
In 1985, she defied her banning order by returning to Soweto after her home in Brandfort was firebombed. After being arrested for breaking the order, the government relented and allowed her to stay.
The following five years were increasingly controversial. In 1986 she made a speech in which she talked about achieving liberation from apartheid by using “necklaces” – a reference to the brutal murder of suspected collaborators by putting tyres round their necks and setting them alight. There was also the matter of an opulent £125,000 house built in one of the poorest areas in the country.
The most serious allegations, however, stemmed from the activities of her personal bodyguards, the so-called Mandela United Football Club. Reports of their brutality were commonplace in Soweto and her house was attacked in 1988 by local people who had had enough.
Mrs Mandela refused to curb the team’s activities, however, and the following year came the decisive incident. A 14-year-old activist, Stompei Seipei Moketsi, was kidnapped by her guards and later found murdered. The ANC leadership declared that she was out of control but Nelson Mandela, in jail and in ill-health, refused to repudiate her.
In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison and Winnie walked by his side as the world watched his first steps of freedom for nearly 30 years. Initially, the couple appeared to have resolved any problems though Nelson refused to move into his wife’s Soweto mansion.
Gradually, however, relations between them cooled and in 1991 Winnie Mandela was charged with the assault and kidnapping of Stompei. Initially convicted and given six years in jail, Mrs Mandela appealed and had the sentence reduced to a fine.
The trial was notable for witnesses who failed to appear or whose testimony contradicted statements, which they had given the police. One of the key planks of her defence was an alibi that she was being driven elsewhere at the time of the kidnap – after the trial the driver denied that the journey had taken place.
In 1992, Nelson Mandela tired of his wife’s political and personal excesses, announced that he and Winnie were to separate. They eventually divorced in 1996 on the grounds of her adultery.
Mrs. Mandela, or Mrs Madikizela-Mandela as she became known after her divorce, was now extremely unwelcome at the top table of the now-governing African National Congress. She retained, however, a huge following among the rank and file by appealing to the radicals and to those who felt that progress towards equality was still too slow.
For example, in 1993 she was suspended from the ANC Women’s League for disloyalty but bounced back by winning election as its president – the following year 11 members of the ANCWL resigned in protest at her dictatorial behaviour.
Also in 1994, she polled so well in the elections, which saw Nelson made president that she not only became an MP but won the post of Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. Later that year she was elected to the ANC’s national executive committee.
In 1995, however, she made herself unpopular with the government by accusing it of not doing enough to combat racism. After widespread allegations of misappropriating government funds, she was dismissed from her ministerial post by her former husband.
The careers of most politicians would have been finished long ago with such a record, but not Mrs Madikezela-Mandela’s. Earlier this year she won a second term as president of the Women’s League and even now is defying the ANC leadership by challenging its preferred candidate for the deputy presidency of the party.
Victory in that poll would in theory put her in a strong position to run for high office some time in the future. But given the allegations made at the Truth Commission and opposition from within the ANC, that would mean a political comeback on a scale unprecedented even in Winnie Mandela’s own career.