The three wives of Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela was married three times. It was his second wife, however, Winnie Mandela, who traded most heavily on the Mandela name, and who achieved prominence as a political warrior in her own right. His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a cousin of his political mentor Walter Sisulu. She was a demure and retiring woman, a nurse by profession, and only a lukewarm political activist. She and Nelson Mandela were married for thirteen years. Perhaps her most well-known public comment in regards to her famous husband was: ‘How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The world worships Nelson Mandela too much. He is only a man.’
That certainly suggests that the first Mrs. Mandela knew a different side to the great man. The couple had four children, two of whom survived. The death of her first child pushed Evelyn towards religion, while her husband was growing ever more deeply involved in politics. He soon began an affair with a young social worker by the name of Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, and three years after he and Evelyn separated, in 1958, he married Winnie.
The couple had two daughters, and were both equally committed to the emerging anti-apartheid struggle. Winnie Mandela was a far more robust personality that Evelyn Mandela, but in those days, robust or not, nationalist politics was a risky business. It was inevitable at some point that that one or other of them would be killed or incarcerated. In 1963, after the much storied Rivonia Trial, Mandela was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment for various public order offences. It would be twenty-seven years before he would walk free again.
In the meanwhile, the anti-apartheid movement shifted into high gear, and Winnie Mandela fetched up the baton, and carried the struggle forward in her husband’s name. Behind the scenes, however, their combined political destiny did not always make for a happy union of souls. And while they stayed married during Mandela’ imprisonment, they were divorced within two years of his release.
Mandela’s third wife, Graca Machel, was a storied revolutionary in her own right, widow of the first black president of Mozambique, Samora Machel. Samora Machel was probably the most pedigreed African revolutionary of the age, but his wife, no less committed to the struggle, was more of an intellectual ideologue, and present very much behind the scenes. It was she who accompanied Nelson Mandela through the last great chapter of his life, and she who was present at his deathbed.