Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?  ………

2018 must be considered a momentous year for the Mandela extended family.

Already for some time there has been  hype around the 100th anniversary of Nelson’s birth with projects planned to mark the occasion.

He died in 2013 and for 38 years of his life was married to Winnie.  Both Nelson and Winnie were unusual in that in the 1950s as black people they followed careers that few others would have aspired to.  He was a lawyer, she a social worker.   In spite of an age difference of 18 years these years started with a passion for one another that was very quickly divided between their marriage and family and the calling from the ANC and politics.  Two daughters Zindzi and Zenani were born before Nelson became a political fugitive for much of his time, leaving Winnie to literally “hold the baby.”   During and after the Rivonia Treason Trial Winnie supported him as she cared for their family at the same time.

Their commitment to the struggle against the injustice of the apartheid system united them, but it is clear that there was a great deal of patriarchy all along with the action with the ANC being mostly men’s business.   During the years of his incarceration on Robben island and afterwards she as a person developed her own mission as a radical activist. For much of the time while he was perceived as the martyr she was equally if not more a martyr and much more than just the woman behind Nelson.  She only saw him in prison occasionally but corresponded through arranged channels with love letters as well as business.   She tried to keep the family together so that the children would know Tata and she smuggled one of the grandchildren into prison for them to see one another on one occasion.

Her sad reflection, “I am the most unmarried married woman! I never experienced a normal home and family life with my husband and kids, eating breakfast, taking them to school on their first day.”

She was mercilessly harassed by the apartheid police, imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement, tortured and humiliated and banished into internal exile in Brandfort, a small rural village.  When she was arrested again the girls would cling to her begging, “Mommy please don’t go.”  Her abusive treatment strengthened her resolve but scarred her nevertheless as she became more radical, militant and, as a woman, a threat to others in the movement, the cause and the government.

Her independence, some unfortunate incidents and an affair – which, according to her daughter would have been forgiven her if she had been a man – did estrange her from Nelson and their marriage was reported to have been under strain soon after his release which at the time saw them together as a happy couple.

She disagreed with his more conciliatory approach to dealing with the negotiations about the future of the country. Was he influenced or forced to choose between her and the country and if so by whom?  Who knows the multiple reasons behind her absence at his inauguration where he was accompanied by his daughter Zenani.   Winnie had gone her own way and in those years angrily disagreeing with his approach to negotiating the future.   She considered he had let his own black people down.  She involved herself in politics at different levels with or without support from government and ANC structures.

In THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM he speaks kindly of her at the time of their separation in 1992. They were divorced in 1996 and Nelson wrote of this as a very lonely time before he experienced much happiness with Graca his third wife until the time of his illness and death in 2013.

Winnie too experienced deep loneliness and rejection. She added her own family name after the divorce and became well known as Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela until her death.  She was very involved with her children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.  Although they were divorced Winnie nevertheless remained a part of his life, not only through the children.  She was on good terms with Graca, was present during his final illness, death and funeral.  However, he left her nothing in his will something she has been contesting.

A marriage such as theirs – almost an improbably marriage – cannot but have suffered many stresses and strains due to their powerful personalities as well as the circumstances they had to contend with.

Winnie died on 2 April 2018, aged 81. a few months before the Nelson Mandela centenary which should rightly include her too. At both her memorial and funeral services much of the criticism of her past was brought out by her daughter Zenani and other mainly political speakers. The Mandela family did not participate.  Forgiveness was asked for the injustices heaped upon her, the lack of support from the ANC, which remained her political home.  Speakers praised her and her image of MOTHER OF THE NATION,  neglected for years, was being revived and a halo polished up.

Does she deserve those belated accolades?   In his own words her late ex-husband was also no saint but both of them, through their passion for justice deserve a crown of sainthood for being sinners who didn’t give up trying.   May they both rest in peace and in the freedom of the hereafter may they regain some of the joy that marked their early life and love.  May we, all South Africans conscious of our diversity and struggles be inspired by the good and challenged by the sacrifices they made of their own happiness for the good of others.

Toni Rowland.  April 2018.   FAMILY MATTERS magazine No 2 2018.


  1. MANDELA DAY. UBUNTU FAMILY THOUGHT 18 JULY 2018 - MARFAM - […] of Nelson’s birth. He died in 2013 and for 38 years of his life was married to Winnie. .   …

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