Their relationship was a love story, which some believe was tragically tempered by politics. It was a love story almost like none other. A love tale classical in nature, yet down-to-heart. The late Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Winnie Madikizela was an affair of two larger-than-life protagonists.
Winnie endured a lot because she was his wife: the years of imprisonment, solitary confinement and house arrests. But no matter his loyalty to her, Winnie and his family always came second to his other great love: the ANC and by extension, the liberation struggle, a fact Winnie still sees as an act of betrayal.
Their love story gave room for love letters laced with poetry, music, imageries and drama. For the 27 years he spent in prison, Mandela wrote Winnie several letters from Robben Island.
In one of such letters written on April 15, 1976, Mandela said: “My dearest Winnie, Your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I’m caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so. Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond attentions of such wonderful ladies?”
The one he wrote on October 26, 1976 was about Winnie’s detention. It drilled of sadness. In it, he said: “I am struggling to suppress my emotions as I write this letter. I have received only one letter since you were detained, that one dated August 22. I do not know anything about family affairs, such as payment of rent, telephone bills, care of children and their expenses, whether you will get a job when released. As long as I don’t hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert.
“ I recall the Karoo I crossed on several occasions. I saw the desert again in Botswana on my way to and from Africa—endless pits of sand and not a drop of water. I have not had a letter from you. I feel dry like a desert.
“ Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that livens my life and make it enjoyable.
“ Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth, that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love.”
Then on June 26, 1977, he wrote of their daughters, their unfulfilled dream of having a baby boy and all that. “We couldn’t fulfill our wishes, as we had planned, to have a baby boy. I had hoped to build you a refuge, no matter how small, so that we would have a place for rest and sustenance before the arrival of the sad, dry days. I fell down and couldn’t do these things. I am as one building castles in the air,” he said.
His letter of November 22, 1979 was poetic-prose at its best. It was about her visit five days earlier. He described what she looked like and how he “felt like singing, even if just to say Hallelujah!”
But, time and political tides blew their love away. And on April 13, 1992, at a press conference in Johannesburg, flanked by his two oldest friends and comrades, Walter and Oliver, the late Mandela announced his separation from Winnie. He said the situation had grown so difficult that he felt that it was in the best interests of all concerned – the ANC, the family, and Winnie – that they part. He said though he discussed the matter with the ANC, the separation itself was made for personal reasons.
The statement he read at the news conference reads:”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 critical time in the struggle for liberation in our country. Owing to the 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 being made against her in the media…. Comrade Nomzamo has and can continue to rely on my unstinting support during these trying moments in her life.
“I shall personally never regret the 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 for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her. Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will appreciate the pain I have gone through.
“Perhaps I was blinded to certain things because of the pain I felt 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 than 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.
“As I later said 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.
“We watched our children growing without our guidance,’ I said at the wedding, ‘ and when we did come out (of prison), my children said, ‘We thought we had a father and one day he’d come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because he has now become the father of the nation.’” To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of.”
The separation of April 1992 became a divorce in March 1996, having spent only five of their 38 married years together. And Winnie became history in his life. Now, he is history to South Africa, which he loved more than his family, and the world, which appropriated him to the extent of setting out his birthday to honour his humanity. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly announced that his birthday, July 18, is to be known as “Mandela Day” to mark his contribution to world freedom.
Winnie, who felt betrayed by the Madiba, once said: “This name Mandela is an albatross around the necks of my family. You all must realise that Mandela was not the only man who suffered. There were many others, hundreds who languished in prison and died. Many unsung and unknown heroes of the struggle, and there were others in the leadership too, like poor Steve Biko, who died of the beatings, horribly all alone. Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out.
“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.
“I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel (Peace Prize in 1993) with his jailer (FW) de Klerk. Hand in hand they went. Do you think de Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed, and our struggle was not a flash in the pan, it was bloody to say the least and we had given rivers of blood. I had kept it alive with every means at my disposal.
“Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He should never have agreed to it. What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here.
“He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and me. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom.
“Look what they make him do. The great Mandela. He has no control or say any more. They put that huge statue of him right in the middle of the most affluent ‘white’ area of Johannesburg. Not here where we spilled our blood and where it all started. Mandela is now a corporate foundation. He is wheeled out globally to collect the money and he is content doing that. The ANC has effectively sidelined him but they keep him as a figurehead for the sake of appearance.”