“I was hardly a Don Juan,” wrote Nelson Mandela in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom. “Awkward and hesitant around girls, I did not know or understand the romantic games that others seem to play effortlessly.” While this bashful account may have been true of the younger Mandela – a country boy making his way in a big city whose ways were not yet familiar to him – by all accounts he grew to become a legendary charmer and shameless flirt.
The fact that two women came to mourn the man one of them referred to as “our husband,” while a third wife went to her grave angry at his failures as a spouse – and others claim romantic entanglements along the way – may speak to a love life that underscored Mandela’s oft-quoted line that "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
Their first son, named Madiba Thembekile, was born in 1945 and affectionately known as Thembi. Even though Mandela hadn’t built much material wealth and felt that he had little to leave him, he was immensely proud of having produced an heir. “…I had perpetuated the Mandela name and the Madiba clan, which is one of the basic responsibilities of a Xhosa male,” he wrote in his memoir. Thembi was a teenager when Mandela last saw him, just before his arrest in 1962 – the young man died in a car crash on 13 July 1969, and Mandela’s jailers would not allow him to attend his son’s funeral.
Mandela’s second child, Makaziwe (a girl) was born sickly and he and Evelyn took turns most nights to look after her. She died at just nine-months-old, after which they had another son, Makgatho, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become an attorney. He was widowed with four sons, and his death in January 2005, due to Aids, came as a shock to the nation. The Mandelas also had another daughter, Makaziwe, named in memory of and to honor her dead sister, according to Xhosa tradition.
Cracks appeared in the Mandela marriage as a result of the overwhelming demands of his political activism, which relegated his family commitments to a backseat. But he was also alleged to have been seeing other women, and Evelyn finally walked out. She cleaned out the house, even taking the curtains hanging on the windows. Still, Mandela described her in his memoir as “a very good woman, charming, strong and faithful, and a fine mother. I never lost my respect and admiration for her.”
Evelyn, for her part, remained bitter many years after the breakdown of her marriage. After Mandela’s release from prison, the fact that some South Africans were likening his spirit of forgiveness to that of Jesus Christ prompted an exasperated response from his ex: “How can a man who committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ?” Evelyn told a reporter in 1994. “The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man.” Still, when Evelyn (who had remarried in 1998) died in April 2004, Mandela attended her funeral, along with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, and third wife, Graca Machel.