Love in a time of struggle: The women in Nelson Mandela's life

An alleged adulterer married three times, the South African liberation icon'€™s private life was complicated

Former South African President Nelson Mandela (Centre) flanked by his former wife Winnie Mandela (Right) and current wife Graca Machel (Left) at the ANC Madiba 90th Birthday Celebrations on August 2, 2008 at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane, South Africa
Michelly Rall/WireImage/Getty Images

“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."

His life story suggests that his earliest experience of matters of the heart were decidedly awkward – in fact it was to escape an arranged marriage that the 22-year-old Mandela fled Mqhekezweni, his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape, to work as a security guard on the mines in Johannesburg.

As a penniless boarder in South Africa’s biggest city, he also wasn’t successful in love. He rented a back room with no bathroom facilities from a family in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg. Mandela fell in love with one of the landlord’s five daughters, Didi Xhoma, but throughout the year he lived there, he didn’t have the courage to ask the girl on a date.

He then had a brief romance with Ellen Nkabinde, an old school friend he knew from Healdtown Comprehensive School in the Eastern Cape, who had been teaching at one of the schools in Alexandra. Their love affair was short-lived and ended when Ellen moved away.

Mandela’s rapid metamorphosis from country bumpkin to suave lawyer, rising political star and man-about-town was almost inevitable given his new surroundings and influences. His coming of age coincided with the emergence of a new urban black political culture in South Africa, an age of self-discovery and social liberation even amid the strictures of segregation and apartheid.


Mandela and first wife Evelyn, left, in the bridal party at the wedding of Walter Sisulu and his wife Albertina
Maxppp /Landov

Mandela was a young man at the dawning of the jazz age in Sophiatown, the neighborhood near Johannesburg that hosted a kind of South African Harlem Renaissance before the apartheid regime tore it down. Still, its seeds of transgression of conservative norms in music, literature and politics would flower in the decades that followed.

Apartheid began in 1948, the policy of the newly elected National Party chosen by white voters on a promise to intensify segregation and violently suppress black political expression. But even as that put the minority regime on a collision course with the black majority, it was a time of social and political ferment and possibility in which the tall, handsome, educated Thembu princeling discovered his romantic self.

In 1944 he had met his first wife, Evelyn Mase, a cousin of African National Congress stalwart Walter Sisulu, at the Sisulus’ home. Walter Sisulu, who died in 2003, had been a political mentor to the young Mandela, and served alongside him throughout his political career, including 26 years in prison. His wife, Albertina Sisulu, was a leader of the movement that re-emerged while her husband was in prison.

Mandela described Mase as “a quiet, pretty girl from the countryside who did not seem overawed by the coming and goings at the Sisulus.” She was training as a nurse with Albertina at the Johannesburg non-European General Hospital. The couple married in 1944 at the Native Commissioners Court, after which they lived in Soweto and had four children before their divorce 14 years later, in 1958.

The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man.

Evelyn Mase

Mandela's first wife

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.


Lillian Ngoyi

Amid the breakup of his marriage to Evelyn and after, Mandela was romantically linked to some powerful women in the ANC. Among others – according to Mandela biographer David James Smith and others who have written on his life – they are said to have included Lillian Ngoyi, the formidable President of the ANC Women’s League who led a famous women’s march on the headquarters of the apartheid regime in 1956.

But those women, too, were sidelined when he chose to marry Winnie Madikizela – a beautiful doe-eyed social worker 18 years his junior. They married in 1958, three months after his divorce from Evelyn, and while Mandela was in the dock along with much of his movement’s leadership in a treason trial that lasted more than four years (and resulted in acquittal for all the accused). 

Although Mandela has always been attracted to intelligent, spirited, powerful women, his relationships with Evelyn and Winnie betrayed a certain patriarchal conventionality in gender expectations. Still, circumstances propelled Winnie Mandela to break those stereotypes.

Winnie and Nelson Mandela c. 1950s
Media24 Archives/Getty Images

Back then black marriages had traditionally been in community of property, which reduced the woman to a minor, unable to make any decision without her husband’s signed permission. Winnie was one of first black women in South Africa to have a prenuptial agreement, which allowed her to do business without her husband’s permission. Although their life together was brief with precious little time for domestic bliss as Mandela found himself leading his movement in an escalating confrontation with the apartheid regime that would take a heavy toll on its activists, Winnie gave birth to two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, before her husband began his life as a fugitive from the regime’s security forces in 1960.

The ANC was banned following the Sharpeville massacre in March of 1960, and in December 1961, a campaign of sabotage inaugurated its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, with Mandela as its commander in chief. Her husband’s flight and subsequent incarceration left the 24-year-old Winnie to fend for herself, her own activism leading the regime to send her into internal exile in the isolated rural hamlet of Brandfort. The strain of her political responsibilities and personal burdens during her husband’s three-decade incarceration took their toll on the marriage despite the love letters and prison visits. Besides the alleged affairs on her part, the murder of two activists by members of the personal goon squad she called the Mandela United Football Team antagonized the Soweto community and put her at odds with much of the ANC leadership in Johannesburg in the years immediately preceding her husband’s release.

Six years after his release they divorced, much to the shock of many South Africans who’d expected them to live happily ever after, although less so to ANC insiders.


Mandela and Graca Machel in 2004
Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Less than two years later, Mandela married Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel, killed in a 1986 plane crash. Graca’s poised personality is very different from the volatile and fiery Winnie, and she was hailed by Mandela’s friends as having had a significant effect on her husband.

At their wedding on July 18, 1998 – Mandela’s 80th birthday –  Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu joked that Machel had made ‘a decent man’ of Mandela.  She even managed to forge a close friendship with Winnie and when she spoke about Mandela to her new friend, she’d refer to him as “our husband.” They were both at his bedside when he died at his Houghton, Johannesburg home on Dec. 5 at the age of 95.

So who has Mandela left behind? What we know for sure is that Mandela fathered six children, had 17 grandchildren and many great grandchildren. But in a bizarre twist, two women – one has since died – have also claimed to be his daughters from affairs with other women in the course of his marriage to Winnie. Onicca Nyembezi Mothoa, who bears a strong resemblance to Mandela, demanded to see him before he died, but the Mandela family denied her access to him.

There seemed, also, to be an element of kiss-and-tell in the memoir of anti-apartheid activist Amina Cachalia, When Hope and History Rhyme – which was published this year, shortly after her death at the age of 82. She wrote that she and Mandela had shared “romantic interludes” after his release from prison.

No Don Juan, then, but a man whose private life was a full and complex story – one in which the most common trait among the various women characters was that they were strong political activists and leaders independently of their association with him.

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