Nelson Mandela life story: Not just father of the nation

Madiba's political struggles made family life unusually difficult for him. Yet he leaves behind a large extended family with whom he remained on remarkably warm terms

For most South Africans, Nelson Mandela is the father of their nation - many even called him "Tata", a Xhosa word for father. It was sometimes forgotten that he was also a real father of six, grandfather of 18, great-grandfather of eight, and husband to three women.

He earned a place in history alongside the likes of another father of a nation, Mahatma Gandhi. But there was a fundamental difference between these beloved men. Persuasive arguments paint Gandhi as a dismal family man. By all accounts, Mandela was a strong and loving family man. Even so, Mandela and his family paid dearly in the currency of sacrifice and pain for his commitment to his country's freedom.

Mandela himself offered a glimpse into his personal war. "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," he said in April 1992, announcing his separation from Winnie Madikizela. It was the end of his second marriage.

In 1944, Nelson Mandela married Evelyn Mase. Their four children were: Makaziwe (1947), who died as a baby; another daughter, also Makaziwe (1954); and sons Thembekile (1946) and Makgatho (1951).

They divorced in 1958. "I could not give up my life in the struggle," Mandela explained in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "and she (Evelyn) could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and her family... I never lost my admiration for her, but in the end we could not make our marriage work."

When Evelyn died in 2004, Mandela stood at her graveside with his third wife, Graca Machel. Winnie also attended the funeral.

Mandela married Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela in 1958. They had two daughters, Zenani (1959) and Zindzi (1960). Winnie bore the harshness of life as a Mandela, enduring banishment, detention, unrelenting harassment and her husband's 27-year imprisonment.

From prison, Mandela wrote some of the greatest love letters of all time to Winnie. "I dust it (your photo) carefully every morning - I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so," he wrote in April 1976.

And this, in October 1976: "Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable."

A June 1977 letter expresses some of the regret: "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."

For many South Africans, it was the end of a fairytale love story when their separation was made public in 1992. Amid reports of adultery and violence, Winnie was condemned. Some of those close to her talk of how she was "scarred" during her lonely years of oppression and how her sacrifices were largely ignored.

Mandela did not join the litany of vilification. "I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her - from the moment I first met her," he said when the separation was announced.

However, "tensions" had arisen and they had mutually agreed on a separation. "Comrade Nomzamo has and can continue to rely on my unstinting support during these trying moments in her life."

The hurt in his words was clear: "Perhaps I was blinded to certain things because of the pain I felt for not being able to fulfil 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."

Unstable personal lives seemed freedom fighters' destiny, he said. "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."

The couple divorced in 1996.

On his 80th birthday in 1998, Mandela married Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel. Jessie Duarte, Mandela's assistant after 1990, has described their relationship like this: "I don't know if you have ever seen them together, but there is no one else around in the same room as the two of them when they're together."

Apart from the break-up of two marriages, Mandela endured other private sorrows: not just the death in infancy of his first daughter but also, perhaps more painfully, the lost of his first-born son, Thembekile, who died in a car accident in 1969. Mandela, who was in prison, was denied permission to attend his son's funeral. Instead of being able to comfort and draw comfort from his family, he sat alone in his Robben Island cell. "They gave him a telegram, and he went back to his cell, and he sat there by himself," Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography, related. Finally, "Walter (Sisulu) went in there, and - they just sat silently there. I think they held hands."

Then there was the pain of being taken to prison, leaving behind Winnie and their little girls. Zindzi was barely two years old. "I grew up always wanting my father to come back home," she said in an interview with Al Jazeera in July 2008. She was 15 when she met "this person who was very mythical to me" and saw her Tata, behind prison glass, again.

In his autobiography, Mandela described her shyness during her first visit: "I am sure it was not easy for her finally to see a father she had never really known, a father who could love her only from a distance, who seemed to belong not to her but to the people."

When he finally walked out of prison in February 1990, thousands waited to greet him, and Zindzi realised "that as much as I wanted my father to come back home to me, he was coming back to the nation".

"The anger came back," she said. "I thought - don't these people realise that this man has a family?" That was her constant "internal conflict". But: "You learn - to shift emotional gear, to move to another emotional space and to function in a different type of reality altogether. And then you're grateful for those moments you do spend with him."

The family did spend many more moments with Mandela after he retired. Indeed, announcing his retirement in 2004, he pleaded for the space to "spend time, while I am still in good health, with my family, my friends and also with myself".

Those retirement years were filled with the presence of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As Zindzi described it, his interactions with his grandchildren were "real" - they would perhaps ask him to go outside or scold him for not adding salt to the meat - and kept him "grounded". She added: "My father is a very loving person - but he still finds it hard to be physical because he had no physical contact for so many years."

Retirement was also filled with a demanding schedule, including embarking on peace missions and being visited by ANC members seeking his counsel.

He was, after all, still a leader, and not just a political leader. On the January 2005 afternoon of his son Makgatho's death, he called a press conference. "I announce that my son has died of AIDS," he said, making the first serious dents in the secrecy and stigma that fuelled the spread of the disease in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS numbers in the world.

This courage flows through generations. At Makgatho's funeral at the family home in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape, his son, Mandla (Nelson's grandson), announced that his mother, Zondi, had also died of AIDS-related causes in 2003.

In 2007, Mandla stepped into the shoes that could have been his grandfather's in a different world.

Mandela's father had been stripped of his chieftainship shortly after Mandela's birth in 1918 for defying a magistrate's order to appear in court. The chieftainship was bestowed on the royal Madiba clan again in 2007; Mandla became chief.

Mandla has described how Mandela, his "pillar of strength", persuaded him to return to university to complete his political science studies. Those close to the chief confirm that he was "very fond" of his grandfather and that the two maintained strong ties.

Mandla's chieftaincy represents continuity, in one sense, for the Mandela family. But Zindzi, in her interview, offered thoughts on how the family would continue her father's legacy. "It's very important for us to try to help implement his vision for South Africa, for South African children, for the youth in general, for the world," she said.

"He has sacrificed so much to make the world a better place, to make South Africa a better place. We are his children, we are all part of his experience, we are all enjoying what we are enjoying now because of his contribution." Her words resonate not only with his family, but also across the world he inspired and across his nation, for whom Nelson Mandela will always remain Tata.

The author is a writer and editor and lives in the Eastern Cape, in South Africa.

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