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Amina Cachalia: The woman who said 'no' to Mandela

Charles Leonard

Before he got married to Graça Machel on his 80th birthday Nelson Mandela proposed to a fellow struggle stalwart and an old friend, Amina Cachalia.

Amina Cachalia. (Supplied)

But she turned him down.

Cachalia, who died suddenly on January 31 this year aged 82, deals rather extensively with her close, decades-long relationship with Mandela in her recently published autobiography, When Hope and History Rhyme, but surprisingly did not include Madiba's marriage proposal.

Her son, Ghaleb Cachalia, who helped with the writing of the book, told the Mail & Guardian how his mother called him and his sister, Coco Cachalia, and said "that Madiba had asked her to marry him". It was after their father Yusuf's death in May 1995.

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By that time Mandela was already long separated from his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whom he divorced in March 1996.

"She doesn't talk about it in the book," said Ghaleb. "I don't know why she didn't want to say it because she called us and she said to both of us [Ghaleb and Coco], 'He asked me to marry him – and I don't want to marry him'."

Ghaleb said her reasons were that "I'm my own person and that I had just recently lost my husband whom I had enormous regard for".

Also, she said that she wanted to be her "own person", and concentrate "on my husband's legacy, on my children, my grandchildren and myself".

Constant feature
A significant part of When Hope and History Rhyme, which was published earlier this month, deals with Amina's relationship with Madiba, including speculation that he was going to marry Cachalia.

"We always knew that Nelson had a very great liking for my mother. Of that there was absolutely no doubt," Coco told the M&G in a recent interview.

"All his interactions with her, the amount of time he spent in our household; even prior to my father's death, Nelson was a constant feature in our home.

"And Nelson was a constant feature in our home because of Amina, because he had a very strong affection and bond with her. He had a strong political connection to my father but he had a much stronger personal connection to my mother."

In earlier written drafts of the book, the references initially to Mandela were very cryptic, according to Ghaleb. "I'd say, Ma, if you want to write this book you can't drop a little cryptic thing here … people are going to ask questions, they'd want to know, you've got to either say or cut it out, it's a choice you make. I would advise you not to cut it out because you're telling everything in this book so you must talk about it'.

"She said, 'No, it is very difficult and I don't know if I want to do it. So I said, think about it. Then I said, 'Write about it as if it is not for publication and then we can jointly sit and see from there what we need to weave into the publication', which is what we did."

So the final version of the book, which she finished in September last year, had a lot more about her relationship with Madiba, except his marriage proposal.

Said Ghaleb: "She didn't put that in the book – don't ask me why."


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