Comment and Analysis

Madiba the flawed father, husband and man: 'I'm still learning'

Colleen Lowe Morna

What would Nelson Mandela say if he knew of the family feud raging outside his hospital room?

Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958. They had two children together. (Supplied)

 He would probably rue the fact that he has not bequeathed his family the peace he gave South Africa. He would remind us, as he has repeatedly, that he is no saint. As we reflect on his legacy, he would ask us to learn from his greatness and from his human failings.

Only one interview is brutally honest about his fallibility. After his release from prison in 1994, Mandela's first wife, Evelyn Mase, said: "How can a man who committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man."

Commentators have been at pains not to visit the sins of the children on the father. Brand specialists say the Mandela name is intact, no matter what. Sociologists and psychologists remind us of the effect of the "absent father" – Mandela's 27 years in jail. These interpretations fail to go beneath the surface.

The Mandelas are not the only ­big-name political family in South Africa. Walter Sisulu's children also lacked a father figure for most of their formative years. They did, ­however, have a strong mother ­figure, Albertina Sisulu, who held the family together and reunited with her husband in one of the greatest love stories of this century.

Nelson Mandela's wandering eye is not one of his exemplary legacies. He married three times. After divorcing Evelyn, he married Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a strong but controversial leader whom he would divorce after his release from prison on grounds of alleged infidelity. But, in another subplot, two women – one dead, one alive – have claimed to be his children through liaisons during his marriage to Winnie.

Onicca Nyembezi Mothoa recently surfaced, demanding to meet her father before he dies. Strongly resembling Mandela, she has been shut out by the family, despite her plausible story of the relationship her mother had with Mandela – and her willingness to take a DNA test. In a country where single mothers raise 40% of our children, this does little to assist campaigns for responsible fatherhood.

Old-school patriarch
If we are to learn from Mandela, we need to acknowledge that his gender legacy is chequered. As activists, we quote often from Mandela's opening of Parliament in 1994: "Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression."

We recognise the strides Mandela made from old-school patriarch to a modern husband in his third ­marriage, to Graça Machel, widow of late Mozambican president Samora Machel.

Yet the same Mandela bequeathed his legacy to his grandson Mandla after his two sons died, bypassing his oldest daughter, Makaziwe. It is clear that, although he got the formal education Mandela demanded of him, the chief has few of his grand­father's personal qualities.

A gender-aware critique of Mandela's legacy needs to question whether this legacy would not have been safer in the hands of an older daughter than in those of an ill-prepared, younger grandson.

As founding chief executive of the Commission on Gender Equality and with commissioners and staff, I handed over the commission's first report to Mandela, then our president, at the Union Buildings in 1997. As he walked into the room, he expressed pleasure at being among so many beautiful women. One of my younger staff members had the courage to say: "Mr President, that is not what this commission is about!" He paused, looked around, and responded: "You are so right! I am still learning!"

This is the Mandela I will remember: the Mandela willing to admit error, willing to have the sins of the children visited upon the father, big enough never to want to be a saint.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the chief executive of Gender Links. This ­article is part of Gender Links's commentary service that offers fresh views on everyday news

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