Mandela walked the long road to freedom with women

Nelson Mandela and Winnie on his release. (Reuters)

Nelson Mandela and Winnie on his release. (Reuters)

COMMENT

During his lifetime, Nelson Mandela bestrode the world like a colossus, with a mission to spread a message of peace, equality of mankind, freedom, democracy, reconciliation and forgiveness. He showed all mankind that the dream is attainable even though he knew that he would not have much time to enjoy the fruits of his struggle for a united, nonracial, democratic and prosperous South Africa because he had reached the sunset of his life in his long walk to freedom.

In his battles against the brutality of the apartheid system, Mandela nurtured powerful relationships with people of all races, including women who shared in his vision. Mandela valued women as equal partners in the struggle against apartheid. It is a paradox that a man who devoted his life for reconcilation of the racially diversified people of South Africa could not find reconciliation with his first wife.

Mandela reveals in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that he did everything to preserve his partnership with Evelyn but her devotion to religion became incompatible with Mandela’s political activism. He sums up the unfortunate collapse of the marriage by saying: “I could not give up my life in the struggle and she could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and family. I never lost my respect and admiration for her but in the end we would not make our marriage work.” Even though their marriage ended, Mandela recognised and respected his wife as an important partner in his life.

After his divorce from Evelyn, Mandela found in Nomzamo Winfred Madikizela a partner who shared his passion for the struggle to liberate South Africa from the shackles of apartheid rule. She was more than a wife to Mandela – she became an embodiment of Mandela across the townships and villages resisting the oppression and exploitation of the apartheid system.

When the white minority regime silenced Mandela by locking him in jail for 27 years, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became his voice for the people of South Africa. She became so much of a threat to the apartheid regime that she was banished to the small town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she continued to provide social work and political support to the local community.

Madikizela-Mandela suffered torture, detention and physical abuse by the agents of the white minority regime. But probably the most painful form of abuse was when the media portrayed her as an immoral woman who was not worthy of being married to Mandela. In spite of this negative portrayal, she continued to be a reliable partner to Mandela in pursuit of freedom and justice. Above all, she symbolised the daily struggles of black women in the townships and villages.

Mandela affirms his powerful partnership with Madikizela-Mandela by saying: “The wife of a freedom fighter is often like that of a widow, even when her husband is not in prison. Though I was on trial for treason, Winnie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and second chance in life. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.”

Mandela cherished and appreciated his powerful relationship with Helen Suzman, the sole member of the liberal Progressive Federal Party in the then whites-only Parliament. Suzman visited Mandela during his incarceration and she repeatedly pleaded with the apartheid regime to improve the conditions of political prisoners. Her persistence yielded fruit and more benefits were afforded to political prisoners.

Suzman recognised Mandela as an important player in the struggle for justice and democracy and she called for his release and that of other political prisoners. In recognition of the partnership that Mandela forged with Suzman, he wrote her a letter that contained the following words: “The consistency with which you defended the basic values of freedom and the rule of law over the last three decades has earned you the admiration of many South Africans. A wide gap still exists between the mass democratic movement and your party with regard to the method of attaining those values, but your commitment to a nonracial democracy in a united South Africa has won you many friends in the extra-parliamentary movement.”

Mandela continued to acknowledge the partnership of women in the struggle against apartheid. This was also evidenced by his 1985 letter to Sheena Duncan, head of the Black Sash, a nonviolent resistance organisation founded in 1955, which stated that: “The ideals we cherish, our fondest dreams and fervent hopes may not be realised in our lifetime. But that is beside the point. The knowledge that in your day you did your duty, and lived up to the expectations of your fellow men is in itself a rewarding experience and magnificent achievement.”

Professor Fatima Meer was another South African woman who supported Mandela. She stayed with Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, and went with her to the Transkei to meet relevant people in the life of Mandela to get this biography going. Meer was one of the many women who stood with Mandela in the struggle for a nonracial and democratic South Africa as described in her recently published autobiography.

When Mandela’s age had advanced considerably and his marriage to Madikizela-Mandela had reached a point of no return, he chose to spend the remaining few years of his life by entering into marriage with Graça Machel. She continues to carry the torch of the Mandela legacy of democracy, nonracialism and peace throughout Africa and the world

When Mandela was faced with challenging task of recruiting staff for his new presidential office, he chose a young Afrikaans-speaking woman to become his personal assistant. Though Mandela had every reason to reject an Afrikaner, he chose to affirm and empower Zelda la Grange and today she is one of the key players in advancing his legacy.

The images of La Grange holding the aging Mandela by the hand will remain ingrained in the minds of all South Africans and the world as a symbol of reconciliation and saamwerk (working together) in building the new South Africa.

Throughout his personal and political life, Mandela valued women as equal partners in the struggle for a better life both from an individual point of view and for the good of our nation.

As we join the world in honouring the icon of nonracialism, democracy and national unity, we need to change how we treat women and follow in the steps of Mandela by treating women as equal partners in building a united, nonracial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

  Dr Tutu Faleni is a Democratic Alliance member of the provincial legislature in the North West and a visiting lecturer at the Uganda Technology and Management University in Kampala. These are his own views

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