The Chequered Past: Mandela’s skeletons in the closet


“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.”

The above words by Nelson Mandela’s late first wife Evelyn Mase shocked me out of my skin.

How can she possibly call Madiba an adulterer? How dare she say that of the soft spoken, seemingly caring African icon, who was prepared to give up his life for the freedom of South Africans?

If he was such a caring man, how then can she allege that he neglected his children, how can a darling of the world and a respected statesman like Mandela leave his own flesh and blood?

A search for answers to these questions led to some startling revelations.

Nelson Mandela was 26 when he married 23-year-old Evelyn Mase in Johannesburg in 1944 after the two met through Mase’s family friends Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

The marriage was not rosy, as Mandela was constantly away from home. His love for politics affected his love for his wife and children.

The couple’s differences in beliefs and Mandela’s growing dedication to politics eventually caused the couple to divorce after 13 years and four children.

(One child, a daughter, died at nine months old.) Thereafter, Evelyn raised their children, alone, and supported them with the proceeds from her grocery store!

It is good that a person is dedicated to the cause of his country but can one do this at the expense of his family?

Mandela’s oldest surviving child is Dr Makaziwe Mandela, known as Maki, his daughter from the troubled first marriage to nurse Evelyn Mase.

Although she claims she is now at peace with her father, she says that she struggled for years with feelings of anger and abandonment and that her older brothers Thembi (who died in a car crash in 1969) and Makgatho (who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005) felt very much the same.

In her first major newspaper interview, Maki says: “As a child, before my father went to prison, I yearned to have both my parents in my life, but it was my mother who brought me up. I had a father who had been there but not really there. 

He was not available to us.

“I used to talk to my brothers about it and they would tell me, ‘Don’t look for your father. He’s given his life to politics. He lives and breathes politics …’

“When he came out of jail, he was just swallowed by the world and by South Africa.

“I still think that after he was released, he should have created some space for the family, for his children. We were ignored, or at least not acknowledged, while he was preoccupied with politics.

“He’s open and extrovert to the world, but awkward in his intimate personal relationships with his own family.” In a report filed during their divorce in 1957, Mase exclusively claimed that Mandela repeatedly assaulted her and even threatened to kill her with an axe unless she left their home in Soweto. 

Mandela disputed her claims and they were never tested in a court of law.

These allegations bring out Mandela’s flip side that is rarely talked about.

It is perhaps no surprise then that to his close family, the cuddly, charismatic image built around him is frequently at odds with the introspective, emotionally aloof and patriarchal man they know.

Madiba’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 divorced 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.

One of those is 65-year-old Onicca Nyembezi Mothoa; from Soshanguve North, whose countless attempts to meet with her “father” have been unsuccessful.

Mothoa, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Mandela travelled to Qunu last September but was turned away by police at the Mandela residence’s gates.

“They manhandled me and told me they can’t let me into the premises. This is the most painful thing to be denied the opportunity to meet your father,” she said

Her attempts to meet him in hospital earlier this year were also futile, she claims the guards at the gate had told her: “We can see you look like him, but there is nothing we can do.  

We have been instructed not to let anyone into the hospital premises except the family.”

The Star reported in 2011 that Mothoa’s grandparents had forced their daughter to go into hiding after she told them she had a child by Mandela.

Her mother’s family was allegedly paralysed by fear at the thought of being associated with Mandela, who had become a thorn in the side of the apartheid regime. 

In the end, Mothoa’s mother lost contact with Mandela.

 It, therefore, comes as a surprise why Mandela a darling of the world has such a chequered background that nobody wants to talk about. 

His children with Mase died with bitterness because he was never there for them, Mothoa is being denied an opportunity to meet him; who knows she may rightfully be his child.

December 2013
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