By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

When I was reviewing the biographies of reformers and revolutionaries of 20th century for my book Prophets of Violence and Peace , I was struck by their life long struggles of keeping a balance between their family and political lives. In that struggle some reformers and revolutionaries were more successful than others. One of the revolutionaries who was quite open about his feelings and quite candid in discussing the dynamics of conflicts between political and family lives in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom was Nelson Mandela. In this essay I will share some of the highlights of those struggles.

      As a student of human psychology, I was always curious how a revolutionary and a guerrilla warrior who believes in armed struggle remains a caring son, affectionate husband and a loving father and how does a leader of Mandela’s stature balance between political violence and family love especially when different roles, passions, dreams and ideals come in conflict.

Over the years I have come to the realization that the greater the personalities of creative people, the greater are their conflicts and studying those conflicts offer us greater insights in human condition.

The topic of marriage has been an important issue of all the political leaders whether reformers, revolutionaries or guerrilla warriors. Their choices of partners made a significant impact on their lives socially as well as politically. Some chose their own spouses while others settled for arranged marriages.

When Mandela was a young man he was shocked to find out that Regent, who had become his guardian after his father’s death, had arranged marriages for his biological son Justice as well as Mandela, his adopted son. Mandela respected Regent from the bottom of his heart and never questioned his sincerity and integrity, but he also knew that in the matters of his heart he had to decide for himself. Mandela found himself in a great conflict. If he married someone he did not love he would be miserable for the rest of his life and if he refused then Regent would be brokenhearted. Mandela and Justice discussed the issue at length and finally decided to run away from home and go to Johannesburg to live and work. The only realistic solution they could find together was escape,

Running away from the security of home and entering the wild and confusing world of the metropolitan Johannesburg was a major turning point in Mandela’s life. In the beginning he was lost but then he made some wonderful friends like Walter Sisulu who not only helped him professionally but also politically.

If Mandela had accepted Regent’s suggestion and settled for the arranged marriage, his life would have been completely different and who knows whether South Africa would have seen a revolutionary in the personality of Nelson Mandela. Going to Johannesburg was one of the major steps in Mandela’s life and that step was related to his marriage, rather lack of it.

After Mandela settled in Johannesburg and got involved in political activities, he started attending regular meetings in Sisulu’s house. In one of those meetings he met Evelyn Mase, a nurse in training who was a charming young woman. They found each other fascinating and attractive, fell in love and decided to get married and have a family.

      As Mandela’s political involvements grew so did his family responsibilities. Whenever he was in conflict he chose the political movement over his family. He was lucky to have an understanding wife who was sympathetic to his political commitments but his son was small and missed his father very much. It is quite interesting to note that Mandela, being a loving husband and father, also missed spending time with his dedicated wife and playing with his beautiful son Madiba Thembekile. Mandela shared his dilemma in these words, “ I enjoyed domesticity, even though I had little time for it. I delighted in playing with Thembi, bathing him and feeding him, and putting him to bed with a little story. In fact, I love playing with children and chatting with them; it has always been one of the things that make me feel most at peace. I enjoyed relaxing at home, reading quietly, taking in the sweet savory smells emanating from pots boiling in the kitchen. But I was rarely at home to enjoy those things.” (Ref 1 p 105)

      For many political activists, revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors, it is a gradual realization that they are married to the cause. Anton Lembedi had expressed that dilemma to Albertina, Walter’s wife, in their wedding ceremony in these words, “ Albertina, you have married a married man. Walter married politics long before he met you.” (Ref 1 p 101)

      While political activists deal with their conflicts, their families, including their parents, siblings, spouses and children, also have to face those unique dilemmas. Being related to political activists and revolutionaries, they are asked to offer sacrifices. Some relatives offer them gladly and gracefully while others do it reluctantly and resentfully. Some revolutionaries have to break all ties with their families and dedicate their lives to revolution. Some political activists try their best to get their families involved in the movement so that they understand the dynamics of political struggle and are able to offer support when needed.

The more time Mandela spent with his comrades the more he realized that “A man involved in the struggle was a man without a home life” (Ref 1 p 119). Mandela’s wife kept on bringing to his attention that his son missed spending time and playing with him. He was becoming a stranger to his own son. He wrote, “One day my wife informed me that my older son, Thembi, then five, had asked her, “Where does Daddy live?” (Ref 1 p 119) Mandela wanted to spend more time with his family but it was impossible because of his social involvements and political commitments. For him his whole nation had become his family so his nuclear family was being sacrificed on the altar of revolution.

Finally a stage came in Mandela’s life when he became a guerrilla warrior, went underground and embraced violence as a part of an armed struggle against apartheid. While revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors get mentally prepared to embrace violence to create revolution they also have to deal with their guilt of abandoning their families and risking their lives. Mandela not only had a wife and small children but also an elderly mother who lived in her small village. Mandela asked her many times to come and live with his nuclear family but she declined his offer, as she loved the country lifestyle. He found himself in conflict. He wrote, “ I wondered---not for the first time---whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family in order to fight for the welfare of others.” (Ref 1 p 181)

      Some revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors convince themselves that the national interests are more important than family obligations. For them political is more significant than personal. But then there are others who consider both equally important. Mandela shared his philosophy in these words, “ I do not mean to suggest that the freedom struggle is of a higher moral order than taking care of one’s family. It is not: they are merely different.” (Ref 1 p186)

      But when revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors take a step towards violent armed struggle they have to face new family challenges. When Mandela was arrested in December 1956 by police for treason, he had to face his confused children. He stated, “ It is not pleasant to be arrested in front of one’s children, even though one knows that what one is doing is right. But children do not comprehend the complexity of the situation: they simply see their father being taken away by the white authorities without an explanation.” (Ref 1 p 199)

      As Mandela’s involvement with politics intensified, his relationship with his wife Evelyn deteriorated. Their differences increased and they grew apart. Evelyn found refuge in religion. Mandela wanted outer change, Evelyn insisted on inner change. Mandela wanted a social transformation, Evelyn insisted on a spiritual transformation. Mandela relied on politics, Evelyn on religion. Mandela embraced violence Evelyn embraced God. They could not live happily together, Mandela believed she was too passive, she believed he was too aggressive. He wrote that she “ began to proselytize me as well, urging me to convert my commitment to the struggle to a commitment to God…From what I could discern, her faith taught passivity and submissiveness in the face of oppression, something I could not accept.” (Ref 1 p 206) Mandela and Evelyn also faced differences as parents. Those differences turned into conflicts, conflicts into tension, tension into resentment and finally war. Mandela confessed, “ We also waged a battle for the minds and hearts of the children. She wanted them to be religious, and I thought they should be political.” (Ref 1 p 207)

      In the marriage there was a battle of two ‘shoulds’. They could not respect each other’s opinion and resolve conflicts. Their love got adulterated with politics and religion and ended in divorce. Finally one day when Mandela came out of jail, he found himself a single lonely man. He wrote, “ …when I came out of prison, I found that she had moved out and taken the children.” (Ref 1 p 208)

      Does a revolutionary and a guerrilla warrior react differently to divorce than an ordinary person? Does political involvement act as a buffer to emotional pain? In Mandela’s case, his pain was quite intense. He wrote, “ I returned to an empty, silent house. She had even removed the curtains, and for some reason, I found this small detail shattering.” (Ref 1 p 208)

      Mandela was not only ‘shattered’ because of the separation from his beloved wife who had offered him support for all those years of struggle but also to see his children endure the pain of parental separation and divorce. To cope with the pain of being isolated from his father Thembi got extra attached to his clothes. Mandela wrote, “ Following the breakup Thembi would frequently wear my clothes, even though they were far too large for him, they gave him some kind of attachment to his too-often-distant father.” (Ref 1 p 209)

      Over a period of time revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors recover from the break up of their intimate relationships and go on with their lives. Some decide to remain celibate; some become promiscuous while others adopt a serially monogamous lifestyle,

      After Mandela recovered from divorce from Evelyn, he met another young charming lady Winnie and fell in love, After a short passionate courtship they got married. Evelyn was a nurse Winnie was a social worker. Evelyn was religious, Winnie was political. When Winnie told his father about her relationship with Nelson Mandela, he smiled and said, “But you are marrying a jailbird.” (Ref 1 p 21 6)

      The question arises that after his painful experience with Evelyn, why did Mandela chose to marry again. It seems as if he still hoped he could balance his political and romantic life if he found the right person. But in some mysterious way he was relying on Winnie, hoping that she would be more sympathetic and understanding to his political commitments and revolutionary involvements. He was quite aware of the dilemmas as he wrote, “The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison.” (Ref 1 p 217) Mandela was optimistic Winnie would be able to accept that challenge and offer sacrifices.

      Emotionally speaking, for Mandela, the support of his colleagues, friends and other revolutionaries was not enough. He wanted added support from his spouse and soul mate that he found in Winnie. Their love for each other was a source of inspiration for him. He confessed, “ My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.” (Ref 1 p 217)

      But when African government made new laws to segregate Blacks based on their tribal affiliations Winnie found herself in conflict between her father and husband. Both were politically active but belonged to opposite camps. It was very hard for Winnie to cope with such a conflict between two men she loved dearly. Finally she had to make a choice. She followed her conscience and joined her husband rather than her father. Mandela stated, “This was terribly difficult for Winnie: her father and her husband were on opposite sides of the same issue. She loved her father, but she rejected his politics.” (Ref 1 p 231)

      Political activists, revolutionaries and guerrilla warriors have to cope with divided loyalties and such conflicts have the potential to break hearts and families.

      Although Mandela was happy Winnie was a political person, yet as her involvement increased in politics he became nervous. He did not want her to lose her job, go to jail and suffer. He confessed, “ I felt responsibility both as a husband and as a leader of the struggle…I myself, had mixed emotions, for the concerns of a husband and a leader do not always coincide.” (Ref 1 p 221)

      It was never easy for Mandela, like other revolutionaries and guerilla warriors to balance his political, romantic and family lives.

            After Mandela came out of jail he had to face new conflicts with Winnie, conflicts that they could not resolve as a couple. Finally Mandela decided to dissolve the marriage. It is ironic and sad that Mandela, an experienced and wise political activist, revolutionary and guerrilla warrior, who successfully resolved political conflicts with White South African Government and Black tribal leaders, he could not resolve his romantic conflicts. Mandela’s version of why the relationship ended is expressed in these words, “ 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.” (Ref  p 600)

            Mandela’s only regret in life was that he did not have enough time to spend with his family. He shared his feelings at his daughter Zindzi’s wedding, “ When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room for family.” (Ref  p 600)

Zindzi in response to his father’s confession stated that she had realized that during the revolution her father had ‘become the father of the nation.” (Ref p 600)

Balancing the roles of a father of a family and the father of a nation has never been easy. Balancing the political and family responsibilities is one of the hardest things to do in life. Mandela stated, “ 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 for too little of.” (Ref p 601)

Mandela’s life story highlights the dilemmas and dreams of a revolutionary

and a profile of a successful guerrilla warrior. It shows his journey from developing political consciousness to bringing profound political changes in his community and country. Mandela became a role model for millions of people all over the world. His sacrifices transformed him from a terrorist to a peacemaker. Spending more than a quarter of a century in jail for his ideals and commitments made him a hero. The whole world acknowledged his contributions by offering him a Nobel Peace Prize, a prize that he was astonished to receive,

      It is interesting to note that Mandela’s struggle, unlike other guerrilla

warriors and revolutionaries in the world, ended in democratic elections and handing over political power to the masses and the majority.

      It is also sad to note that the successful political mediator was not as successful with his wives as he was with his political enemies. He was more successful as a revolutionary than a husband, more resolved as a guerrilla warrior than a father, more satisfied as a political activist than a grandfather.

      But Mandela who had the personality of a marathon runner, never gave up, neither in politics nor in romance. So on his 80th birthday, he decided to marry the third time. He chose Graca Machel to be his life partner. Graca was the fifty-five years old widow of Samora Machel, the founding President of Mozambique, who was assassinated in a plane crash because of the conspiracy involving agents between Mozambique, South Africa and Malawi. Mandela’s third marriage is one more attempt to balance his marital, family and political lives, a balance that has remained precarious all his life.



1.Mandela Nelson… The Struggle Is My life

Pathfinder New York 1990

2. Mandela Nelson …Long Walk To Freedom

Little, Brown and Company

Toronto 1995