Love In A Time Of Struggle -- Why The Mandelas’ Marriage Was So Complex

Ever wondered what went into making a marriage work during the time of the liberation struggle? Here’s what we found out.

20/11/2017 15:46 SAST | Updated 22/11/2017 15:37 SAST
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SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 28: Cape Town, South Africa. ANC president Nelson Mandela strolling in the garden of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's home in Bishopscourt, with his wife, Winnie Mandela. (Photo by Media24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

One of the most spoken about aspects of Madiba's personal life is his struggles with love, particularly during the time of apartheid (and his fight for freedom).

We hear of how political activists were rarely stationed in one location, most of them having to flee to other countries to stay alive or out of prison. A number of them got caught and one of the poster boys for dodging authorities and eventually getting caught was Nelson Mandela, along with Walter Sisulu and Oliver Reginald Tambo. These comrades' lives are well documented. What is also very well documented was their love lives.

Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Adelaide and Oliver Reginald (OR) Tambo. We can't help but zoom in on these three poster couples for the impossible feat of marriage in the time of struggle. You have to wonder what the complexities were of making a relationship work during that turbulent political time for South Africa.

To enlighten us, we spoke to a veteran political activist and poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile who worked closely with these individuals and was himself one of the people who tried (and ultimately failed) to keep love alive with his now ex-wife Baleka Mbete (the Speaker of Parliament).

What were the biggest challenges of navigating a relationship back then?

At the height of a particular phase of our struggle, one partner, like Madiba, being incarcerated made that a norm for the relationship. A norm imposed by the enemy. When you do get visits, they were not private. To the extent that your spouse became an idea in your mind, instead of the real physical person that you would have been with. They might be in your absence undergoing certain changes in terms of how they conduct their everyday lives, that you may not be aware of (except through the grapevine). There was no guarantee that you'd see that spouse again. It really was not a picnic.

Would you say that comrades back then were more committed to the struggle than their marriages/families?

I would say part of what is meant when we talk about sacrifice is that we were forced by our own sense of commitment to pay more attention to the demands of the mission than the emotional and psychological demands of your family. In the case of those in exile, like in the case of OR Tambo, he spent much more time travelling around the world organising solidarity for the struggle, than he spent with his family. So those that spoke of him and his family spoke of an idea that was not reality. For instance, his son Dali did not even know him closely. In fact, after he had a stroke, Dali came home with him (in '90 or '91), he told me that it was his first time in his entire life that he had to spend 3 uninterrupted months with his father. Tambo had time for everybody, it seemed, except time for his family.

In my case, my daughter got asked a number of times where I was and her usual response was 'he's at the airport' – meaning I was either leaving or coming back. It's a kind of abnormality that people who have not gone through it might not readily grasp.

Some marriages (like your own to Baleka Mbete and Madiba's to Winnie) fell apart after the liberation of the country. Why is that?

This was especially the case at the beginning of relocating or resettling at home. A lot of couples realised that the moments spent together during the struggle were spent more discussing issues of the struggle than on issues of the family. That meant that a lot of people would realise that they didn't know their spouses as well as they thought they did.

In most cases, you would find out after resettling back home that you and your spouse are actually not compatible. That the struggle that kept you apart is the instrument that kept a semblance of a family together.

What do you understand about relationships now that you are remarried?

When two people get together to form one entity, it always required certain changes because you become somewhat a different person to what you would have been if you were on your own. You have to be yourself and part of that unit too, at the same time.

There are always unstated expectations, even though they are not stated when they are not fulfilled, they are as if they are a betrayal. People have to talk and start by putting everything on the table.

I understand that my partner is not an extension of yourself. Nor are they an ideal in my head. They are a real person who may have tendencies or preferences that may be very different from mine. This is a permanent negotiation.

There's a level of consciousness required to prepare yourself to never take advantage of people you claim to love. You don't own them and they don't need to change themselves to fit the mould you have in your head about what a partner should be like, you need to also make adjustments where necessary.

For more on Nelson Mandela's personal life, watch the 6-part mini-series, Madiba on Discovery Channel – Mondays at 21:00.