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Sisonke Msimang: What Madiba might teach us about male violence

In a country where too few men are able to show genuine respect for their partners, Nelson and Winnie’s prison letters offer a guide that feels more important today than ever before. Their letters are poignant and funny, and they are full of love.

Above all, they provide evidence of the deep respect they felt towards one another in spite of the enormous pressures on their relationship. Although they were written over half a century ago, they serve as a how-to guide for relationships today, demonstrating that the key ingredients for healthy respectful heterosexual relationships do not have an expiry date. Decency, trust and vulnerability will always withstand the test of time.

Their correspondence stands as a beautiful testament to the endurance of their love even as the arc of their relationship provides clear evidence of how much energy went into separating their family and destroying their love.

The apartheid state intervened dramatically to try to split them up. They tortured Winnie, withheld her letters from Nelson, used spies. Had they not been so actively invested in breaking them up, there is no doubt their relationship between Mama Winnie and Tata would have been very different. Like millions of black people across the country during apartheid they fought hard to stay together and were stymied in the end.

While we are often asked to think about Nelson Mandela as a political role model, there is not enough focus on his private life, and on Mandela the husband. In early letters Nelson and Winnie address one another as “darling” or “my love”.  Yet, when Winnie was arrested and then detained without charge for months on end, Madiba decided that he would formally acknowledge the fact that they now stood as brother and sister in struggle, with a connection more powerful than that of husband and wife.

Though he continued to take up matters related to the children, and worried incessantly about her failing health, he also accepted that there had been a shift in the dynamic of their relationship.

On 16 November 1969, Madiba wrote:

In the past I have addressed you in affectionate terms for I was speaking to Nobandla, wife of Ama-Dlomo. But on this occasion, I can claim no such prerogatives because in the freedom struggle we are all equals and your responsibility is as great as mine. We stand in the relationship not of husband and wife but of sister and brother. Until your return to 8115, or some other appointed place, this is how I will address you, OK? …Finally Mhlope, I do wish you to know that you are the pride of my heart, and with you on my side, I always feel I am part of an invincible force that is ready to win new worlds.

When Winnie responded to this letter – she in turn accepted the mantle and referred to him as “Mfowethu”.

The beauty of this act is evident to anyone who reads them across the decades. It must have been incredibly difficult to reorient the relationship to adjust to their changed circumstances from a jail cell. For many of us, the impulse would have been to freeze one another in time, to hold onto the person you last saw, rather than to imagine the one she might have been growing into. Madiba resisted this – showing both how deeply he loved, but also how sensitively.

For her part, his beloved Nobandla did not reject her husband’s suggestion. She could have been disappointed and seen his more brotherly tone as an indication of waning interest in her as a wife. Her femininity could have been threatened. Instead Mam’ Winnie embraced the opening, aware that her husband was able to see her fully – not just as a wife but as an intelligent political activist capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with him.

Perhaps Madiba was able to make this pivot because he had learned from his first marriage. It is important to note that the letters between Nelson and Winnie are complicated by the fact that Mandela’s first wife Evelyn wrote in court papers that Madiba had beaten and throttled her, and had once threatened to attack her with an axe.

Though Mandela denied the allegations, they ought to give us pause. In an era when there is widespread acknowledgement that male violence is common it is important to accept that there is a real possibility that Mase’s words represented the truth.

What do we do with this information? Does it mean Mandela is no longer worthy of respect and admiration? Does it mean he was simply a man of his time and we can ignore his ex-wife’s version of events?

I would propose that neither of these options is satisfactory. Reflecting on private acts of violence in the lives of public heroes is crucial if we are going to become a country that is genuinely committed to respecting women. We cannot afford to ignore any of Madiba’s failings, especially when it comes to his conduct towards women: the personal is political, especially for a man we are all asked to emulate. At the same time, it would be pointless to suggest he did not contribute significantly to South Africa’s liberation struggle, and to our young democracy.

Madiba burdened with saintliness

The possibility that Mandela was abusive to his wife affords us an important opportunity to take all our heroes off their pedestals and to move towards more complex analyses of how change happens. We are alarmed by the idea that Madiba may have been a perpetrator of violence against his wife because we have burdened him with saintliness. Yet there is another reason it is jarring. It is because in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we want to believe that men who hit women are monsters; the kind of men we don’t know.

If we choose to believe Evelyn Mase’s version of events, and we acknowledge that Winnie Mandela experienced a different sort of man, as did Graça Machel, then we can no longer accept the idea that men who abuse women are “monsters”, nor can we indulge in the dangerous language that suggests “real men don’t abuse”.

The reality is that all sorts of men abuse. Tracey Going’s recent book Brutal Legacy, reminds us that white men and black men alike are taught to be violent from a young age. Indeed, it is precisely the idea that a man comes with a sign on his forehead that says “monster” that keeps so many women from being believed. As long as the nice guy next door can’t possibly be violent, we will forever do an injustice to women who experience violence at the hands of nice, upstanding good men.

No consequences for abusers mean no change

Madiba lived in a different time and so the actions he may have taken went unpunished. Today, our society accepts that it did not address violence against women appropriately in the past – most men simply walked away. When there are no consequences for male violence against women, men seldom change their behaviour: Abusers do not spontaneously self-correct.

Yet a look at the arc of Mandela’s life and in particular the nature of his relationships with women, offers us an opportunity to see that it is possible for men to learn to respect women. In this way, as in so many instances, Madiba was a real exception.  Because he was in prison for so long, Mandela had an opportunity few men have: to think deeply and come to a level of self-awareness on his own that made him a better person and a better husband.

Most men do not have 27 years to reflect on their actions, nor do the women in their lives. For this reason, efforts to end the war men are waging on women’s bodies must be premised on justice – on time spent in jail where that is warranted by the law.

Ultimately however, after the courts and the prison cells, when these men return to their communities, our society will need to invest in helping them to make that long walk to rehabilitation. This can only be done effectively when we invest in prevention.

We must raise a generation of boys who can respect women the way Nelson loved Winnie. We must teach men to open their hearts rather than nurture their egos. In the South Africa we are building, we want men to use their life experiences to demonstrate empathy, to lead with their hearts, not with their fists.

* Msimang is a South African writer and author of Always Another Country: a memoir of exile and home.

** Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela at an ANC rally in Khayelitsha prior to the 1994 democratic election. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Benny Gool)

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