Nelson Mandela, Family Man: Daughter, Grandchildren Describe Private Struggles

Mandela's daughter, grandchildren describe the global leader's private life.

December 06, 2013, 12:31 PM
PHOTO: Nelson Mandela
Former South African President Nelson Mandela poses with his grandchildren at his home in Qunu, South Africa, July 18, 2008.
Themba Hadebe-Pool/AP Photo

Dec. 6, 2013— -- Nelson Mandela is revered as an anti-apartheid hero, a man who fought to bring a fractured nation together peacefully and went on to became an elder statesman to global leaders, so it's easy to forget that Mandela was also a man with a family and a private life.

Mandela's life began humbly in a small village located in the South African territory known as the Transkei. Richard Stengel, who worked with the former South African president on his autobiography, talked about Mandela's life.

"It's hard to imagine nowadays what it was like to grow up the way he did," Stengel said. "That wasn't 1918 by Western standards, that was 1760 by Western standards. ... No electricity. No running water."

Mandela attended boarding school and eventually college, but when his tribal father set up an arranged marriage for him, Mandela fled to Johannesburg and began a very different life.

"Mandela in the '50s, when he was a young lawyer in Johannesburg, he was really ... a man about town," Stengel said. "He drove a fancy American car ... he had a first marriage and three children."

Makaziwe Mandela, his daughter from his first marriage, remembered her father as being a "hands-on husband."

"My father would come home from work and say to her, 'Today, don't worry about cooking, washing dishes, taking care of the children. Tonight it's my turn,'" she recalled.

But as Mandela morphed into a political leader, his family became a casualty of the cause.

"All of us longed to have those moments where you can sit on the couch, maybe rest your head on your father," Makaziwe said. "We didn't have those memories."

Mandela's first marriage ended in divorce when Makaziwe was just 4 years old, but soon after he found Winnie, and fell madly in love with her. But their relationship would be tested after the authorities started looking for him. David Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who spent years documenting South Africa's apartheid struggles, recalled what the Mandelas faced.

"Almost from the get go he was having to go underground," Turnley said. "They managed to make two beautiful daughters in two years before he was then arrested and put on trial and then sent to prison for life."

After Mandela was imprisoned, Winnie was not allowed to have contact with her husband for eight years, and after that, was only granted rare visits. While Mandela served his sentence, Winnie became his voice, personifying him and his movement, and becoming just as much of a target for authorities as her husband.

"He often said to me that Winnie had it tougher than he did," Stengel said. "Mandela in all his 27 years in prison spent one night in solitary confinement. Winnie spent a year in solitary confinement, all of the time having to look after their two daughters."

Nelson and Winnie Mandela's daughters are Zenani and Zindzi. While he was behind bars, Mandela was not allowed to see them.

"Prisoners were not allowed to see children under 16, and given that Winnie Mandela's children were both very little girls when he went to jail, that meant he had no contact with them," said Mandela biographer Anna Trapido.

But Makaziwe, Mandela's daughter from his first marriage, was old enough to visit her father in prison.

"I expected to hug my dad and everything else," Makaziwe said. "I couldn't. It was a glass window, we kissed on the glass on the window, we spoke through a telephone."

While Mandela was in prison, Stengel said he tried to show love the only way he could, by writing letters. Makaziwe remembered receiving letters from her father.

"He made a tremendous effort to communicate with his children through the letters," she said. "Every birthday you would get a letter from dad, or you would get a card, a beautiful card. ... Every card would say, 'I love you.'"

Years passed, and Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, but once again faced a battle to take on his role as a leader in South Africa and the world, becoming the country's first black president, while dealing with his private life. His marriage to Winnie didn't survive the aftermath.

"The world naturally wanted these two bigger-than-life people to come together when he came out of prison, and to live happily ever after," David Turnley said. "I think it was probably in real terms a very hard thing to ask."

Though they divorced, Mandela was able to forge a family life. But connecting with his three children, as well as his 18 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, remained a challenge. Tukwini Mandela and Kweku Mandela Amuah, two of Mandela's grandchildren, recalled what it was like to interact with their grandfather.

"When he first came out of prison we thought that we would have a piece of our grandfather, but it didn't happen that way," Tukwini said. "I remember coming home once after my visit with my grandfather, and saying, 'Mom, you know, sometimes talking to granddaddy is really difficult,' and my mom said, 'Tukwini, you have to understand that your grandfather has been in prison for 27 years. He's learning to reconnect.'"

Kweku recalled meeting his grandfather for the first time when he was just 4 years old.

"Being a grandfather was foreign to him, being a nice person was not," he said. "Meeting each one of his grandchildren was like building a new friendship with a stranger essentially."

His grandchildren recalled Mandela as an engaging storyteller. Tukwini said her grandfather "liked to gossip."

"My cousins and I found that the secret to engaging with my grandfather was to get him to tell you stories about when he was younger, to get him to tell you stories about his father, because he's a very good mimicker," Tukwini said.

The Mandela family said though Mandela spent much of his life in the spotlight, he often deflected attention to others. A simple pleasure Mandela enjoyed during those precious days at home, they said, was reading alone in peace.

"Sometimes you go and see him ... and he's reading his newspapers," Tukwini said. "He lets his newspapers down, 'How are you, darling? How's school? How's work? How's everything? Great, great.' Newspapers up. You know you've been dismissed."

Those closest to Mandela said he had a great sense of humor, and that is a big part of the life lesson Kweku said he took from his grandfather.

"He's taught me that you have to be tolerant and ... I think the main thing is to smile," he said.

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