Mandela Family

The Mandela family story comprises the intersection of life journeys between Nelson and Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

Timeless icon Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s rise to leadership through his charismatic intellect and firm belief in equality for all was evident throughout his lifetime. Expelled for joining a student protest whilst studying at Fort Hare, he was ordered by the Regent at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni to return for marriage. Mandela immediately left for Johannesburg with his cousin in 1941. After a short stint as a security guard at a mine, he spent some time as a legal clerk in the law firm Witkin, Edelman and Sidelsky. His passion and natural aptitude for law was seen through his studies both in and out of prison, and the establishment of South Africa’s first Black law firm, Mandela and Tambo, with Oliver Tambo in August 1952.

His involvement in politics became more pronounced from 1944 when he helped to start the ANC Youth League. The following years saw harsh punishment from the state against Mandela and his fellow political activists.

Some of the most notable movements in his activist career were leading the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe, facing sabotage charges at the Rivonia Trial, and being sentenced to prison and banned from political activity multiple times. These moments led to a life imprisonment sentence in 1964.

Prior to his prison time of 27 years, Mandela’s family life was centred at 8115 Orlando West now known as Mandela House. Whilst Mandela’s political efforts were focused away from the house as a security measure, it was Winnie who brought the full force of the political realities home.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Born in Bizana Eastern Cape to school teachers Columbus and Nomathansanqa, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela – Winnie – showed grit and feistiness from a young age. Her parents desire for a good education coupled with her leadership qualities led Winnie through a journey of studying and finishing the top of her class for her social work degree in 1955. Her bold decision to choose a medical social worker job opportunity in Johannesburg over a scholarship in the USA built a definite path to her destiny. Sharing a dormitory with Adelaide Tsukudu (who would become Adelaide Tambo) introduced Winnie into the life of Nelson Mandela. Their equally charismatic natures, developing public profiles, and shared passion for equality and justice deepened their connection. On 14 June 1958, Winnie and Nelson were married in Bizana. The event made national news.

This is the year that 8115 Vilakazi Street welcomed home Winnie Madikizela Mandela. She walked into a life characterised by intense underground campaigning which frequently parted her and her husband. The police raids in the dead of night became a constant feature in the family’s life. The police would raid the home and ransack the place. A few months after finding out about her first pregnancy, Winnie and other women embarked on mass action to protest the Apartheid government’s Pass Laws. She was arrested along with 1000 other women. She was appalled by the inhumane prison conditions. This intensified her resolve to drive struggle action.

In March of 1961, Winnie entered the next phase of her growth as a leading voice of political dissent. Nelson was arrested in a police raid at the house following the PAC anti-pass demonstration in Sharpeville. The events leading to Nelson’s eventual life imprisonment sentence placed a severe strain on the already limited time the couple could have together.

Winnie became publicly subjected to harassment, torture and imprisonment. This was routinely undertaken from 1962 until 1986, when Winnie returned from exile in Brandfort to continue life with her children.  On 28 July 1988, Winnie and Nelson’s beloved house was burnt to the ground by a fire. This followed conflict between the Mandela United Football Club which Winnie led, and pupils from Daliwonga High School. The community came together to help re-build the Mandela’s house.

The family continued to occupy the house until 1996 when the Mandelas divorced.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela continued to be a prominent figure on the South African political landscape when South Africa became a democracy from 1994 onwards.

In 2016, the South African government recognized Winnie for her contributions to the liberation struggle with the award of the Silver Order of Luthuli. After a long illness, she passed on at the age of 81 on April 2, 2018.

"I think I loved him the first time I saw him"

Evelyn Masequoted in Higher Than Hope a biography of Mandela released in 1990
Evelyn Ntoko Mase. The first wife of the young Nelson Mandela. Married in 1944, they spent 14 years together, going through a formal separation in 1956 before parting ways in divorce in 1958.

In his autobiography, Mandela said of Evelyn that she “was a very good woman, charming, strong and faithful, and a fine mother. I never lost my respect for her, but in the end, we could not make our marriage work.”

Born in 1922 in Engcobo, Transkei, Evelyn was one of six children. She lost three siblings in infancy and became an orphan at the age of 12, leaving her in the care of her older brother Sam Mase. Sam’s close friendship with the first cousin and former schoolmate Walter Sisulu would take him, and later Evelyn to Johannesburg and closer to the heart of political activism.

She became a nurse after training at the non-European hospital in Hillbrow. At this time she was living with her brother at Walter’s home in Orlando East, Soweto. It is here that she became friends with Albertina who she worked alongside at the Johannesburg General Hospital. Evelyn was a bridesmaid at Albertina and Walter’s wedding in 1944.

During her time living with the Sisulus, Evelyn met Walter’s close friend Nelson Mandela. He was four years older than her. A few months after the Sisulu’s wedding, Evelyn and Nelson were married in a quiet ceremony. They went on to have four children:

Thembekile (1946), Makaziwe

(1947 – who sadly passed on a mere 9 months after birth due to poor health), Makgatho (1950) and a daughter in 1953 also named Makaziwe in honour of the first little daughter who had passed on.

Their life as a young couple was caught between Nelson’s increasing commitment to the political cause against Apartheid and Evelyn’s deepening faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. This led to the eventual separation and final divorce of the couple.

Evelyn was always strong in maintaining a private sense of self from the media. After her divorce from Mandela, Evelyn moved to Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape and opened a grocery shop. In the years leading up to his release from his 27 – year jail term, Evelyn and Nelson would have virtually no contact except via letter when their son Thembekile was killed in a car accident in 1969.

In 1998, Evelyn married Simon Rakeepile who was also a devout Jehovah’s Witness. She passed on in April 2004. Her memory is captured by those who knew her best as “a woman who was strong in her own right in that she maintained a career and her household financially and emotionally whilst married and later as a single mother who was able to continue providing for her children.”

Evelyn was characterized by “religion, domesticity, passivity and anti-political nature”; the strength of these qualities enabled Mandela to fulfill his career and educational ambitions.