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Mandela and Kennedy – marriages

I was asked an interesting question about my analysis of Nelson Mandela’s marriage to his second wife, Winnie, and what I thought that failed marriage meant to his legacy. Specifically, Winnie was widely publicized as advocating for Mandela’s freedom and worked hard in the struggle against apartheid during Mandela’s imprisonment. (She appears to have been quite radical in her practices for liberation. See Telegraph article here, and Reuters here.)

It’s been awhile since I read his autobiography so a fresher reader may have a different take than I, but if I recall correctly, Mandela expressed a great deal of regret about the failure of that marriage. His marriage to Winnie was borne in the resistance movement; the struggle was in the marriage’s DNA. The fight for liberty was always Mandela’s mistress and his personal relationships took the brunt of it. This is, in part, what I meant in the previous post: Mandela would sacrifice anything – himself, his freedom, – and anyone for the cause of freedom. Those sacrifices included his marriages and the relationships with his children. Only when he was well advanced in years did some of those relationships find reconciliation.

During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s advocacy and actions apparently reached some extremes that contradicted Mr. Mandela’s quest for a peaceful liberty for all. Yes, Mr. Mandela had advocated armed resistance against apartheid, and he headed up the ANC’s militarized efforts in the years leading up to his imprisonment. To call him purely a peaceful activist would be inaccurate. But it seems as though he favored peaceful means to achieve freedom and eschewed the inter-African conflicts among other black Africans that Winnie became involved in through the 1980s and 1990s. Details here, here, here, here, and here.

Mandela spoke very highly of Winnie in his autobiography. But as I read the account, she was always more of his “comrade in arms” than his wife. This may not be fair, and it may not be how she viewed the marriage, but that’s the sense I got from his story. Her actions during his imprisonment show, at a minimum, she was no shrinking daisy; she was an aggressive advocate for liberation, with no apparent fear from violent means. The distance of his imprisonment and the eventual release drove a separation that appears to have been insurmountable. I suspect that her means of pursuing liberty also ran against Mr. Mandela’s tastes, but that their marriage was politically useful for both of them until it was finally dissolved after his election.

Rabbit trail ahead: There is another important distinction worth bearing out. We in a non-tribal Western culture view marriage differently I think than do many indigenous cultures. To understand Mandela’s story requires a reach into a culture that many Anglos don’t relate to. The tribal indigenous cultures of Africa in the mid 20th century are not the same as the urban cultures in Africa today, nor are they the experience of the diverse peoples who comprise western Europe or the United States. The native tribes are indeed very diverse among the various tribes, but the experiences, mores, perspectives on relationships, elevation of children, and many other perspectives are simply different due to time and place.

I don’t know what this means in the context of Mandela’s marriages. He was a highly educated and brilliant man. He was a professional, an amazing debater, and one of the most thoughtful icons of our time. Mandela was, I think, a once-in-a-generation leader. To assume he would view marriages and other interpersonal relationships the same way as we would risks superimposing a personal moral judgement on someone whose culture many of us can’t fully appreciate. It would be much like explaining to an indigenous Chinese person that they have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without first-hand experience inside another culture, it’s really hard to make value statements that don’t belie our personal biases.

In the previous Mandela-Kennedy post I referenced that both had great flaws. Looking back I realize that this indeed belies my personal Western bias. But I think there is a big difference in the “failed” marriages of Mandela and the historical view that Kennedy was a poor husband. Although I believe that both men were charismatic leaders who were, by many accounts, catalysts for great change, I haven’t heard stories of Mandela being a philanderer like the stories I’ve heard of Kennedy. Again, I think Mandela’s “mistress” was the struggle to end apartheid, not a physical “other woman.” I’d argue that by any account, Mandela’s mistress was far nobler than any Kennedy ever had.
(By the way, comments are always welcome. I crave thoughtful conversation – virtual or real – when proffered with an open mind.)
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