I can’t remember when I started reading Long Walk to Freedom, which is the autobiography of Rolihlahla, or more popularly known as Nelson Mandela. It’s quite a thick book, so I think it took me at least about six months to read all of it, mostly because there were long periods of time in which I took a break from reading. As I live pretty far up in the Bronx, I usually read during my commutes on the subway train, and finally this Monday, I got to the final page of the book.
I found it to be an incredible read, and it was quite inspiring to learn of the history of South African apartheid from the first-person perspective of the man who led the fight against one of the most egregious versions of racial oppression. I honestly feel like it or at least section(s) of it should be compulsory reading material for social work students, especially if they have any interest towards community organizing.
My one big complaint about the book is that as long and as comprehensive it is, the book actually feels incomplete to me. It ends with him becoming the President of South Africa, with the message that the fight for freedom has just begun, because people still need to be free from poverty, from discrimination, from wars… I was kind of hoping to read more first-hand accounts of how it was for Nelson Mandela to govern South Africa as its first Black President. Alas, to learn more about that, I will be resorting to other books and research about South African history.
Overall, I’m left with the impression that Nelson Mandela is an incredibly inspiring and compassionate human being. It’s almost unbelievable that such a person existed and that he and so many other South Africans had to live the lives they did. I’m beyond grateful and privileged to be able to read his memoir after they struggled for freedom for over fifty years.
Despite the blog title, this blog post isn’t to disparage Nelson Mandela’s character or legacy. I’m just being honest about the one aspect of Nelson Mandela’s life that I find difficult to come to terms with, which is the fact that he came to divorce Winnie. Nelson Mandela himself writes in his memoir how he feels so badly for the sacrifices he’s made for the good of South African people ultimately resulted in him neglecting his family, and arguably his biggest sacrifice of all is Winnie.
I think what makes it especially difficult for me is that fact that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a social worker. When Winnie and Nelson met each other, Winnie was training to be a social worker – among the first Black social workers in South Africa, just as Nelson Mandela was essentially the first Black lawyer in South Africa to have his own private firm – and from then on, Winnie used her strengths and skills for political activism, for freedom against oppression, to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in her country.
The South African government had continuously disrupted Winnie’s life especially because she was married to Nelson Mandela. She had undergone: being fired from her job, being banned to all regions of the country except one; being placed under house arrest; having her home be burned down; being jailed for years… Even still, she didn’t gave up on Nelson Mandela and she was the one to actually to raise their son and daughters. She did whatever she needed to visit Nelson Mandela in prison even despite all the restrictions and hardships.
The most inspiring example Nelson gives of Winnie in the book is when South African government essentially exiles Winnie to a region in South Africa that’s designated as an area for poor white people who harbor deep-seated resentment and racial hatred against Black and Coloured people. Even in that hostile environment, Winnie practices social work. She goes out to meet and talk with white people who hate people who are like her, and ultimately, by listening to their struggles and assisting them with their needs, she ends up forming a community of white people in the region who become sympathetic to the cause of fighting against South African system of apartheid. I can hardly imagine anyone who could do what Winnie did in that situation.
So I felt so upset reading about how Nelson came to separate from Winnie after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The situation became that Nelson Mandela started campaigning for African National Congress party to win the 1994 election and Winnie at the time was being tried under charge that she ordered her bodyguard to kidnap and murder a kid. The opposing political factions utilized this scandal and did everything to smear and tarnish Winnie’s and Nelson’s reputation. Ultimately, they came to separate and officially finalized their divorce in 1996. Nelson Mandela writes sorrowfully about how throughout his life he had to choose fighting for freedom over being there for his family, and how one of the most difficult things to answer for him is when his daughters asked, “Why can’t you be here for ___?”
Of course, I acknowledge that Winnie’s life and the relationship between Nelson and Winnie is actually much more complex than what I imagine here. I am vaguely aware of the fact that the official reason given for divorce is that Winnie was not completely faithful to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison for 32 years. If that is the actual reason for divorce, that also greatly disappoints me, more towards Nelson Mandela for not accepting and tolerating that. But I personally have doubts about the official story.
In any case, I’m left struggling with this notion that working for a cause can mean sacrificing and betraying your family, and the people who give you so much love and care in your personal life. I often see how much of a workaholic I am. I can easily imagine myself prioritizing my social work over everything and anything else, including over the people closest to me personally. I actually saw how it happened a bit from time to time in my past romantic relationships. I wonder if perhaps for people like us, it might save everyone the pain and trouble if we focused solely on our work.
But then, the love Winnie and Nelson had for each other… It’s so amazing. They both were passionate about their political activism and their work, and they still tried all they can to keep their love for each other and be a family. For Nelson to have sacrificed that for the cause of the country, I can only imagine how painful and torturous that must have been. Likewise for Winnie to have devoted so much to the man who ultimately had to sacrifice their marriage for political progress…
To me both Winnie and Nelson are incredible role models. I’m more curious now about Winnie’s perspective because I read everything from Nelson’s perspective. I’m hopeful that ultimately, my social work memoir can resemble a fraction of their inspiration and their legacy.