Evelyn Mandela

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EVELYN Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s first wife, who bore the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner four children before their marriage ended in great bitterness, died on 30 April aged 83, after a long respiratory illness.

In one of the few extended interviews she ever gave, Evelyn told me that the ultimate cause of their divorce was Nelson’s affairs with an office secretary and with a glamorous young Soweto social worker, Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela, who later became Mr Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Mandela.

Evelyn threatened to pour boiling water over Nelson and his lovers if ever he again brought one of them back to the bedroom of the family’s small Soweto matchbox home. He sued for divorce. Evelyn granted his request on condition that she gained custody of the children. "But I still call myself Mrs Mandela because there is no divorce according to God," said Evelyn, who was a Jehovah’s Witness missionary during the final decades of her life. I asked her if she still really regarded herself as Nelson’s wife. "Straight," she replied.

Evelyn Ntoko Mase was born in 1921 to the second wife of a forestry labourer near the small rural town of Engcobo. Both her parents died before she was 12, and in 1939 she moved to Johannesburg to train as a nurse, earning 1 a month in Hillbrow Non-European Hospital. She was introduced by her cousin, Walter Sisulu, an African National Congress (ANC) organiser, to his friend, an impoverished young law student called Nelson Mandela. Nelson wooed the beautiful young nurse. Evelyn recalled: "I thought he was beautiful. I loved Nelson very much, and I felt he loved me in those days. But things do change."

Evelyn and Nelson married in 1944. Her earnings supported them while he completed his law studies. Nelson had begun activities with the ANC, and Evelyn attended rallies dressed in the black, gold, green and white of the organisation until the birth of the couple’s first two children in 1946 and 1947. Both died tragically. Their son, Thembi, who never reconciled with his father after his parents’ 1957 divorce, died in a car crash in 1969. Their daughter, Makaziwe, died of meningitis at the age of ten months. Another son and daughter were born before the Mandelas split up.

Evelyn told me that she and Nelson had not communicated since their divorce. "When he was arrested in 1962 [prior to being sentenced to life imprisonment], I went to see him," she said. "But he didn’t want to see me. I felt so humiliated."

Evelyn resigned from the ANC and returned to the Transkei, where she bought a small shop to support and educate her children. "The ANC ignored me, as though I had never existed," she said. "To pay off the loan [for the shop] I worked from 4am until 7pm. All that Nelson contributed was the children’s school fees. He left everything to Winnie when he went to jail."

I asked Evelyn, who later became a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in Cofimvaba, what her attitude was now to the ANC. "The standard of living has improved for blacks because of ANC pressure," she said. "But the more I read the Bible deeply the more I realise the ANC and other parties are passing things. They are not really important."

She never expected to see again the only man she had ever loved. "Nelson knows where I am, but I won’t be contacting him," she said. "But I wish him well. When I heard [while he was imprisoned] he had TB, I prayed, ‘Oh God, he mustn’t die in jail.’ But the world is building Nelson up too much. I know he is only a man."