“I was the loneliest man …” – Nelson Mandela

I grew up to love and read about Nelson and Winnie Mandela. I remember, I had Nelson’s and Winnie’s big portraits on the wall of my room while teaching at Osu, my home town, and as a student, I took their portrait to my hostel at Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo. I later joined Amnesty International, Adeyemi Group based on my love for Mandelas and the principles they stood for. Indeed, significant people like Nelson and Winnie, mother of nation, intentionally developed winning habits and secured them through discipline and sacrifice. In the beginning of their struggles together for the freedom of their people and their relationship, Nelson and Winnie were a model of love, peace, discipline and sacrifice.

Winnie’s letter to Nelson while in prison dated July 2nd, 1970 provides us a good picture of a couple with true love in their beginning: “We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you. I was forced to mature on my own. Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young ‘political widow’. I knew this was a crown of thorns for me but I also knew I said, ‘I Do’ for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people. Yes, the thorns sometimes pricked so hard that the blood from the wounds covered up my eyes and the excruciating pains blinded me for a while. Although I staggered across the path of freedom with pain, I staggered forward and never doubted my goal even when the crown was nailed by my people at times, this was only history. I would not have been worthy of their great love without such. When the tortuous minutes, hours, months dragged by gnawing at the inner cores of my soul I remembered that ‘an army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers will not’. I also realised that honour and conviction are more binding than any oath. I also learnt that ‘Even gold pass[ed] through the assayer’s fire, and more precious than perishable gold is faith that has stood the test’. So much for that strange life of ours my love!” Nelson was to be Winnie’s formidable shadow. The lesson for you and me is that we must not leave our spouses to be naked to the ‘spies’ or isolated from our vision and mission in life. For Winnie, the oath ‘I DO’ was for better for worse, but was that the case with Nelson towards Winnie in her time of trial?

Nelson and Winnie sacrifice their life and family for the welfare of others with the goal of a free Africa. In Winnie’s letter, she again presented to us the agony of leadership and marriage. Winnie wrote to Nelson in the prison, “The girls did not come home even during these last holidays but they are fortunately on his passport now and he is visiting them next weekend. I must say I am terribly disturbed by this, they are too young to be torn away from the security of a family. It was enough of a hardship to bring them up without you. Every time I imagine how they must be feeling without both of us I get a relapse. One of those blows I referred to in my last letter.” Nelson and Winnie not only suffered, their children were also victims of their suffering. One of the main fears of Winnie is that her “own infinitesimal contribution to the cause of my people will perhaps be worth one incomplete sentence in the books of the history of our country but even that is enough for me so long as it shall not be washed down the gutter of time.” Truly, nothing can wash away Winnie’s sacrifice down the gutter of time because, she got what she fought for, and she got ‘it forever and those who cling desperately to it swimming against the tide, fear losing it forever. I am lucky for I have seen the dawn of the day Rev T Soga serenaded. No amount of brutality meted out to me and my people will change the course of history.’

Truly, they did not only changed the course of history for an end to the white-minority apartheid rule, but the forces and spies within their own people, ANC put an end to their marriage. Winnie’s marital problem is best summed with an African proverb that says, “Bi iku ile o ba pani, tode o le pani,” (No internal death means no death from the outside). Nelson and Winnie were amazing couple, even in prison, they looked after their children education and welfare together. Winnie in her letter to Nelson in the prison wrote ‘When you get the children’s’ school reports please study them with a view to assisting them with the choice of their subjects.’ The first lesson I think for you and me through the experience of Nelson and Winnie is that we should not allow third parties to dictate state of things between us. Tne followers of Nelson became uncomfortable about the possibility and likelihood of Winnie becoming the leader of ANC. While Nelson was in the prison, Winnie was winning on the street and her popularity became very difficult for even Nelson lieutenants to control hence, they, including the ‘spies’ sowed the seed of discourse between Nelson and Winnie.

There was no doubt that Nelson and Winnie loved themselves, the truth is that you don’t know who is after you or wishing you to fall. The ‘sin’ of Winnie having an affair with one of her body guards continue to be a mystery, but using the word of Reinhold Niebuhr, forgiveness is the final form of love. My reflection about Nelson is, why was it so easy for him to forgive the apartheid regime but found it very difficult to forgive Winnie. Was Nelson bribed with the presidential position to divorce his wife who by then had gained more popularity among the women and people on the street? Winnie swallowed the cup of bitterness and torture than Nelson with the hope, according to her that “one day we shall swallow it no more and that is the day whose dawn I have seen. One day we shall have a normal family unit too for no man with any manhood in himself can lead a normal life in an abnormal society. In the words of the late Luther King ‘it is no better to be maladjusted in a maladjusted society’. He goes on to say ‘the American negro is tired of being told to keep cool for he knows you can keep so cool in the long run you end up in the deep freeze.’

Truly and truly, Mandelas’ marriage kept in the prison cool ended ‘up in the deep freeze.’ In one of Winnie’s biographers, Nelson after his release shifted her focus on Winnie for negotiations on power transition. Would it be true, that Nelson opted for power in place of her marriage to Winnie? Nelson was no longer ‘bothered to find out what Winnie needed and wanted, how her life had changed or what her aspirations might be… From the moment she was implicated in the serious crimes involving the football club, it was as though her entire past had been erased from the public mind.” Coupled with her waning standing among top members of the ANC and the media, Winnie’s image following the release of her husband became ‘as an uncomplicated, beneficent mother figure were surely gone’ until finally ‘on April 13 1992, Nelson called a media conference and announced that he was separating from his wife.’ Winnie, the head of the ANC Women’s League became an old ‘Political Widow’ and was finally divorced in March 1996.

The divorce between Nelson and Winnie reminds me of what Satan caused between Adam and Eve. Nelson as the father of his home I would say failed to express the depth of Christian spirituality that shows us how divine it is to forgive and also demonstrates the revolutionary, transforming and positive power of forgiveness not only towards the apartheid regime but also towards his wife, Winnie. Familiar as it is, l often wonder whether Nelson before his death really meant what he said in the church anytime he repeated the plea in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’

Forgiveness is a door to peace, revival and happiness. Humility is the essence of forgiveness. Pride and unforgiveness strain relationships, and could create an environment in which peace or revival and reconciliation becomes impossible. I think, the cruellest prison of all is the cool prison of an unforgiving mind and spirit. The lesson for you and me is to know that personal or marital reconciliation cannot occur without Christian love and humility. Just as God’s forgiveness comes from His love for us, the failure to forgive others stems from our failure to love them. The reflection is that Christian witness calls us to be willing to forgive those who offends us just as we expect God’s immediate and complete forgiveness when we sinned against Him. Nelson’s and Winnie’s story provides us a helpful reflection that in this world, nothing is permanent except hence, we must not become unfeeling as a rock. Nelson and Winnie missed the laughter and the lightness of their old age victorious life together because of unforgiveness. Nelson agreed of being the “loneliest man” after their divorce but what caused the loneliness? Did the church failed the Mandelas in their time of marital disconnection? Let us remember that whoever is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love and using the words of C.S. Lewis, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”