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As South Africa celebrates the life of former president Nelson Mandela in week-long festivities during the country’s mourning period following his death last week, the world is learning more and more about Mandela’s lasting legacy as a civil rights activist and an inspiration to all.

But behind the legend, there was a man. And behind that man, there were women responsible for keeping his memory alive, supporting his endeavors, and leading movements of their own to dismantle the Pretoria regime and end apartheid.

And while the role of women in the anti-apartheid movement, as with the American civil rights fight, is given a supportive role if any, what many fail to realize is that the thoughts and actions of Mandela and other men fighting for civil rights came through the thoughts and passions of the women at their sides.

Here’s a brief history of the women beside Mandela: his wives.

(This list does not include, however, the force of women who contributed to the movement and committed to the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa. We celebrate the countless women involved in the emancipation).

Evelyn Mase:

Before there was Winnie Mandela, there was Evelyn Mase. Mandela’s loving first wife, Mase didn’t necessarily agree with the freedom fighter’s activism. In fact, after their divorce in 1958, she chose to study the word of Jehovah’s Witnesses and steered clear of politics.

The two married in 1944 and had four children, Madiba “Thembi” Thembekile (1945–1969) and Makgatho Mandela (1950–2005), and two daughters both named Makaziwe Mandela (the first born died at nine months in 1947, and the second born in 1954). They lived with Mandela’s family for some time before their relationship became strained due to his commitment to the African National Congress. It was later that Mase called it quits amidst allegations of adultery. Mandela married Winnie Mandela the same year he divorced Mase.

Later in life, Mase moved to Cofimvaba in the eastern Cape and opened up shop, where she pinned a notice to the gate asking media to leave her alone. Upon Mandela’s release from prison, Mase said that he was being treated like the second coming of Christ.

“How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man.”

She died in 2004. Mandela, Winnie Mandela and third wife Graca Machel attended her funeral.

Winnie Mandela:

Winnie Mandela, married to Mandela in 1958, is best known for sharing the political view of her husband and keeping his memory alive during his 27 years in prison. But it was her own conviction and heavy involvement in the anti-apartheid movement outside of her husband’s work that gave her the name, “Mother of the Nation.”

But Mandela wasn’t aware that the pretty girl 20 years his junior had such a fiery spirit. Winnie was the first black medical social worker in South Africa and strongly believed that a radical approach to the fight against apartheid would lead South Africans to equality. It was Winnie who became a controversial figure for the apartheid regime that lead her to jail as well. And when her husband of only two years (and who she barely knew) went into hiding and then to prison for the infamous 27-year stint, she became his representative, speaking out on his behalf and often enduring the torture from South African authorities bent on neutralizing the Mandelas and their following.

Winnie, however, wasn’t free of her flaws, as no man is. She ran into legal troubles throughout the years, facing corruption and fraud charges and even being involved in the kidnapping of a 14-year-old boy.

However, when Mandela was released from prison, she was right by his side. He made her his deputy minister of arts when he was elected president in 1994 (although they had been separated for two years) and she became a member of the South Africa Parliament.

Their divorce became final in 1996. The two have two children, Zenani (born 1959) and Zindzi (born 1960).

Graca Machel:

Machel is often referred to as the true love of Nelson Mandela. The advocate for women and children’s rights married the leader in 1998 when he was 80-years-old and she 53-years-old. He once had this to say about finding true love late in life.

“I’m in love with a remarkable lady,” he said. “I don’t regret the reverses and setbacks because late in my life I am blooming like a flower, because of the love and support she has given me.”

Machel was already a moving force in activism before she wed Mandela. She was a freedom fighter and the wife (and first lady) of Samora Machel, the first president of an independent Mozambique. She was also education minister of his government. When he passed in 1986 from a plane crash said to be the work of the South African apartheid regime, she was described as the African Jacqueline Kennedy.

In 1995, Machel received the 1995 Nansen Medal from the United Nations in recognition of her longstanding humanitarian work. In 1998 when she married Mandela, Machel became the first woman in history to have been first lady in two different countries. She currently serves as the chair of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) Eminent Advisory Board.

In recent months, Machel was said to have never left Mandela’s side. She reportedly maintained a round-the-clock bedside vigil during the 84 days Mandela spent in the hospital due to a recurring lung infection and the three months he spent at home before he died on December 5.

In the days following his death, Machel has remained out of the media spotlight.


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