Why Mandela would not have made it without his little-talked about first wife Evelyn Mase

Nelson Mandela and his future first wife Evelyn Mase in the bridal party at Walter and Albertina Sisulu's wedding on 17 July 1944. Mandela was best man. Mandela and Mase were to marry three months later, 5 October 1944.

Even though the world has had some great men and women, very few have had as much of an impact on history as Nelson Mandela has. Fondly remembered as an international symbol of freedom, peace and equality even after death, Mandela continues to influence the world with his great and timeless words of wisdom.

He had a lot of women admirers and his biographer Anthony Sampson even described him as a “ladies man”. While a student in the rural region of Eastern Cape, he moved to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage. He went on to marry three times. Unlike his first two wives who had no worries about his passion for politics, his first wife Evelyn Mase resented it. This would lead to their breakup.

The two met when they were both in their early 20s in Johannesburg. Born on May 18, 1922, in Engcobo in the Transkei, Mase lost her parents at a very young age. Growing up in a devout mission environment, Mase was introduced to Mandela by her cousin, African National Congress activist Walter Sisulu, after she had moved to Johannesburg for nurse’s training. She was 22 while Mandela was 26.

“I think I loved him the first time I saw him,” she said in Higher Than Hope, a biography of Mandela. “Within days of our first meeting we were going steady and within months he proposed.”

The two married in 1944 and while she worked, Mandela completed law school. She supported the family with her nurse’s salary while Mandela pursued his law education. According to South African History Online, Mase was described as the emblem of a “perfect wife” – “well-behaved”, “quiet” and “devoted to her family and husband”.

“Without Evelyn’s encouragement and assurance that she would always be there to keep the home fires burning he [Nelson] would not have made it,” a friend of the couple said of Mase.

Mase and Mandela had four children but when their second child died at just nine months old, Mase became more religious while Mandela got more into politics. This did not augur well for their marriage.

“My devotion to the ANC and the struggle was unremitting. This disturbed Evelyn. She had always assumed that politics was a youthful diversion, that I would someday return to the Transkei and practice there as a lawyer. Even as that possibility became remote, she never resigned herself to the fact that Johannesburg would be our home, or let go of the idea that we might move back to Umtata. She believed that once I was back in the Transkei, in the bosom of my family, acting as counselor to Sabata, I would no longer miss politics.

“She encouraged Daliwonga’s efforts to persuade me to come back to Umtata. We had many arguments about this, and I patiently explained to her that politics was not a distraction but my lifework, that it was an essential and fundamental part of my being. She could not accept this. A man and a woman who hold such different views of their respective roles in life cannot remain close,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

In 1954, Mase became a Jehovah’s Witness and had no interest in Mandela’s political activities. “Over the course of the next year [1954] Evelyn became involved with the Watch Tower organization, part of the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whether this was due to some dissatisfaction with her life at the time, I do not know. The Jehovah’s Witnesses took the Bible as the sole rule of faith and believed in a coming Armageddon between good and evil. Evelyn zealously began distributing their publication The Watchtower, and began to proselytize me as well, urging me to convert my commitment to the struggle to a commitment to God. Although I found some aspects of the Watch Tower’s system to be interesting and worthwhile, I could not and did not share her devotion. There was an obsessional element to it that put me off. From what I could discern, her faith taught passivity and submissiveness in the face of oppression, something I could not accept,” Mandela wrote.

He went on to state that while he thought his children should be political, Mase wanted them to be religious. “She would take them to church [Kingdom Hall] at every opportunity and read them Watch Tower literature. She even gave the boys Watchtower pamphlets to distribute in the township.”

Following their irreconcilable differences, Mandela said Mase gave him an ultimatum in 1955. It’s either her or the ANC.

“After we [ANC members] were arrested in December [5, 1956] and kept in prison for two weeks, I had one visit from Evelyn. But when I came out of prison, I found that she had moved out and taken the children. I returned to an empty, silent house. She had even removed the curtains, and for some reason I found this small detail shattering. Evelyn had moved in with her brother, who told me, ‘Perhaps it is for the best; maybe when things will have cooled down you will come back together.’ It was reasonable advice, but it was not to be,” Mandela wrote.

In 1958, Mandela filed for divorce after three years of separation. Mase raised their children on her own with money from a grocery store she opened in the Eastern Cape. Five years after Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, their eldest son Thembekile died in a car crash. Mandela sent Mase a message of condolence — that was said to be their only communication while he was in prison.

In 1990 when Mandela was released and was being compared to the second coming of Christ, Mase said the following: “It’s very silly when people say this kind of thing about Nelson. How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man.”

Later, she got used to the hero-worship of her former husband. “God uses people to do his work even if they are not righteous,” she said of Mandela.

Mase married Simon Rakeepile, a fellow Jehovah’s Witness some 40 years after separating from Mandela. She died in 2004 from respiratory problems.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 11, 2022


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