Winnie and Nelson Mandela had one of the most iconic political marriages in history. For most commentators, this was a one-sided marriage in which Nelson was by far the more significant actor and Winnie was the burden he had to bear. However, it is not possible to conceive of the public persona of Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment on Robben Island without also understanding Winnie’s role, not merely as upholder of the family name but also in terms of the ways in which she built an independent career out of her position as Nelson’s wife. This article reads the marriage at two levels. First, it argues that there were two actors in the marriage, both central to its narrations and both with political ideas and ambitions. Winnie Mandela was building a genealogy of heroic nationalism for herself from at least the 1960s, in parallel with that of her husband, and her rise to political status was both dependent on the marriage and at odds with its demands. Understanding Winnie as an actor, treating her own biography as seriously as that of Nelson, changes the way in which the marriage is read politically. Second, it draws on the small archive of letters between the spouses that are publicly available to show the ways in which Nelson’s benevolent, patriarchal (albeit loving and compassionate) approach to his wife contrasted with her increasing independence and political power. The separation caused by almost three decades of imprisonment had done more than impose a physical and emotional absence. Their politics, too, had taken extremely divergent paths in which she became a representative of radical politics while he was positioned as reconciliatory visionary.

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Journal of Southern African Studies
Institute of African Studies

Hassim, S. (2019). The Impossible Contract: The Political and Private Marriage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Journal of Southern African Studies. doi:10.1080/03057070.2019.1697137