Response to Sisonke Msimang on Mandela’s alleged domestic violence: debate  crucial but present readers with all relevant facts

It is important that we analyse Nelson Mandela with integrity, revealing any evidence that may assist us to understand him as a full human being. Too often there are generalised phrases that bring us no closer to understanding his qualities.  At the same time many of the new voices that have questioned Mandela’s legacies, notably his role in the democratic transition have not given adequate attention to the relevant context.

Whenever we bring or claim to bring a new angle to understanding Mandela it needs care.  We owe it to all human beings that we do not create impressions that may be unsupported by evidence.  Sisonke Msimang believes, correctly, that “there is not enough focus on his [Mandela’s] private life”.  (  If that is the case, readers ought  to have been informed of his first wife, Evelyn Mase’s interviews with Fatima Meer, in the 1980s, three decades after their divorce, by which time Evelyn was not well disposed towards Mandela. Nevertheless, she speaks in detail of her relationship in marriage to Mandela.

Msimang’s treatment of Mandela’s alleged assault of Evelyn is disingenuous.  Why are readers not told, apart from Mandela denying the allegations that they were withdrawn?  Since there are two versions of Evelyn’s own claim (the allegation and the withdrawal) why does Msimang speak of “Evelyn Mase’s version of events” in the singular, denying the readers the knowledge that there was an allegation and withdrawal of an allegation.

Why, if this was an allegation that was withdrawn are conclusions drawn about Mandela as a husband (to Evelyn) suggesting that his later experience including prison enabled him “to think deeply and come to a level of self-awareness on his own that made him a better person and a better husband?”  In her interviews with Meer, Evelyn, whose champion Msimang purports to be,  paints a picture of a husband who was caring and loving, and no mention is made of assault or any act of aggression.  Mandela was involved in domestic life such as cooking, shopping, caregiving to their children and supportive of her career.  Their marriage broke up, according to Evelyn’s account, because of their separation when she went for training in midwifery in Durban.

What was the problem with Mandela as a husband that needed to be improved on?  He was not proven to have assaulted Evelyn nor did the allegation continue to stand nor is there evidence that Evelyn was pressurised to withdraw the claim.  If that is so, if Msimang is dealing with an allegation that was withdrawn, on what did Mandela require self-awareness as a husband?  No other flaws are mentioned, apart from this withdrawn assault claim.

Certainly, there are a range of reasons for withdrawing a charge of assault against a husband, though there has never been any suggestion of any pressure on Evelyn, as we know happens very often in cases of domestic violence.

But Msimang makes no mention of withdrawal of the allegations at all and refers to the times being when what he “may” have done “went unpunished.”

We are living in a time when we badly need serious, balanced treatment of Mandela and his legacies. Regrettably, Msimang does not leave the reader with all the information required to make an assessment. There are innuendoes suggesting, however, that Mandela may well have assaulted his wife but later acquired qualities that led him to shun assault in his later marriages.

Is that a responsible way of writing?  If Msimang has consulted the works that refer to the withdrawal of the assault claim, why is that not mentioned?  If she has consulted Meer’s interviews, why are these not mentioned as a different type of evidence on the type of husband he had been to Evelyn Mase?  Is this a balanced way of dealing with the complex legacies of Mandela?  Has Msimang contributed towards remedying the neglect of Mandela’s private life, or has she not through innuendo, fed into unsupported scandalising of his legacies?

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