Nelson Mandela's daughter: I don't know if my father loves me. Sometimes children are not really loved by their parents
16th October 2010
The inner thoughts of former South African president Nelson Mandela were laid bare last week when a collection of his writing, jottings and letters from his long years of captivity on Robben Island were published in a new book, Conversations With Myself.
Increasingly frail at 92, Mandela is revered around the globe for his warmth, dignity and moral authority. Indeed, unlike most political autobiographies, the book appears not to seek justification or aggrandisement.
He dismisses any suggestion that he is a saintly figure and discloses that he never sought to be president of South Africa, preferring instead that a younger man should take the job.
For all the humanity he displays in public, however, readers have been struck by the cold, rather stilted tone of Mandela’s letters to his family during his long years of imprisonment.
The stuff of normal correspondence between loved ones – endearments and family tittle-tattle – is entirely absent. Instead, Mandela’s letters to his children contain his thoughts on contemporary events, almost as if they were written for posterity.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that to his close family, the cuddly, charismatic image built around him is frequently at odds with the introspective, emotionally aloof and patriarchal man they know.
Mandela’s oldest surviving child is Dr Makaziwe Mandela, known as Maki, his daughter from a troubled first marriage to nurse Evelyn Mase. And although she is now at peace with her father, she says that she struggled for years with feelings of anger and abandonment and that her older brothers Thembi (who died in a car crash in 1969) and Makgatho (who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005) felt very much the same.
Still a child when her parents divorced, Maki grew up during her father’s long years of imprisonment. Yet even after the extraordinary scenes surrounding his release from Robben Island in 1990, she says his family took a back seat to politics.
In her first major newspaper interview, Maki says: ‘As a child, before my father went to prison, I yearned to have both of my parents in my life, but it was my mother who brought me up. I had a father who had been there but not really there. He was not available to us.
‘I used to talk to my brothers about it and they would tell me, “Don’t look for your father. He’s given his life to politics. He lives and breathes politics . . .”
‘It sounds strange, but Dad and I developed a better relationship when he was in prison.’
Even though the letters sent by Mandela were lacking in emotion, they at least provided Maki with some personal contact. ‘But,’ she says, ‘when he came out of jail, he was just swallowed by the world and by South Africa.
‘I still think that after he was released, he should have created some space for the family, for his children. We were ignored, or at least not acknowledged, while he was preoccupied with politics.
'I really do think he could have done things a little bit differently. Even now, when he’s got more time, he doesn’t make the effort to really engage. He’s open and extrovert to the world, but awkward in his intimate personal relationships with his own family.’
Sitting on the terrace of her large, modern home in a smart suburb of Johannesburg, Maki looks every bit the successful businesswoman she has become. She sits on the boards of major industrial concerns, including South African Nestlé, and charitable foundations, and attributes her drive, and her subsequent success, to her mother rather than her father.
‘My mum was a strong woman,’ she says.
‘She is the one who was married to him the longest. And for a long time, she was the sole breadwinner. She paid for his education and she made him what he is, in terms of the lawyer and the man in good standing in the community.
'My mother used to say, “I did all of those things for your father and then when he had made it, he showed me the door". She also used to say that Winnie [the second Mrs Mandela] was not the cause of her marriage break-up. Yes, my dad likes beautiful women but I think she was not the cause, there were other ladies before her.’
But Maki adds: ‘While I have a strong will and the courage of my mum, I also think I definitely have the stubbornness of my father. I’m also very opinionated.’
Growing up, Maki needed all the stubbornness she could get. Named after an older sister who died in infancy, she didn’t have the most auspicious start in life.
Nelson Mandela was 26 when he married 23-year-old Evelyn in Johannesburg in 1944. But by the time Maki was born in 1953, her father was already an increasingly distant figure at home. He had gained a reputation as a charismatic and ambitious lawyer and civil-rights activist. He was also, according to many who were there at the time, an unabashed womaniser.
Furthermore, in a report filed during their divorce in 1957, Evelyn claimed her husband repeatedly assaulted her and even threatened to kill her with an axe unless she left their home in Soweto. Mandela disputed her claims and they were never tested in a court of law.
Maki says: ‘When I was young, my father was a fleeting presence in my life. First he left home, then he went into hiding and then he went to jail, so I’ve never had this sort of intimate daughter-father bond with him. And by the time he came out of jail, I was a married woman with my own children. In his mind, I was still the five, six or seven-year-old girl that he lost.
‘My father is so old-fashioned and traditional. He still treats all his children like children. He believes he’s the authority figure who knows it all . . . but he doesn’t really!’
Maki reveals she has some happy memories of being with her father but says they were few and far between.
She says: ‘Nelson has an aloofness. When I was eight and he was in hiding, we used to walk together through the forest and we were close, we talked and were silent together, and it’s a good memory.
‘That’s probably the closest I ever was to him but he was never there for me really. He’s always been an absent dad. Of course there are moments when I’ve been sitting on the couch with him and given him a hug and said, “I love you, Dad.” But he’s a politician, that’s where his energy has always been, in politics not in his family.
‘But I’ve come to believe that this thing called a daughter-father relationship is not something that happens automatically, it’s something you have to work on. I try to work on it with my dad but I don’t think he knows how because he didn’t have the love from his father.’
Mandela comes from a junior branch of the Themba royal family, which in Maki’s view has been a major influence on his character.
‘His father died when he was young and he was taken to be brought up by the king. I don’t think he knows how to express emotion. He just doesn’t know how to.’
She recalls: ‘When I had an operation he came to the hospital and sat on the bed but he’s not a holding-hands type of man. He’s awkward. To his children he’s awkward, he doesn’t know how to reach out.
‘When my mother passed away he came and he didn’t hug me and my brother and say, “I’m sorry, your mummy’s gone”. He came and did the manly thing and said sorry but no hug, no kiss, nothing like that. I guess he didn’t have those things when he grew up either. I don’t blame him. I did have a lot of anger wondering why he had children if he didn’t know how to show them love but later I started to understand a little. Now I’ve come to terms with it. There are a lot of children who grow up without daddies. At the end of the day you just have to cut your losses and move on.
‘I have none of the simple memories other children have with their fathers – the day we went swimming together, or for a picnic, or camping. No, no, no, nothing. I’ll be sad when he’s gone but he hasn’t been a constant presence in my life.
‘I want to spend as much time as possible with him before he goes but there’s got to be a willingness on both sides, the awkwardness makes it difficult. I don’t know if he loves me. Children must learn to accept that sometimes they’re not really loved by their parents.’
Of course, she takes pride in his struggle and his achievement.
‘There’s no doubt about it, he really has contributed positively to the world and that makes me feel proud.’
But that, as she says, has come at a heavy price.
‘He doesn’t talk about it openly, but I think that there’s a spot inside him where he thinks he has not done well for his children. He doesn’t believe in regrets, but he has said to me that he’s sorry he wasn’t there when I was growing up.
‘But look, he’s into his third marriage now. So he’s not been that successful in relationships. And at 92, you can’t expect him to change.’
Mandela has tried, she says, to be a good father.
‘In his own way, he has tried to look after us. He feels it’s part of his duty to take care of his family. So when my first marriage brown down, he found me a lawyer and even bought the house where I still live today.
‘My father is very patriarchal and wants to protect everyone. That’s why he was so devastated when Zenani [Mandela’s 13-year-old great-granddaughter] was killed in a car crash before the World Cup. She was my half-sister Zindzi’s grandchild – a sweet, wonderful girl.’
The tragedy was also such a blow to Mandela because he is looking to the new generation to take up the continuing struggle.
Maki says: ‘I have four children and many wonderful nieces and nephews. I think my role now is to ensure that this next generation of Mandelas can take up the mantle and continue the legacy in some shape or form.
‘The male line is the most important for him because that’s the line that carries the family name. He was devastated when my older brothers passed away. Now he’s pinning his hopes on my brother Makgatho’s sons.’
Maki is at great pains to insist that she bears no ill-will towards her father.
‘I know there’s this aura around him. But to me, he’s not Nelson Mandela, he’s my dad – with all the goodness and the frailties that brings.’
And as she has grown older, Maki has set aside old arguments with Winnie and her children and her father’s current wife, Graca Machel. She says: ‘We’ve wasted a lot of time and energy squabbling about nonsense. But we have nothing to fight about.’
Has her father talked about death? ‘No, he doesn’t talk about that,’ Maki says. ‘He is aware that he hasn’t got much longer left.’
She laughs and adds: ‘He’s old now and he talks about the same things over and over again. He tells the same stories that happened a long time ago – ancient stories about his friends, his school days and so forth – and you have to pretend you are hearing it for the first time and are really interested.
‘When I see him, I kiss him and hug him. I would rather maintain the good memories than the other side. I realise he’s a great man, but I can also see that there are areas of life that he has not succeeded in.
‘I used to feel very angry and bitter about it. But now I feel sad for my brothers who never had the time to come to terms with Dad for what he is. I can honestly say that I’m at peace with myself these days. And I’m at peace with him. I truly am.’