When he was in prison, Winnie was harassed and imprisoned. She spent time in solitary confinement and under house arrest. She sent their two daughters to stay with friends in Swaziland.
“I feel as though I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals that you are going through,” he wrote her in 1970. He missed her terribly, and used to note down in his diary the outfit she was wearing whenever she visited, and her appearance.
In a 1976 letter to her, he mourned “my sleeping without you next to me and my waking up without you close to me, the passing of the day without my having seen you.”
He wrote to his daughters, then 8 and 10, in June 1969 to try to console them when their mother had been taken away to prison too:
“Once again our beloved Mummy has been arrested and now she and Daddy are away in jail. It may be many months or even years before you will see her again. For long, you may live like orphans, without your home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection that Mummy used to give you.... Perhaps never again will Mummy and Daddy join you in house number 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.”
After his release from prison in 1990, he had to endure Winnie’s infidelity. In March 1996, the president took the stand in a packed Johannesburg courtroom to publicly accuse “the defendant” of adultery with an ANC aide. Mandela said that after his release from prison, his wife had never entered their bedroom while he was awake.
Mandela married two years later. And he found happiness in his marriage with Graca Machel, widow of the former president of Mozambique, saying, “I don’t regret the … setbacks I’ve had because, late in my life, I am blooming like a flower.”
But more sorrow was to come. His surviving son, Makgatho, died of AIDS in 2005. Mandela was the first African leader to acknowledge losing a family member to the illness, which still carries a stigma here.
Critics of the Mandela clan have sometimes attacked an extravagance and arrogance of some members of the extended family who seem out of step with the patriarch’s ideals and humility.
Even Mandela himself wasn’t averse to bling: He reportedly gave his daughter Zindzi a silver Mercedes for her recent 50th birthday.
Critics raised concern that the party, where champagne flowed and guests got extravagant take-home gifts, was sponsored by an individual or company, not paid for by the family. Mandela himself didn’t attend because of deteriorating health.
Zindzi’s mother, Winnie, present at the party, had recently been embroiled in yet another scandal when her car was stopped for speeding recklessly, just six months after the death of her great-granddaughter in a speeding car.
Smith, Mandela’s authorized biographer, said Mandela was human and that his Achilles’ heel was his family.
“Mandela is a man. A very great man, but his weak point was his family,” she wrote in a 2011 column on Mandela.
“He felt eternally responsible for the suffering of his children and Winnie while he was in prison and he never stopped trying to heal their pain.”