How Nelson Mandela influenced writer Nadine Gordimer

Writer Nadine Gordimer was 39 years old when she sat in a Pretoria, South Africa, courtroom and watched Nelson Mandela receive a life sentence for acts of subversion against the South African state. Gordimer was already an activist then, and just beginning a career that would see her draw many precise portraits of the stubborn, idealistic and imperfect people of all races and creeds (East Indian, black, "colored," white, Jewish) who resisted apartheid.

She eventually joined Mandela's African National Congress. And in 1979, Gordimer wrote a novel about a white family of revolutionaries called "Burger's Daughter." The family is loosely based on the attorney who represent Mandela in his treason trial. It was banned in South Africa, but somehow a copy was smuggled to Mandela in his island prison, as she recounts in a piece for the New Yorker: "... he, the most exigent reader I could have hoped for, wrote me a letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book."

Just days after he was released in 1990, Gordimer met with Mandela privately, in Johannesburg. Now, following Mandela's death Thursday, Gordimer has revealed something she learned in that conversation. It was about Mandela's wife, Winnie, whose loyal support during his years of imprisonment had earned her the title "The Mother of the Nation."

“It was not about my book that he spoke but about his discovering, on the first day of his freedom, that Winnie Mandela had a lover,” Gordimer wrote. “This devastation was not made public until their divorce, six years later. I have never before told of it, because I believe that the depths of his sacrifice, the strength that he fearlessly revealed in the way that he lived, was not only for his political ethos. His was a way of living for the freedom of others.”

When Gordimer was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee wrote, "Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment. At the same time as she feels a political involvement -- and takes action on that basis -- she does not permit this to encroach on her writings. Nevertheless, her literary works, in giving profound insights into the historical process, help to shape this process." Two years later, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with South Africa’s leader Willem de Klerk, for their work together to peacefully end apartheid and foster the birth of a democratic South Africa. 


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