As the world marks Mandela's 90th birthday, his daughter reveals how she overcame her resentment towards her absent father.
Nelson Mandela arrives in Europe today for what is likely to be his last major public appearance, a 90th birthday charity concert in Hyde Park, London, starring Amy Winehouse, Annie Lennox and Razorlight.
As with most events in his life, Mandela's farewell will be acted out on a global stage, but the purpose of the event – to raise money for Mandela's Aids charity 46664 – is intensely personal.
For a man accustomed to sharing himself with the world, family tragedies have sometimes proved just too painful. No one knows this better than Maki Mandela, his eldest surviving child. “My father had a lot of pain in his life. He has lost three children, and both of his sons. He is very aware that there is no one to carry on the name in the traditional sense.”
Maki (54), who lives in Johannesburg, once claimed that her father “wanted us to be like the Kennedys”, but now denies a comparison that has unhappy parallels.
Mandela wrote about the death of his first son, Thembi, who was killed in a car accident while he was still incarcerated on Robben Island. But the loss of his second son, Makgatho, is something he finds harder to discuss. “He doesn't like to talk about it,” says Maki, speaking in a rare interview last week. “When people used to mention my brother's name (my father) would walk away.”
Makgatho, an attorney like his father, died in 2005 of Aids. “When he was in the hospital my father visited him three times a day,” says Maki. “To lose a child is the worst thing in the world, and to see your child waning in front of your eyes like that is unimaginable.”
The family were always clear that they wanted to break the taboo that surrounds HIV and Aids in South Africa, she adds. “We were never embarrassed about it. Aids is a disease like any other disease. There is a stigma about talking about it because it is transmitted through sex. But my attitude is that we all engage in it, we are all at risk and we have to talk about it.”
Nelson Mandela is, she admits, a man who has found such discussions difficult, but necessary. The most significant criticism of his presidency was his slowness in confronting an Aids crisis that now affects a quarter of South Africans. But it was a mistake that he admitted, and rectified, by speaking publicly about his family's loss, and criticising the ANC government's controversial stance on the causes of HIV, and the delayed distribution of vital drugs.
“My father is very, traditional, very conservative when it comes to family,” says Maki. As a retired elder statesman, “he is in his element sitting with his grandchildren, telling stories about his parents and Qunu, where he grew up”.
That time with him, and those stories, is a luxury that Maki never had. “I was 6 or 7 when he went into hiding. Then I went to boarding school. Then he went to prison. As a child, you always want your father to be there through your trials and tribulations. I used to be very resentful that he wasn't there.”
As one of the four children of Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn (who died in 2004), Maki has often been described as having had a difficult relationship with her father. “Don't make me regret I am here,” Mandela once wrote to her from prison. “What I need to do is worthwhile, not only for you and for the family, but for all black people.” After his release Mandela confided to friends that when he tried to hug her, she flinched. “He was a father to the world, but he was not my father,” says Maki.
Relations were strained between Mandela and his eldest children after his divorce from their mother and remarriage to Winnie. “We were at war with Winnie,” Maki has said. “My mother was the one who contributed to my father becoming a lawyer. She kept the home fires burning. She even paid his school fees. She raised all of us and the grandchildren, too.”
Evelyn was a quiet woman who preferred to stay out of the limelight, but continued to remind her children that their father loved them.
“She would tell us that when we were babies, and were crying, he would say to her ‘you sleep, I'll look after them'. And he would stay up with us and change our nappies. There was a good side, and there were good times between them. He wasn't just a strict disciplinarian.”
She pauses: “Though he is a disciplinarian. He's a little better now, but in the old days he would go on and on about our education. He was determined that I would go on to study more.” Maki, now 54, eventually got a PhD in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts and held senior positions in academia before becoming a businesswoman.
“He wishes he could have been a traditional father,” she says. “He says he wishes he could have taught us how to handle our money better,” she cackles. “Since he came out of prison we have never been given the chance to get to know each other. But as his daughter I'm learning to treasure the moments. He was in prison for 27 years and is very introspective, but those moments when they come, are the moments he's happy.”
Old friends have commented on his introspective side. “When he was released from prison he would come for his lunch and would be very relaxed, but a side of him was somewhere else, thinking about other things,” says one, Amina Cachalia. “He had forgotten how to be with people. He talked to me as if I were a prison warder.”
The transition to freedom, and breakdown of his marriage to Winnie, was not a happy time, Cachalia adds. “He used to tell Winnie, ‘I wish I'd married Amina; look at how she looks after me'.” He was joking, she says, as they were never more than friends, but she believes that it reflected the coldness that had come to characterise his marriage. Mandela's third marriage, in 1999, to Graça Machel is
judged to have brought the family together and ushered in a more harmonious period in his personal life. “He comes into the office almost every day that he is in Johannesburg and works for about three hours,” says Achmat Dangor, who runs the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “He no longer gets up at 6am, he wakes up when he feels like it.”
He still takes walks, reads newspapers, enjoys a massage and watches a large TV in his bedroom. When political comrades come round for advice he tells them to a take a deep breath and think carefully before acting. He is traditional, but also funny and irreverent. When the Queen of England phones he has been known to call her Elizabeth. “Why not?” he teases shocked guests. After all, she calls him Nelson.
Above all, he remains shrewd and thoughtful – far from the image he has of a benign grandfather. A masterful politician, he survived his years in power with his reputation intact; his charities keep a vigilant eye on their donors and commercial associations. Mandela still holds the moral high ground: during the recent crisis over xenophobic attacks in South Africa, his foundation took out a full-page advert telling the nation to “Stop the madness”.
But he is only a man, not a product that can save South Africa from its worst impulses. “We can't bottle him like wine,” says Dangor. Even so, few are ready for a post-Mandela future. Mamphela Ramphela, a long-time activist, agrees: “We are not yet ready to let him go.”
Maki says his willingness to forgive has helped her to move on from her anger. “I can say, I'm very proud of him. He came to power and was able to leave that power behind him. He's stubborn, but a great believer. His life has been a struggle, but it's been a struggle of hope.”