“The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison. Though I was on trial for treason, Winnie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and second chance at life. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.” – Long Walk to Freedom, page 217
This quote comes from the very end of Chapter 26, when Mandela has just married his new wife Winnie after his marriage to Evelyn failed. Mandela attributes the breakdown of his marriage to Evelyn largely to his ongoing treason trial and his work as an activist. After his divorce, Mandela says that he made a point to be honest with Winnie about his financial struggles and his intention to continue the fight. As he says “I told her it was more than likely that we would have to live on her small salary as a social worker…I never promised her gold and diamonds, and I was never able to give her them.” Winnie’s father warned her that she was “marrying a man who was already married to the struggle,” but despite his reservations he told her that she must follow him on whatever path he may take. Although the surrounding situations are different, these excerpts immediately reminded me of Yesterday.
While Yesterday is not really related to apartheid, I think that there is a connection here that is relevant to culture in South Africa. One of the main things that I took away from Yesterday is how vast and expansive a country South Africa is. Outside the cities, the rural villages and communities could easily be considered states of their own, and in fact were for some time (see my blog about the Promotion of Bantu Self-government Act). Yesterday’s story was one of a struggling and devoted mother who was essentially head of household given the constant absence of her husband who would spend months at a time away from home working in Johannesburg. The film also demonstrated the cultural acceptance of polygamy in many parts of the country, as well as violence against women. Such a life for women is hard to imagine as a westerner, yet in the face of such injustice and hardship Yesterday remained devoted to the well-being of her family, including her abusive husband, all the way to the end. The role of women in South Africa has been a recurring thought for me ever since we watched the movie.
The connection that I see here is not literal. Nelson Mandela is not hundreds of miles away from his new wife Winnie, but as her father said he is indeed “married to the struggle.” Thus, I would say that this represents the same kind of strain on what we as westerners think of as family life that we saw in the movie. So when Nelson Mandela says that the wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, I immediately picture Yesterday. While Mandela is not physically “away,” he is consumed by his work as an activist. Just like in the case of Yesterday, Winnie will need to assume all major responsibilities in the family which is a huge burden to bear. To me, her willingness to follow Mandela on his path to freedom is another unbelievable demonstration of strength from a South African woman. Even in the face of all of the injustice and hardship they often face, these women seem to constantly honor a deep-seeded commitment to their husbands and to their families above all else.