Mandela and his 3 wives

Mandela and his 3 wives
Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel.

JOHANNESBURG - Nelson Mandela ducked out of an arranged marriage when he was a student, then went on to wed three times. His first two marriages collapsed under the strain of politics, but the third time around he found enduring happiness with the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel.

In sharp contrast to Graca Machel and his feisty second wife, Winnie, Mandela's first wife was a demure country girl who kept well away from politics.

Like him, Evelyn Wase hailed from the rural Transkei and had come to Johannesburg in the early 1940s to carve out a living in the big city.

She was the cousin of African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Walter Sisulu and met Mandela in Sisulu's home in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, in 1944.

They married months later, in the same year that Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo formed the ANC's Youth League and politics of struggle against white minority rule came to consume his life.

Descriptions of their first years tell of Evelyn as the happy housewife with Mandela bathing their three babies and helping with the cooking when his work at his law practice and political meetings were done.

But by 1954, Evelyn had buried herself in religion like her husband had in politics and bitterly resented his absences.

When Mandela was arrested for treason the first time, he came home on bail to find Evelyn had gone, leaving behind their two youngest children.

She returned to the Transkei, ran a shop and remarried in her seventies.

Winnie came into Mandela's life at the start of a second treason trial, which would see him jailed for 27 years, and they married in June 1958.

She too came from the country, but took to the city, and once she met Mandela, also dived into politics with alacrity.

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