Evelyn Ntoko Mase

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Biographical information

Evelyn Ntoko Mase at her home in Cofimvaba in April 1994 Image source

Synopsis:

Nurse, Entrepreneur, Nelson Mandela’s first wife

First name: 
Evelyn
Middle name: 
Ntoko
Last name: 
Mase
Date of birth: 
18 May 1922
Location of birth: 
Engcobo, Transkei (Eastern Cape)
Date of death: 
30 April 2004

Little is available in the public to construct a thorough biography of Evelyn Ntoko Mase before and after her relationship with Nelson Mandela. She may have been averse to being in the public eye, particularly as she was not involved, and had no desire to be. in political activities. As a result, much of the focus on her life historically, has been that of her time as Nelson Mandela’s first wife - and much of what is known of her comes from his words or the words of their contemporaries. As a result, it is difficult to discern who Evelyn Ntoko Mase was in her own right and the following should be read with caution and criticality, until further research becomes available.

Mase was born on 18 May 1922 in Engcobo in the Transkei. Her father was a mineworker and passed away when she was a baby. [1] Her mother passed away when she was twelve years old. [2] She grew up in a devout mission environment. [3] It is unclear exactly when she moved to Johannesburg, but whilst training as a nurse she lived with her cousin, Walter Sisulu. She worked at the Johannesburg General Hospital with Albertina Sisulu. Walter Sisulu and Mase’s mothers were sisters. [4]

This image of Walter and Albertina Sisulu’s wedding was taken at the wedding party in the ‘Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg and includes Nelson Mandela (left in the 1st row), Evelyn Mase (left of the groom) and Anton Lembede (flanking the groom): Image source

It was whilst staying at the Sisulus’ home that Mase met Mandela, who was four years older than her. [5]  The picture often showed of Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase is one in fact taken at Albertina and Walter Sisulu’s wedding party on 17 July 1944, where Mase was one of the bridesmaids and Mandela one of the groomsmen. [6] A few months later on 5 October 1944, Mase and Mandela got married in a humble fashion at the Native Commissioners Court where the Sisulu’s acted as witnesses to the marriage. [7] Money had been tight, so there had been no big celebrations after the ceremony. They could not afford their own home so they moved in with Mase’s brother, Sam and later her brother-in-law, Mgudlwa. [8]

Mase (middle) with her sons, Thembekile (left) and Makgatho (right) Image source

In 1945, the Mandelas’ had their first child, whom they named Madiba Thembekile. They then moved into their own home, first in Soweto at 719 Orlando East and thereafter 8115, in 1946. [9] Their house had three rooms, with no electricity or lavatory. Today this house has been rebuilt as a heritage site. During his marriage to Mase, Mandela studied law at the University of Witswatersrand whilst developing himself intellectually and politically. Mase’s income as a nurse enabled her to maintain the household and she was described as the emblem of a “perfect wife” – “well-behaved”, “quiet” and “devoted to her family and husband”. [10] A friend of the couple, Phyllis Ntantala, said of Mase:

“Without Evelyn’s encouragement and assurance that she would always be there to keep the home fires burning he [Nelson] would not have made it” [11]

Mase and Mandela had three more children; Makaziwe in 1948 who died at nine months old, Makgatho in 1950 and Makaziwe in 1954. [12]  Mandela’s mother also frequented their home to help the family and she got along very well with Mase. [13] However, the more politically involved Mandela became, or so the narrative went, the more the marriage became tense and strenuous. Sources often depict Mase as an apolitical and deeply religious woman with no interest in Mandela’s political activities. 

“‘My devotion to the ANC and the struggle was unremitting. This disturbed Evelyn. She had always assumed that politics was a youthful diversion, that I would someday return to the Transkei and practice there as a lawyer. Even as that possibility became remote, she never resigned herself to the fact that Johannesburg would be our home, or let go of the idea that we might move back to Umtata. She believed that once I was back in the Transkei, in the bosom of my family, acting as counselor to Sabata, I would no longer miss politics. She encouraged Daliwonga’s efforts to persuade me to come back to Umtata. We had many arguments about this, and I patiently explained to her that politics was not a distraction but my lifework, that it was an essential and fundamental part of my being. She could not accept this. A man and a woman who hold such different views of their respective roles in life cannot remain close.’[3] – Long Walk to Freedom” [14]

In 1954, Mase became involved in the Watch Tower organization as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is a denomination of Christianity. The Watch Tower was significant in that it distributed publications of the Witness’ beliefs.

‘“Over the course of the next year [1954] Evelyn became involved with the Watch Tower organization, part of the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whether this was due to some dissatisfaction with her life at the time, I do not know. The Jehovah’s Witnesses took the Bible as the sole rule of faith and believed in a coming Armageddon between good and evil. Evelyn zealously began distributing their publication The Watchtower, and began to proselytize me as well, urging me to convert my commitment to the struggle to a commitment to God. Although I found some aspects of the Watch Tower’s system to be interesting and worthwhile, I could not and did not share her devotion. There was an obsessional element to it that put me off. From what I could discern, her faith taught passivity and submissiveness in the face of oppression, something I could not accept.’ [12] – Long Walk to Freedom” [15]

In the Mandela household, one parent preached religion whilst the other preached politics:

“‘We also waged a battle for the minds and hearts of the children. She wanted them to be religious, and I thought they should be political. She would take them to church [Kingdom Hall] at every opportunity and read them Watch Tower literature. She even gave the boys Watchtower pamphlets to distribute in the township. I used to talk politics to the boys. Thembi was a member of the Pioneers, the juvenile section of the ANC, so he was already politically cognizant. I would explain to Makgatho in the simplest terms how the black man was persecuted by the white man.’[18] – Long Walk to Freedom” [16]

Mase had not anticipated the significant extent of Mandela’s political activities as she initially thought of him as a student and had entertained his interest in the African National Congress (ANC) in small doses. Besides the couple’s strong ideological differences, it must be noted that Mandela’s behaviour as a husband and a father was also a cause for contention for Mase. Various sources refer to the possibility that Mandela had affairs or relations with other women. One such reference was with the secretary of the law firm he ran with Oliver Tambo - Ruth Mompati. [17] He also spent nights away from home. In 1953, Mase went to Durban for a few months to pursue a midwife certificate and when she returned there was another woman who was staying in her home with Mandela. Mase had also accused Mandela of domestic violence, of which he denied. [18]

According to Mandela, in 1955 Mase gave him an ultimatum; her or the ANC.

“’After we [ANC members] were arrested in December [5, 1956] and kept in prison for two weeks, I had one visit from Evelyn. But when I came out of prison, I found that she had moved out and taken the children. I returned to an empty, silent house. She had even removed the curtains, and for some reason I found this small detail shattering. Evelyn had moved in with her brother, who told me, “Perhaps it is for the best; maybe when things will have cooled down you will come back together.” It was reasonable advice, but it was not to be.’[23] – Long Walk to Freedom”

Mandela filed for divorce in 1958 after three years of separation. Mase raised their children on her own, with income that she also obtained from a grocery store she opened in the Cofimvaba, in the Eastern Cape. [19] When Thembekile passed away in a road accident in 1969 whilst Nelson was in prison on Robben Island, he sent her a letter of condolence. Allegedly this was his only communication with her during his term of imprisonment. [20] When Mandela was released, Mase made the following statement in an interview:

"How can a man who committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man." [21]

Makaziwe, the only child that is still alive from Mandela and Mase’s marriage Image source

In 1998 Mase married Simon Rakeepile, an entrepreneur from Soweto who was also a Jehovah’s Witness. They lived in Mzimhlophe in Soweto. Thus, Mase exits the public arena in her relations with Mandela. On 30 April 2004 Mase passed away from respiratory problems. Makaziwe was the only child still alive from her marriage with Mandela, as Makgatho who had HIV/Aids, passed away on the 6 January 2005. Makaziwe maintained that her mother was bitter about her relationship with Mandela. [22]

It is a worthwhile consideration that the reason little or scant interest is taken in Mase’s life, is because her relations with Nelson Mandela remains a blotch on his saint-like legacy. Her voice is almost non-existent for our historical archives. For all the qualities that stood out about her – religion, domesticity, passivity and anti-political nature – it was also the strength of these qualities that enabled Mandela to develop his career and educational aspirations. However, beyond her contribution to Mandela’s life, this was a woman who was strong in her own right in that she maintained a career and her household financially and emotionally whilst married and later as a single mother who was able to continue providing for her children – roles that Mandela was unable to fulfil sufficiently.

Endnotes

[1] Liz McGregor, “Evelyn Rakeepile - Apolitical wife who suffered for Nelson Mandela”,

The Guardian, 5 May 2004 accessed 12 February 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/may/05/guardianobituaries.southafrica.

[2] Ibid

[3] Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 36

[4] Carole Bos, “Mandela and First Wife - Evelyn Mase”, Awesome Stories, 7 October 2013 accessed 5 February 2018, https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Mandela-and-First-Wife-Evelyn-....

[5] Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 36

[6] Carole Bos, “Mandela and First Wife - Evelyn Mase”, Awesome Stories, 7 October 2013 accessed 5 February 2018, https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Mandela-and-First-Wife-Evelyn-....

[7] Clement Mabunda, “Mandela’s Brush with Watchtower”, Thinking Witnesses, 5 December 2016 accessed 10 February 2018, http://thinkingwitnesses.org/mandelas-brush-with-watchtower/.

[8] Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 36

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, 76

[12] “Nelson Mandela family tree”, BBC. 5 December 2013 accessed 5 February 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-23083138.

[13] Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 27

[14] Clement Mabunda, “Mandela’s Brush with Watchtower”, Thinking Witnesses, 5 December 2016 accessed 10 February 2018, http://thinkingwitnesses.org/mandelas-brush-with-watchtower/.

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Andrew Malone, “The young Mandela: A ballroom dancing ladies' man with a very tempestuous love life”, Mail Online, 6 December 2013 accessed 10 February 2018, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2349335/Nelson-Mandela-death-bal....

[18] Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), 110

[19] Liz McGregor, “Evelyn Rakeepile - Apolitical wife who suffered for Nelson Mandela”,

The Guardian, 5 May 2004 accessed 12 February 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/may/05/guardianobituaries.southafrica.

[20]Ibid

[21] Colleen Lowe Morna, “Madiba the flawed father, husband and man: 'I'm still learning'”, Mail and Guardian, 12 July 2013 accessed 5 February 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-12-00-madiba-the-flawed-father-husband-....

[22] Andrew Malone, “The young Mandela: A ballroom dancing ladies' man with a very tempestuous love life”, Mail Online, 6 December 2013 accessed 10 February 2018, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2349335/Nelson-Mandela-death-bal....


References:
• Bos, Carole. “Mandela and First Wife - Evelyn Mase”, Awesome Stories. 7 October 2013 and accessed 5 February 2018, https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Mandela-and-First-Wife-Evelyn-Mase.
• Mabunda, Clement. “Mandela’s Brush with Watchtower”, Thinking Witnesses. 5 December 2016 accessed 10 February 2018, https://thinkingwitnesses.org/mandelas-brush-with-watchtower/.
• Malone, Andrew. “The young Mandela: A ballroom dancing ladies' man with a very tempestuous love life”, Mail Online. 6 December 2013 accessed 10 February 2018, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2349335/Nelson-Mandela-death-ballroom-dancing-ladies-man-tempestuous-love-life.html.
• McGregor, Liz. “Evelyn Rakeepile - Apolitical wife who suffered for Nelson Mandela”,
• The Guardian. 5 May 2004 accessed 12 February 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/may/05/guardianobituaries.southafrica.
• Morna, Colleen Lowe. “Madiba the flawed father, husband and man: 'I'm still learning'”, Mail and Guardian. 12 July 2013 accessed 5 February 2018, https://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-12-00-madiba-the-flawed-father-husband-....
• Sampson, Anthony. Mandela: The Authorised Biography. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.

Last updated : 29-Jun-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 26-Jun-2018

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