When I think of Nelson Mandela, the first thing that comes to mind is forgiveness. Legend has it that he forgave people most of us would have found extremely difficult to shake hands with. I’m sorry, but if you put me in prison for 27 years, you better pray that when I’m released I don’t become president. In fact, make that two years. But Mandela came out of prison speaking softly about forgiveness and reconciliation. The direction he took the country after becoming post-Apartheid South Africa’s first black president has been used around the world as an example of how to move away from conflict.
Some of Mandela’s most notable acts of forgiveness include having dinner with a man who’d tried to kill him in 1963. (That would have been the man’s last meal, if I were president). Mandela invited his former prison guard to his inauguration, and years later had his former jailers over for dinner to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.
But after learning today that his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, lost a bid to inherit Mandela’s home in Qunu — and that he left her out of his will — I’m beginning to doubt that Mandela really forgave anyone.
If I’m wrong, then, to Mandela, Winnie — who he was married to for nearly 40 years — had to have been more evil than the Apartheid government that locked him up for 27 years. But I can’t imagine that being true, so I’m going to go with the theory that Mandela never truly forgave anyone. He might have realized that saying that he’d forgiven his jailers would have served him better politically than waging a vengeful war against white South Africans.
I also think that one of the reasons Winnie lost is because she is an African woman. Before you scream murder, think about this: The court that ruled against Winnie said that the 1996 annulment of their marriage in a European-style court supersedes the customary law, which was the basis of her argument, and one I think most Africans would agree governs marriages in the continent. I just find it hypocritical that we can accept that our African customary laws okay President Jacob Zuma’s polygamous marriage, but we deny Winnie a legal right that the same customary law accords her.
If the roles were reversed and Mandela was the one who went to court to demand the right to the property of his former wife, the court would have — without hesitation — ruled in his favor because Mandela paid a dowry for her in 1958, as required by customary law. I can also bet that had she been the one in prison for 27 years, Mandela would not have waited for her. For that, she deserves a favorable place in the history of the struggle to end colonialism in Africa.
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