Do revered leaders have to be saints?

10 September 2010 - 03:18 By Anthony Altbeker

The Big Interview: At a time when our president has let it be known that he wants "muck-raking" journalists kept out of his personal life, it is perhaps surprising to hear that people at the Nelson Mandela Foundation went out of their way to show the author of a new biography of Madiba documents that suggest that he might have beaten his first wife.

"Mandela's life story has been told many times," David James Smith told me when we spoke a few nights ago. "The story is so well known, I really didn't expect to find sworn statements about domestic violence."

Mandela the wife-batterer? The idea seems ludicrous. And yet that is precisely what his first wife, Evelyn Mase, alleged when she filed for divorce in May 1956, going so far as to claim that at one point he tried to strangle her.

Smith is careful to note that Mase's allegations were not tested in court, and also that Mandela has let it be known that, if they had been, he would have denied them. Still, Smith clearly believes there is something to Mase's claims.

"She identifies her neighbours as potential witnesses," he told me, "which tends to corroborate her story. She has also repeated it to others over the years. And Mandela himself has admitted that on one occasion he used some force to wrestle a poker away from her."

There will be those who distrust Smith's project and will be put off by the relish he appears to take in stripping some of the gilding off the image we have of Mandela.

Why, they will ask, should an old man who has given so much to his country and to the world be subjected to the indignity of accusations that he choked his wife, that he messed around with his secretary, and that he fathered children out of wedlock?

It is these anomalies, the gaps between Mandela-the-icon and Mandela-the-man, that most interest Smith.

"I think there was a time when this country needed Mandela to be untouchable, to be saintly," he said, suggesting that, on some level, we allowed ourselves to be misled.

Perhaps this is true. But it is perhaps also true that, with the obvious and important exception of his first wife's allegations of domestic abuse, the dirt Smith dishes doesn't shock Smith's readers as much as his publishers might think it should.

Is it really surprising and shocking that powerful, charismatic men have affairs? Not really.

Is it really surprising and shocking that powerful, charismatic men are ambitious; that they are not always strangers to self-regard; that their actions, as important as they are to their followers, are not inspired only by altruism; or that their loved ones sometimes find them cold and distracted and emotionally unavailable?

No, no, and no.

Ultimately, though, it is not the salacious details, most of which come from a period in his life that Madiba himself once described as having been "thoroughly immoral", that make Young Mandela work.

These are interesting and, individually and collectively, they produce an idea of Mandela that is more human and more plausible than his canonisation has allowed.

More important than the details of the scuttlebutt, though, are three lessons that South Africans, who live with the idea that their democracy is a "miracle", might come away with after reading Smith's compelling book.

The first is that truly great leaders don't have to be saints. The second is that to expect saintly politicians is to demand the impossible and to deny the inevitable.

It is the third idea that is the most radical of all: we don't need saintly leaders.

What we need are leaders who are decent, hard-working and brave; leaders who learn from their mistakes; who understand their followers but are not hostage to them. As Smith shows, Mandela has always been these things. And more.

And yet the question begs for an answer: did Mandela really beat up his first wife?

Though noting that the allegations were not tested in court, Smith believes that he probably did.

"His life at the time was unbelievably pressurised and unstable," he told me. "He might have cracked."

Smith might very well be right. And yet I can't help noticing Madiba's stated intention of denying the allegations.

Neither can I help wondering if Mase and her lawyers exaggerated their claims to strengthen their hand during the divorce proceedings.

Likely as not, this is wishful thinking on my part, a symptom of my prejudices and my resistance to thinking about Mandela in these terms.

Maybe it's no more than sentimental weakness, but I've decided to suspend judgement.

  • Altbeker is the author of Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: A true story of murder and the miscarriage of justice