I just finished reading a fascinating appetizer to John Carlin’s new book on Nelson MandelaKnowing Mandela, and it set me wondering what might be the place of solitude in the narration of South African history. Some of the details of the failure of Nelson’s marriage to Winnie are public knowledge while others are revealed for the first time by Carlin: she a 22-year-old social worker meets him, then 38, and “strikes him with lightning”, as he wrote in one of his many letters to her. By the time they met he was already a well-known public ANC figure and much sought after on the political circuit. That a 22-year-old would be tapped on the shoulder by history in the person of Nelson Mandela (because that is what it turned out to be) and that she would subsequently give her life both to the man and to the history that he was making came at great cost. This highly intelligent, passionate, and eloquent man was not the stay-at-home-type.

We learn from Carlin’s account that Winnie was rueful about not knowing her husband in the way that ordinary wives know theirs: “I have never lived with Mandela”, she said. “I have never known what it was to have a close family where you sat around the table with husband and children. I have no such dear memories. When I gave birth to my children he was never there, even though he was not in jail at the time.” Nine years after they first met came the 1964 Rivonia Trial, at which his uncompromising choice of death as a price he was ready to pay in the pursuit of an equitable society rang out boldly, with his unjust 27-year imprisonment sealing his place as an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle around the world.

Winnie also suffered persecution at the hands of the apartheid authorities, with imprisonment, exile, a ban from setting foot in her home in Soweto, and even a year-long solitary confinement being unleashed by the regime to silence her and break her spirit. But an innate defiance was also part of her nature, so she rejected all attempts at being muzzled and continued to display the qualities that would cement her place as a political force in her own right. Her forthrightness in speaking her mind, something she did often and that got her into various spots of trouble, especially on the coming to power of the ANC. Her forthrightness in speech and the superb capacity for providing the measure of ordinary people’s suffering became legendary.

That she also managed to paradoxically live the high life of the rich and famous was not lost upon both admirers and detractors, but this was obviated by her tirelessness in pursuit of the objectives of the struggle during her husband’s absence in jail. Then came the many indiscretions that were to damn her. A conviction for assault and accessory to the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, whom her driver had subsequently murdered provided a galling low point. She also entered into several hush-hush and high profile affairs, culminating in the one for which she became most notorious. Her relationship with Dali Mpofu, a lawyer 30 years her junior became headline news in South Africa, finally making public what had been an ill-concealed secret among the ANC. (Carlin’s observes from his interview with her, when she was 53 and still in the relationship with Mpofu, that Winnie has “a coquettish, eye-fluttering sensuality to her” as if to insinuate that he himself was almost seduced.)

When Winnie walked hand-in-hand with Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in 1990 the whole world watched on television and saw in this the fulfilment of a great wish that had been written about many times, turned into anti-apartheid slogans, and even memorialized in Hugh Masekela 1988 “Bring Back Nelson Mandela”. The words “I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela” from the song became a well-known chant across urban Africa in the late 80s and early 90s, challenged perhaps only by equally memorable lines from Fela Ransome-Kuti’s trenchant critique of the continent’s kleptocracies, and by those from Bob Marley’s many ballads and Pan-Africanist songs. However, the dream of conjugal harmony surviving unscathed through apartheid’s scorching crucible had already been unraveling long before he came out of prison and matters became progressively more painful after that. When after two years following his release Winnie refused to share a bed with him he knew that the marriage was over. They separated then and divorced in 1995. Winnie had refused to give up her affair with Mpofu, even going as far as traveling on an ANC-related trip to New York. Carlin reports that her husband had begged her not to take the young man with her and she had apparently agreed. And yet, when her husband called her hotel room in New York it is Mpofu who picked up the phone. The pain he must have felt can only be imagined, but we must not assume that she did not feel some pain too.

Even though Carlin takes great pains to draw up a sympathetic picture of Winnie, it is clear that his sentiments are on the side of Nelson Mandela. For who would not gasp in shock at what appears to be a heartless betrayal? And of a loving and beautiful man such as Nelson Mandela? And yet it is precisely at this point that to side with Mandela entirely is to completely obliterate what it is to be Winnie, not just as an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, but as flesh-and-blood woman and human being.

As many scholars of South Africa have pointed out, including most recently Jon Soske in a magnificent lecture he gave at the University of Toronto on violence in the 1980s South African liberation movement, one of the key effects of apartheid and indeed of the long genealogy of white supremacy in the country, has been the separation of families. This phenomenon precedes apartheid by at least a century. The reasons for familial separation varied over time, but often included labor migration (in which typically men had to leave their families to go and work in the mines or other industries), state violence, or simply the exigencies of the liberation struggle itself, which often led to thousands of men and women leaving their families either to study abroad or get some form of military training in countries supportive of the ANC. These countries were both near (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola) and far (Libya, Ghana, Cuba). More importantly, the fact of family breakup also became a core feature of all societies that shared proximity with South Africa. Thus the trope of the male laborer that leaves his familiar environment to go and find money in the region’s largest economy is commonplace, with a poignant recent example to be found in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.

The reverse movement of women fleeing harsh marital conditions, whether from or to South Africa and going to settle elsewhere is also common. Such familial disjunctures and the exilic conditions that are their source form the centerpiece of Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather and the truly remarkable A Question of Power. And in The Cry of Winnie Mandela Njabulo Ndebele tells the story of the intersecting lives of four different women who have suffered the loss of their husbands to labor migration and politics, with each of them lamenting the loss and embarking on imaginary conversations with Winnie Mandela, whom they all consider to be the emblematic Penelope. In this light the experience of families being torn apart by the dysfunctional violence of the sociopolitical order must then be understood as central to both black and white lives in South Africa under apartheid (if even to different material effects), such that though remarkable the Mandela’s condition of separation is also simultaneously quite mundane.

It is when we interpret the extraordinariness of Winnie’s life not just as exclusively pertaining to its political dimensions but also as the volatile combination of the historical familial fracture and the unbearable solitude that is the direct product of this same fracture that we glean something of what must have been and may still be the nature of her anguish. Since she has never really spoken about her feelings on the breakdown of her marriage except to very close friends, we are obliged to speculate. But our speculation is neither vulgar nor voyeuristic; it is a means of achieving an Aristotelian insight by seeing her and her husband’s life as the unfolding of a tragedy, but with all the attendant dramatis personae, the ebbs and flows of fortune, the large scale interplay of determinism and contingency, and the irredeemable moments of tragic (re)cognition that any tragedy entails. As Martha Nussbaum points out in her superb discussion of the Aristotelian notion of pity to be found in the Poetics and the Nicomachean Ethics, it is our bearing witness to the hero or heroine’s loss of worldly goods that allows us to empathize with them and to draw cathartic insights by which to guide us on our own paths.

However, worldly goods must not to be mistaken for material goods. They do not include houses, cars, or money in the bank. Rather, worldly goods are the ineffable goods that sustain our capacity first for relating to others, and second for providing a coherent account of ourselves both to us and to others. (I am intertwining Judith Butler with my argument here, but please forgive me.) These worldly goods entail family, friends, neighbors, compatriots, and the entire aesthetic apparatus of social relations. To Aristotle the loss of any or all of these worldly goods fundamentally undermines our capacity to pursue ethical courses of action. We might gloss this view by saying that our capacity for pursuing ethical action is not merely a function of informed individualism but rather the product of our intersubjective relations with a range of others in a series of ever-widening concentric circles. And it is this loss of the capacity for undertaking ethical action and the recognition of the consequences of that loss that triggers pity and fear in those that bear witness, whether circumstantially or by choice. And in life as in the theatre, bearing witness precludes passivity. To bear witness entails a form of participation in the formally unfolding character of the tragic action. For Winnie Mandela the greatest worldly good was without a doubt her unjustly incarcerated husband. But she also lost several friends and acquaintances to jail, exile, death, and even abject despair during the long years of the struggle. And while the Soweto funeral, many of which she attended in a show of solidarity, was famously known for providing a platform for launching further songs and protests against the apartheid regime, in reality the sounds of lamentation remained echoing well beyond the funerals themselves.

Winnie experienced these losses on behalf of herself and others many times over. Of course to read Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s lives as revealing a tragic form we will have to break their mutual and interdependent biographies into relevant acts and scenes, a task that would require historical knowledge as well as a capacious creative imagination. We would also have to show how each segment entailed the exercise of multiple and contradictory choices that appeared equally valid and desirable both to them and to the other historical actors with whom they interacted. We would also have to explore how the choice of any course of action triggered consequences incommensurate to the choices themselves. We can agree with Carlin that for the Mandelas the choices seemed to have been primarily between Politics and Family, but I would add that this binary was undergirded by something much more profound yet by the same token more elusive, namely, the choice between iconicity and being human.

While Winnie’s various amorous relationships must have been joined for a variety of reasons, it is the fact that all her choices were undertaken in the face of history that must have affected her most profoundly. What response could she have given to a lover’s anxiously whispered question, “What shall we do if your husband finds out?”, when her husband was not only “the” Nelson Mandela but the entire anti-apartheid movement? And how would she have responded to the earnest demand that every lover in the entire history of humankind has felt impelled to make: “Do you really love me?”  She may indeed have truly loved some of the men she got into relationships with, but how would her simply stated “Yes, I really do love you” have been interpreted by these men? That she also demanded exclusivity in her relationships with comforting strangers must have struck them as a paradox. She was extremely jealous and vicious when scorned for another. As Carlin tells it, Mpofu was at the receiving end of hissing reprimands when she discovered he had also been seeing what she called a “white hag”. Beyond the adulation accruing to her as a legendary political icon–Mother of the nation, no less–all she wanted was for someone to still the heart that romped uncontrollably in her bosom like the mind of God. What might it be for 27 years to have viscerally felt “What thou among the leaves hast never known/The weariness, the fever, and the fret” (Keats) and yet to have had to cast around for the comforting warmth of a man’s naked embrace (true, not her husband’s, but he was not at home when she needed the embrace most urgently). And when she surrendered to the reassuring caresses of these men, gently sought or commandeered, did she ever transcend her abject solitude and manage to reach the simple delirium of being desired whole and in her entirety, with her tired and aching body, her snappy ill temper, her arrogance and pride, and all the flaws that flesh is heir to? What stray longings must have flitted tremulously across her body and soul at such moments? And so to the luminous words of T.S. Eliot’s “Marina”:

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

Even though Eliot’s poem is inspired by Pericles’s nostalgia for his daughter, the intensified perspectival sensorium that is registered by the lapping water, the plethora of details regarding the decrepit boat, the damp fog, and the woodtrush’s calling and calling all coalesce into an emblem of solitude, despair, and forlorn hope. Marina has in reality been lost long ago so that Pericles’ reflections are partly the recollections of a lost familial relationship through the maze of fading memories. That he moves seamlessly from the condition of the vessel to the vague threats of the eveloping environment and then to the elusive image of his daughter shows how ultimately fragile his mind is. It is a fragility born from longing solitude. Something of this fragility and the maze of solitude may be discerned in Winnie’s life too, for we must not suppose that in all her many affairs she ever stopped longing for her first love that may have long past faded or even been lost, and which, given the exigencies of South African family history may never have been retrievable anyway, at least not in its quotidian rhythms and banal articulations.

Scribes will no doubt wrestle mightily with the question of how to represent Winnie Mandela in the historical record. The fact that she was the wife of Nelson Mandela, the man who forgave his enemies and saved an entire nation will compound their problems. But if they remember, and we with them, that the real tragedy is ultimately in being human, perhaps we shall all agree that when it comes to our emotions it is an act of extreme hubris to rise up and say: “I am strong and thus can do no wrong.”

* This post first appeared on the digital salon, arcade. It is republished with the permission of the author.