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Mandela and masculinity today

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Mandela and masculinity today

Photo by Ivor Markman
Raymond Suttner

11th July 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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In remembering Nelson Mandela, in the month of his birth, it is valuable to return to the neglected question of what he has to teach us about masculinity, what it means to be and various ways of being a man. South Africa remains a violent country marred by aggression and violence, mainly perpetrated by boys and men. Across all population groups there remains a tendency to “solve problems” through recourse to force. An enquiry into Mandela’s legacies, especially what he represented as a man may have relevance in providing a role model and an alternative notion of masculinity

In the major biographies and in other work, Mandela’s masculinity is treated as “obvious” and not requiring discussion. The main exception is Elleke Boehmer’s work, though her approach is mainly focused on symbolic elements. (Nelson Mandela. A Very short introduction, (2008.  See also my articles, inter alia, on Mandela’s masculinities in African Identities, 2015) The evidence is there not only for scholars to interpret but Mandela himself is very self-conscious of being a man and constantly makes reference to manhood, though these statements need to be unpacked. He continually refers to doing what a man ought to do or becoming a man or signifying that some or other item is given to him or owning something as a sign of manhood.  Later in life he reproaches himself for not being there to protect his family, as a (male) head of household should be. He repeatedly refers to some or other action being required in order to be a man, or that being a man requires doing or not doing something or conducting oneself in a specific way.

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But everything that is said about Mandela’s masculinity must be in the plural, because he was constantly changing, as his conditions altered and he developed as a human being. While there is a great deal in Mandela’s personality that was learned from the environment he frequented, there is also much that he consciously did in order to represent himself in a particular way, whether as a young, handsome, physically fit, city slicker; dramatic courtroom
lawyer; defiant defender of his beliefs in court; militant leader; dignified and resolute prisoner; or, inclusive president. Consequently, we are not dealing with a person whose identity as a man can be reduced to one quality that endured over time, whether mainly in his early life or later, because of changes initiated by shifting conditions and influences, or more directly through his own agency. That is also not to say that any changes he underwent necessarily erased what he had been before. There is in the unfolding of Mandela’s life a continuity within ruptures, and ruptures within continuities: looking back and looking forward.

In his early life what it meant to be a man had a measure of clarity. From the earliest pages of Long Walk to Freedom Mandela indicates how he is socialised into expectations of what manhood entails, referring for example to the gendered division of labour, what was “women’s work” and what work was reserved for men. He also learns from an early age what comprised the qualities of boyhood, leading to manhood. He refers to what he derives from constantly keeping company with boys and learning behaviour expected of boys, and norms and skills acquired through relationships between boys:

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“From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the veld playing and fighting with the other boys of the village. A boy who remained at home tied to his mother’s apron strings was regarded as a sissy. At night, I shared my food and blanket with these same boys.”

The moment of initiation and circumcision are treated as the major phases in the transition to manhood in most discussions of African masculinity today. Indeed, circumcision may be crucial but it would be more correct to see it as a moment within a range of ceremonies and transitions that go into making a man. Indeed those transitions –that continue after initiation may make men of more than one type depending on the content with which manhood is invested amongst particular peoples and at specific moments of their history.

Mandela’s initiation ceremony is indeed significant in his life and for more than one reason. The acting regent of the abaThembu, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, had raised him from the age of 9 and the moment of Mandela’s initiation was when Jongintaba’s son Justice was to be initiated. 

Mandela describes the moment of circumcision as a trial of strength, where the foreskin is cut but the boy-becoming-a-man ought not to voice his pain. He should quickly shout: “Ndiyindoda!” (“I am a man!”). Mandela tells the reader that the level of pain he experienced was such that he was slow to shout those words.

Mandela reveals to the readers that he fails this test of manhood, writing when he is an elderly man, one of the most famous people in the world. He is conscious that young men or boys about to be men, reading his account may conclude that even a soldier like Mandela was not always physically up to the mark in terms of the rough, tough imagery still associated with manhood today. In a sense Mandela gives other boys-becoming-men permission to admit that they in fact feel physical pain-because he had failed that test-if it is a test-and still made good in his life.

The other significant feature of the initiation ceremony is that a celebration is held to welcome back the boys who have returned from initiation. Chief Meligqili who speaks on this occasion mars the celebratory atmosphere by declaring that they are the flower of the youth but cannot in fact be men because they are a conquered people, condemned only to do certain work and denied basic rights in the land of their birth where they are subordinated by colonialism.

Mandela describes himself and others as being angered by this speech, at the time, thinking that the words were foolish, that the man did not understand some of the benefits brought by white rule. Mandela later reflects that in reality it was he, not the chief who was foolish- in the light of conquest that he comes to understand better. He leaves the initiation ceremony with a sense of incompleteness, a thwarted transition to manhood. That sense of incompleteness may have been correct even if there had not been this speech because masculinity ought in reality and as is demonstrated in Mandela’s life to be continuously evolving and not completed in one ceremony. 

But Mandela continues to be preoccupied with being a man. When he arrives in Johannesburg, he trains as a boxer and runs regularly, both of which he had started at school. He bears the imagery of a tough but glamorous and well-dressed man.

Walter Sisulu had paved the way for him to be trained as a lawyer and also recognised that Mandela could become a political leader. Mandela was a founder of the ANC Youth League but he was less politicised than Anton Lembede, Sisulu, AP Mda and Oliver Tambo. But he was eager to learn and set about remedying his weaknesses. 

During the 1950s Mandela became a public figure, both as an attorney and an ANC leader. How did this affect his relationship to his first wife, Evelyn Mase? How did Mandela the boxer and aggressive political leader relate to her? Important evidence of his relationship with his first wife Evelyn is presented in neglected interview material of Fatima Meer. (Higher than Hope.  Rolihlahla We Love You. Nelson Mandela’s biography on his 70th Birthday, 1988). What is clear is that Mandela did not follow patriarchal conventions and regard his wife as being there to minister to his needs. Indeed, he often did the shopping and cooking and caregiving. Adelaide Tambo speaks of other wives envying Evelyn who had a husband who was so involved in home making. 

Without suggesting a developed feminist consciousness, Mandela never expects any of his wives to be located in the home, in the private sphere. In all of his marriages, Mandela encouraged them to participate in the public domain.

But Mandela still wrestles with elements of his self-understanding of manhood. He refers to his initiation experience hovering in his consciousness long after the moment of circumcision, as a process that was unresolved both because he did not show the required fortitude and because Chief Meligqili had referred to a contradiction between being a man or we may say adult and being part of a conquered people. Eighteen years after the initiation ceremony, having successfully led the Defiance campaign of 1952 he speaks, as if in dialogue with his earlier experience. He sees the campaign entailing his staring the enemy in the face, and using the imagery of a boxer, understands the encounter as demonstrating manhood:

“I had been engaged in a just cause and had the strength to fight for it and win. The campaign freed me from any lingering sense of doubt or inferiority I might still have felt; it liberated me from the feeling of being overwhelmed by the power and seeming invincibility of the white man and his institutions. But now the white man had felt the power of my punches and I could walk upright like a man, and look everyone in the eye with the dignity that comes from not having succumbed to oppression and fear. I had come of age as a freedom fighter.”

In the years that follow, in the 1950s Mandela, Sisulu and others prepare to become soldiers in MK, even before this is approved by the ANC, in 1961.  Mandela is jailed, as accused number one in the Rivonia trial, emerging 27 years later.

Mandela was imprisoned as a soldier who had started a war of self-defence, the first commander in chief of MK. Over the years his self-reflection did not entail renunciation of that decision. There was no process of “revelation” suggesting that dialogue (that had never been open), should always have been pursued. But prison was a period for self-reflection and no longer governed by the intense passion of the years before he was imprisoned. He was open to different approaches, where these became viable. He speaks of coming out of prison “mature.”

Mandela interpreted the apparent stalemate between the apartheid regime and forces of resistance in the 1980s as offering the opportunity for a negotiated settlement. The ANC had always expressed a preference for peaceful methods, where it was possible to pursue them. Mandela grasped the possibility of achieving democracy through peaceful means. The fighter, the “man of war”, became a man who bent his efforts towards making peace work.

When Mandela was released from prison, it was a time where many ANC cadres were geared for war and felt disappointment at the onset of negotiations. Many had not been adequately briefed on this changed direction, for they had been instructed to prepare for insurrection. One of the manifestations of the militaristic orientation then prevailing was the toyi toyi, a mainly masculine dance emanating out of war.

The dance was accompanied by aggressive chants with words exhorting to hit and shoot the enemy. Mandela entered the groups who were dancing with his distinctive “shuffle dance”, smiling to all South Africans, affirming and evoking inclusivity.

Mandela’s gestures were never random and ad hoc. He knew that how he represented himself and how he was understood by others were important, bearing symbolic importance. He did not want a civil war. Whites had to be reassured, while simultaneously having his base constituency amongst oppressed black people understand that what he wanted to do would lead to political freedom.

The Mandela who went to prison was remembered as a dignified, yet angry man. The Mandela who emerged had become sober and evoked gravitas. He would often smile, yet the angry Mandela had not disappeared and could re-emerge where conditions made that necessary. On occasions where he felt betrayed by the last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, Mandela’s anger would rise to the surface.

In general, however, when we review the development of Mandela “the man”, we see a series of journeys, where he constantly changes, but without abandoning everything that he has been before. Even in his last days he remained attached to his Thembu identity and was buried near his place of birth. The Mandela who found peace for the country also found peace with himself as a man.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. Suttner served with Nelson Mandela in the ANC national executive committee, after his release from prison. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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