Mandela’s Greatest Regret in His Own Words

Richard Stengel, Time magazine’s 16th managing editor, worked with Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.  Mandela became his mentor and father figure and the godfather of his first son, who he named after Mandela. Stengel, in his book ‘Mandela’s Way Lesson of Life’ wrote ‘we long for heroes but have too few. Nelson Mandela is perhaps the last pure hero on the planet.’  It is difficult not to agree with him. The fact that the whole world stood still in honour of an icon of immeasurable influence as he took a bow out our world is an eloquent testimony of Stengel’s assertion.

As unfathomable the impact and influence of Nelson Mandela was, he had his greatest regret, which I believe the world must learn from. I found it few years ago while reading the books, ‘The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ and ‘Conversations with Myself,  which are the most inspiring social empowerment books I have read in my life as a social empowerment advocate. Also found corroboration in Martin Meredith, book, ‘Mandela, A Biography.’ Before I share his greatest regret as revealed in his own words, I will like to say that Mandela stripped himself bare in his autobiography and ‘Conversations with Myself.’

All over the pages of the books, he succeeded in presenting himself as a normal human being, with his foibles and thorns-in-the-flesh of humanity. He dwelt on his strength as much as he dwelt on his weaknesses. Reading, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ and ‘Conversations with Myself,’ I learnt two critical lessons: first, that the walk to freedom, spiritual or political, physical or mental is a very long one. It is better not to have been caged or denied of one’s freedom. The impact of any form of oppression resides more in the mind of the oppressed and even when he is declared politically free, he must work to emancipate his mind from the seemingly insurmountable impact of oppression; second, that a great man is not a man without human foibles, but a man who chooses to heed the call of destiny despite his imperfections. Such men keep working on themselves and their cause because if they wait to be perfect, they will only be qualified to pursue any cause except in their graves.

The path that Nelson Mandela chose cost him primary constituency, his family. He did not hide this fact in Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote about how his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, which was blessed with four children disintegrated on page 283, 284 and 285 of ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ ‘Over the course of the next year Evelyn became involved with the Watch Tower organization, part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whether this was due to some dissatisfaction in her life at the time, I do not know…We also waged a battle in the minds and hearts of the children. She wanted them to be religious, and I thought they should be political… My schedule in those days was relendess. I would leave the house very early in the morning and return late at night. After a day at the office, I would usually have meetings of one kind or another. Evelyn could not understand my meetings in the evening, and when I returned home late suspected I was seeing other women. Time after time, I would explain what meeting I was at, why I was there, and what was discussed. But she was not convinced. In 1955, she gave me an ultimatum: I had to choose between her and the ANC…After we were arrested in December 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…Evelyn and I had irreconcilable differences. I could not give up my life in the struggle and she could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and the family. She was a very good woman, charming, strong, and faithful, and a fine mother. I never lost my respect and admiration for her, but in the end we could not make our marriage work.

On page 286-287 of ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ Mandela wrote extensively on the impact of the breakup on the children: ‘The breakup of any marriage is traumatic, especially for the children. Our family was no exception, and all of the children were wounded by our separation. Makgatho took to sleeping in my bed. He was a gentle child, a natural peacemaker and he tried to bring about some sort of reconciliation between me and his mother. Makaziwe was still was small, and I remember one day, when I was not in prison or in court, I visited her crèche (nursery school) unannounced. She had always been very affectionate child, but that day, when she saw me, she froze. She did not know whether to run to me or retreat, to smile or to frown. She had some conflict in her small heart, which she did not know how to resolve. It was very painful. Thembi, who was ten at the time, was the most deeply affected. He stopped studying and become withdrawn. He had once been keen on English and Shakespeare, but after the separation he seemed to become apathetic about learning. The principal of his school spoke to me on one occasion, but there was little that I was able to do…Following the breakup, Thembi would frequently wear my clothes, even though they were far too large for him; they gave him some kind of attachment to his too-often-distant father.’

On page 244  of ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ Mandela had written about an experience he had with his daughter as he was about to make another of his many trips, ‘At midnight, as my guests were getting ready to leave, my daughter Makaziwe, then two, awoke and asked me if she could come along with me. I had been spending insufficient time with my family and Makaziwe’s request provoked pangs of guilt. Suddenly, my enthusiasm for the trip vanished.  But I carried her back to bed and kissed her good night and as she drops off to sleep, I made my final preparations for my journey.’ Mandela repeated this experience with a bit of additional information on page 57 of his 2010 book, ‘Conversation with Myself,’ ‘Although I had been confined to Johannesburg, pressure of work had allowed me little time to spend with the family and I was well aware of the longing that would eat away their insides as I drifted further and further from them on my way to the Transkei.’

Shortly before Mandela came out of prison, Winnie Mandela, his second wife, who had stood stoutly by him over the years of his struggle and incarceration, was at age Fifty-five involved in a relationship with a young lawyer, known as Dali Mpofu, who already had a child with another woman. In his book, ‘Mandela, A Biography,’ the prolific author, Martin Meredith revealed, ‘when Mandela in prison learned that Mpofu had moved in with Winnie, he sent her a letter telling her to get ‘that boy’ out of the house. Mpofu left, but the affair continued. From the moment that Mandela returned home to Johannesburg in February 1990, Winnie showed no interest in sharing his bed. The pain and humiliation for Mandela were some of the worse experiences he had known. They made him later recalled, ‘the loneliest man.’’   

On April 13, 1992, Mandela at a press conference announced his separation from Winnie. It was a sobering speech, which bore no acrimony and protected Winnie Mandela. On page 823 of Long Walk to Freedom, he said in his speech among other things, ‘Comrade Nomzamo and myself contracted our marriage at a critical time in the struggle for the liberation of our country. Owning to the pressure of our shared commitment to the ANC struggle to end apartheid, we were unable to enjoy a normal family life.’  In the immediate succeeding page (824) Mandela submitted, ‘perhaps, I was blinded to certain things because of the pain I felt for not being able to fulfill my role as a husband to my wife and a father to my children. But just as I am convinced that my wife’s life while I was in prison was more difficult for her than mine, my return was also more difficult for her than it was for me. She married a man who soon left her; that man later became a myth; and they the myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.’

Mandela continued his reminiscence over his life as a family man toward the end of page 824 of ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ and flows into page 825 thus, ‘As I said at my daughter Zindzi’s wedding, it seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters to have unstable personal lives.  ‘When your life is the struggle, like mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and most painful aspect of the choice I made. ‘We watched our children grow without our guidance,’ I said at the wedding, ‘and when we did come (of prison), my children said, ‘we thought we had a father and one day he’d come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because he has now become the father of the nation.’” To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far little of.’ Christiana Scott, a journalist and activist, wrote on page 145 of her book, ‘Nelson Mandela: A Force for Freedom,’ ‘children have been one of the great joys of Mandela’s life since his release from prison, but his relationship with his own offspring have been occasionally tense and full of unspoken sorrows.’

On Saturday, December 7, 2013, Mandela’s third and last wife for 15 years was asked in an interview with CNN if Mandela had any regret. Her response corroborated Mandela’s lamentation in Long Walk to Freedom. She said, ‘only one, he would have loved to have better input in the lives of his children.’

Permit me to conclude that Mandela had judged the matter of his failure to be there for his family well when he said, ‘to be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far little of.’  As I meditate on Mandela’s life as a family man, particularly his conclusion above, I am inclined to think that if Mandela has the opportunity to live again, he might choose ‘the father of a family’ over being ‘the father of a nation.’

If of a truth the secrets of great men are in their stories, then I believe we have a lot of lessons to learn from Mandela’s life, particularly as it relates to our commitment to our families. I strongly believe that a man’s primary commitment should be to his family. I like the way John C. Maxwell puts it, if it is not working at home, there is no point exporting it to the world. The question is always; can a man or woman can have it all? That is to have a successful family life and an accomplished public life. It may be tasking, but I think it is possible. I believe every man or woman is called to provide one form of service or the other to better humanity. I believe that we are not created to live for ourselves and families alone, but we are to live for our family first. The other alternative is to choose not to have a nuclear family. I think it is our responsibility to identify the service by the help of God, set our priorities right and set out to fulfill destiny. The greatest lesson, I have learnt from Mandela’s life is his greatest regret. I understand that no public achievements and the attendant accolades will compensate for the neglect of one’s roles to his family. As a Social Empowerment Advocate, I believe I am instructed. So help me God.


  1. Very great write up! I reckon u are some sort of mandela in d struggle for child protection in Nigeria.I pray God gives you the grace to handle your unseen challenges.

  2. Wow. That was touching, balance is the key to life. I learnt from this piece to put family first. First thing first

  3. Great Piece that touches on some sore points of life. It mainly reveals the frustrating part of trying to make a balance in the two major causes of life. As I read along, I xrayed my life and commitment to my home and discovered also that it is only God who can make the difference. If you chose your family above the struggle for what you believe in, you can never make the requisite mark in the sands of time. Your love and attention for the family is good but the struggle for financial freedom is a factor in strengthening the family cord. Mandela paid the maximum price for the black race. We in Nigeria, as leaders are neither at home nor sicerely fighting the cause of the nation. Lots of wisdom all the way. Kudos, Brother……

  4. MANDELA neglected his family to save a nation,a brave move that would see many africans become heroes in their families.He failed as father so we could be better fathers in the freedom he died to have us have.RIP MY HERO.

  5. This is thought provoking sir. One has to put is or her priorities right always to avoid regrets at the end of life.
    From what I deduce, it is better to build a nation in my home first, than to strive to build a nation outside while neglecting the nations in my home.

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