Love During Wartime

I'm nearly finished with Higher Than Hope, an official biography of Nelson Mandela published toward the end of his imprisonment at the hands of the South African government. Most of the biography has been political history, detailing the Mandelas' struggle and the broader fight to overturn apartheid,but now that I'm approaching the end the book has shifted to annotated excerpts of correspondence, with an understandably nostalgic and sentimental bent to it. "The world is truly round," Nelson writes to his wife Winnie on July 1, 1979, "and seems to start and end with those we love."

I know little of Winnie Mandela, beyond the international news reports from the late 1980s that had her participating in acts of horrendous violence. She seemed to tarnish Nelson's legacy, in my mind and I daresay in the minds of many others. And yet, having read this book, I find myself cutting winnie some slack.

Winnie has suffered from a bit of a Yoko Ono syndrome, at least in my head. Even the story of how she and Nelson met, and his subsequent and matter-of-fact divorce of his first wife to make way for Winnie, remind me of Yoko's abrupt disruption of John Lennon's homelife and musical career, and so I find it hard to be sympathetic toward her.

Over time I've acknowledged to myself, however, that Yoko the human being and artist is not Yoko the Destroyer of the Beatles that we've made her out to be. I've developed some sympathy for Yoko over time, actually; sometimes I even entertain the notion of buying and listening to some of her solo work.

If I can muster up some good feeling for Yoko, who's a weirdo musician who had breakfast in bed on behalf of world peace, I trust that before it's all over I'll be able to do the same for Winnie, who suffered for decades in her struggle for human dignity.

I got a little burst of such sympathy when I read the following note from Nelson to Winnie, intended to be complimentary and romantic but surely not received as such. "You look wonderful to me," Nelson wrote at the end of a letter about Winnie's health, "even when you appear like one whose lungs have been eaten away by a pack of impundulu."

If he had tried that line on her the first time they met, the world would be a much different place.


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