How Mandela chose love over tribal custom

9 December 2013

As we drove around the tiny village of Mqekezweni in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, Nozolile Mtirara looked shaken and rather depressed. The area brings back both good and bad memories of her late husband Justice, a brother and a close friend of the late Nelson Mandela.

SAnews caught up with Mtirara recently. Whenever Mtirara speaks about Mandela, Justice’s name is mentioned, because the two were almost inseparable.

Mandela moved from his native Qunu to the village of Mqekezweni when he was just nine years old, following the death of his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa.


The then head of the village, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, had offered to become a guardian to the young Mandela when his mother could not afford to send him to the kind of schools that would prepare him for life.

Chief Dalindyebo was Justice’s father, but Justice and Mandela treated each other as blood brothers – there is no such thing as a half brother in African culture.

It is at Mqekezweni that Mandela underwent the traditional Xhosa initiation to manhood at the age of 16, and because he was now a “man”, he owned property for the first time and could also take a wife.

It is at this village that he attended a one-room mission school where he studied English, history and geography for the first time. It is at this same school, which was also used as a church, that he met Winnie Madikizela, the daughter of the church’s reverend, who would later become his wife.

Strengthened by circumstance

SAnews found the school still intact, with its original building and furniture. During his recent visits there, Mandela had instructed the elders in the area that the structure, together with a hut he shared with Justice, should not be tampered with.

“He gave strict instructions that the church and the hut which he used to sleep in together with my husband, not be demolished, but must receive constant renovations,” said Mtirara. “He even bought glasses for the windows and ordered people to renovate it inside.”

Mandela built a house for Mtirara and was apparently very fond of her – a relationship strengthened by the circumstances that led to her marriage with Justice.

It was in the early 1940s, as Mandela recalls in his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, that the chief summoned him and Justice to a meeting.

Arranged marriages

Mandela had just returned to Mqekezweni for the holidays from Fort Hare University in nearby Alice, where he had been studying towards a law degree. At the meeting, Chief Dalindyebo shocked the two when he told them about their arranged marriages to two local girls. Mtirara was one of the girls.

The announcement took both Mandela and Justice by surprise. Lobolo (the dowry) would be paid and the marriages were to take place immediately. Not only would the marriage affect Mandela’s studies at Fort Hare, but he would be forced to marry someone he had never spoken to or had a romantic relationship with.

The chief was acting according to Tembu law and custom, under which arranged marriages were a regular occurrence. Tembu is the clan to which Mandela belonged.

‘Rebel against my own people’

“Everything was in such a hurry but both men were just not into it, and the chief would not hear any of it,” Mtirara recalls.

Mandela later wrote: “With all due respect to the young woman’s family, I would be dishonest if I said that the girl the Regent had selected for me was my dream bride … At that time I was more advanced socially and politically, while I would not have considered fighting the political system of the white man, I was quite prepared to rebel against the system of my own people”.

After days of soul searching, the two managed to escape their arranged marriages and boarded the first available train to Johannesburg. Mandela found a job as a policeman on the mines. It was in Johannesburg that he later met African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Oliver Tambo, who helped him pursue his dream to become a lawyer. It is also through Tambo’s and Walter Sisulu’s influence that he joined the ANC.

But Justice, who also found a job at the mines, would later return to Mqekezweni to reunite with the girl his father had wanted him to marry.

Justice, who was four years older than Mandela, died in 1974, leaving Mtirara with two sons and four daughters. As for Mandela, he reunited with Winnie, his sweetheart from church – but only after he had already married and divorced Evelyn Mase, a devout woman he met in Johannesburg through Tambo. Mase apparently disapproved of Mandela’s political beliefs.

‘Something of a fairy tale’

“I was doubtful that my marriage with Justice would work because Mandela had made it clear that for his part he was not returning to that arrangement, and I believe it’s something of a fairy tale if you can call it that. I believe God has kept me and Madiba to tell these stories,” says Mtirara.

Today, the woman, who had become close to Mandela, said she would remember the former president of South Africa not only as someone who escaped with her “potential husband”, but as a man whose noble intentions had changed the world.


“Imagine if they had stayed here and allowed the marriages to take place at that time? He probably would not have ended up in Johannesburg and he probably would not have involved himself with the politics of the day … it was a blessing in disguise,” Mtirara said.

She respects Mandela for standing up to the chief and not allowing himself to be united with the woman he never loved. “Even though my husband and I ended up getting married, what was meant not to happen did not happen and our marriage was probably destined to take place, but not at that time”.

Like many South Africans, Mtirara holds Mandela in high regard: “He was and will always remain an amazing man, both him and I can rest assured that we have travelled our road and told our story, and most importantly there is peace in the world because of men like him.”