This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote a number of years ago about Nelson and Winnie Mandela:
I think we also have to break away from the bourgeois tradition of romantic love which isn’t necessarily about creating the conditions for what you call critical affirmation…. We must think of not just romantic love, but of love in general as being about people mutually meeting each other’s needs and giving and receiving critical feedback.
–bell hooks, Breaking Bread
…When I think of a love that epitomizes these things – commitment and freedom – I think of Winnie and Nelson Mandela. He, a freedom fighter, imprisoned for nearly three decades by the now defunct apartheid regime in South Africa. She, also a freedom fighter, his wife, his comrade, fighting for and waiting for his release those three decades. When I think of their love, specifically Winnie’s for Nelson, I know that it was a great love she had for him, that they had for each other – a love of commitment to each other, to the struggle for freedom, on a personal as well as a political level – for only a great love could have withstood the test of prison time – three decades of fighting and waiting to realize their love in a state of physical as well as political freedom.
When Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, we wanted to see a happy ending. We wanted to see Nelson and Winnie together, happily ever after. Because we grew up on fairy tales and notions of romantic love – which are constantly reinforced by love songs, movies and romance novels – we wanted to see the personal triumph over the political. It was heartbreaking to see the political triumph over the personal. Diehard romantics probably would have preferred to see Winnie and Nelson together in exile rather than a part in a new, provisionally free South Africa with Nelson as president.
I can only speculate, but I think that during Nelson’s nearly three decades of imprisonment, Winnie’s love for him transformed from the personal to the political. I think Winnie knew this more so than Nelson. I think Nelson knew this too, but that he sustained himself on romantic notions of revolutionary love, that is, that his wife, his comrade, would be by his side until he was free because the personal and the political were inextricably linked; moreover, if separated, the personal would triumph over the political, that they would triumph together. In any event, I think that sometime during his captivity Nelson realized that if he truly loved Winnie, he had to give her her freedom. He had to tell her that the personal was over although the political would never be until a free South Africa was realized. The greatest act of love would have been giving Winnie her personal freedom while he was still imprisoned, but he did not, perhaps trying to keep the personal and the political together, which could not be. In the final analysis, once freed, Nelson chose the political over the personal – there was something politically expedient about their breakup, something that smacked of betrayal, something that perhaps made us lose faith in both romantic and revolutionary love.