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Mandela's Village: Mandela was no saint

Nelson Mandela was one of the first members of South Africa's now-emerging black middle class.

Editor's note: This series about Nelson Mandela's home village describes South Africa's past and points the way toward its future. Where tradition vies with modern leadership. Where rural poverty persists. Where Mandela’s legacy inspires future leaders.

QUNU, South Africa — It is an age-old story: a journey from the village to the city, a young man’s dreams of making it big and the pitfalls he faces along the way.

Nelson Mandela lived that story, climbing from his barefoot rural childhood to become a member of Johannesburg’s tiny black elite in the 1950s, a smartly dressed young lawyer with a growing role in the fight against apartheid.

Even within a relatively well-connected family like the Mandelas, it was only Nelson who managed to make the transition from country boy to urban professional, before the country's nascent black middle class was choked by apartheid. Mandela was a rare example at the time, but this may finally be changing because, following the end of apartheid, South Africa has an emerging middle class that for the first time in the country's history is increasingly black.

Mandela and South Africa won the battle to end apartheid, but the fight to make that journey from a poor village to an urban middle class is one that continues today for millions of people in South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world with a widening chasm between rich and poor. The need to establish a middle class and fulfill its aspirations for a better life is, according to many political and economic analysts, South Africa’s next big struggle.

Mandela’s early days in Johannesburg gave him a glimpse of a more extreme poverty than he had seen in his childhood. He worked as an articled clerk at a law firm but earned a meager salary and lived in a rented room in the overcrowded Alexandra township, which he described as “slum” where life was both “exhilarating and precarious.”

Over the next decade he moved up quickly. The early 1950s were a formative time in Nelson Mandela’s political life. He was an up-and-coming lawyer who founded a firm with partner Oliver Tambo on Fox Street in downtown Johannesburg, and became increasingly influential in the African National Congress party.

Mandela, in black-and-white photos from the time, is a confident, chubby-cheeked man who smoked cigarettes and favored expensive three-piece or double-breasted suits. He described himself in his autobiography as a man about town, wearing “smart suits” and driving “a colossal Oldsmobile.”

As a member of the black middle class, he was in the company of only about 50,000 other South Africans, most of them teachers and clerical workers. The large majority of them would have made the journey, like Mandela, from rural homes to South Africa’s big cities where the traditional values of the villages broke down.

Despite his rising fame in the anti-apartheid struggle and his many achievements, Mandela never forgot where he came from, at least according to his country cousin from his home village.

Morris Mandela was an uneducated youth from the sleepy village of Qunu in the impoverished Eastern Cape. When his mother died, he went to live with Nelson and his wife Evelyn at their matchbox house in Soweto, the sprawling township near Johannesburg. At the time Mandela was a member of Johannesburg’s small black elite.

“Nelson was always working and travelling,” recalls Morris Mandela, who died in his native Qunu last July at the age of 80. He was one of Nelson Mandela’s few remaining close relatives in Qunu, the rural village where he spent his boyhood.

Morris cleaned train carriages in Johannesburg for many years and was not involved in politics. He recalls tense times at that house, with the police often coming around, asking for Nelson Mandela. He recalls seeing him being arrested once by “so many police” who took him into a van.

He says Nelson took good care of him. “He was like a big brother to me,” Morris said. “I would ask him for money to travel into Johannesburg, and I’d go to his office to get a lift home to Soweto,” said Morris. “He worked so hard that I used to tell him, ‘You’ll become president some day.’”

In Johannesburg at the time, the center of bohemian life among black Africans was the freehold township of Sophiatown. While the living conditions were shockingly poor, the area was the vibrant home of artists, writers, singers, doctors and lawyers — until it was torn down starting in 1955 by the apartheid government.

Mandela frequented Sophiatown during its heyday, visiting friends and participating in the campaign against the forced removal of residents. It was also in Sophiatown, according to a new biography, that Mandela met and had an affair with Dolly Rathebe, a singer and actress who was a contemporary of famed South African songstress Miriam Makeba.

Mandela told friend and fellow political activist Mac Maharaj that he had lived a “thoroughly immoral life” after the breakdown of his unhappy marriage to Evelyn in 1955. The book “Young Mandela,” by British author David James Smith, describes several other affairs, as well as the possibility of children by other women, and argues that much of the infidelity began while the couple was still together. The book also includes allegations that he physically abused Evelyn – though Mandela strongly denies that.

Mandela himself has taken pains to dispel the sinless image that has grown around him. In his new book of memoirs, “Conversations with Myself,” he makes it clear that he was always marked by the insecurities of his village upbringing in the Eastern Cape.

“As a young man, I combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly by events in the area in which I grew up and the colleges to which I was sent,” Mandela writes. “I relied on arrogance to hide my weaknesses.”

He also says that he was never a saint, “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”