Former President Nelson Mandela portrayed divergent, contending and shifting notions of masculinity; from tsotsi masculinity to inclusive masculinity.

This is the finding of Dr Kennedy Owino, SMMS’ Head of Special Programmes, contained in a paper entitled Mandela Masculinities: Shifting and Contestations, presented during the recent Summer School.

Dr Owino noted that Mandela’s notions of masculinity (what he supposed a man should be), shifted and changed over the years and took different forms as his experiences changed. This, he said, was informed by the interwoven web of socio-political, cultural, economic, race, class and religious factors that operated together to influence the type of man he evolved to become.

The young Nelson shared the same notions of masculinity as the boys of his age in the Xhosa culture.

“Brought up in a polygamous family, family upbringing and culture socialised him on what it meant to be a man. With strong aspects of courage and honour, Mandela notes that even in a context of rivalry and fights, he “learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as boy, he defeated his opponent without dishonouring them,” Dr Owino said.

The Christian faith, by virtue of his membership of the Methodist Church, also had a role to play in forming Mandela’s notions of masculinity.

Dr Owino said, “Baptised and educated in a Methodist church and school, Mandela shows how religion was a part of him. His mother being a strong convert to Methodism, Mandela observes how his mother conveyed strong moral lessons. These experiences would later shape Mandela into the kind of man he would be in his coming years.”

His youthful days on the streets of Soweto and his early political career in the ANC, Dr Owino said, also had great influence on his notions of masculinity. He typified a form of masculinity which was tough and rough and times, he was reprimanded by the ANC leadership for militant statements that were out of line with party policy.

“I see forms of tsotsi masculinity which were typical of youth gangs in Soweto. The young Mandela was seen as a trouble maker who dealt with his enemies aggressively, and with toughness. He often did the impermissible in crossing the apartheid boundaries and chose to meet state violence with counter-force,” he said.

But, the aggressive, trouble maker and forceful Mandela changed over the years of his political involvement with the ANC and were finally perfected by a prison sentence.

“First, Mandela portrayed shifting forms of masculinities in his relationship with women and his wives to become a ‘woman’s man. From his prison writings, one observes how he writes to his wife, Winnie, in a more accommodating manner. Mandela shows a shift of relationship from the presumed male domineering perception of an African man to African women. The shift portrays a more partnering model than a hierarchical model of relationship, which were not present in Mandela before he went to prison.”

After his release from prison, he said, Mandela portrayed another image of masculinity which was one of warmth and inclusiveness, even embracing his former enemies.

Dr Owino said, “Mandela becomes a ‘father of the nation’ to a South Africa that is a ‘fatherless nation’. He constructs the need for a ‘fathering’ masculinity which seeks to model a man living in a real South African situation. He models a masculinity which is caring for children. Even in death, he displays a generous masculinity, leaving parts of his estate to strangers.”