‘Madiba saved my marriage’

2013-06-23 14:00

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Widow of Mandela’s childhood friend recalls Tata’s loyalty.

The wife of former president Nelson Mandela’s best childhood friend says he saved her marriage.

Nozolile Mtirara (92) is the widow of Justice Mtirara. Mandela writes fondly of their friendship in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, where he reminisces about how they grew up together at Mqhekezweni Great Place under the guardianship of Justice’s father, the AbaThembu regent king Jongintaba Mtirara.

Speaking to City Press this week, Nozolile said it was Madiba who convinced her to return home to Mqhekezweni after she and Justice split up.

They were married in 1945 and had four children by the time they separated.

“It was in 1957, when Madiba was still practising as a lawyer in Johannesburg, that he came back here to Mqhekezweni and found the home closed, with no one staying here.

He went to my home at Rhodes and asked me to return to Mqhekezweni.

“My father agreed and I have been here ever since,” Nozolile said.

“I think Madiba saw the need to intervene because he did not want the house of Jongintaba to fall apart after the regent king had done so much for him.

It was also because of the close friendship between himself and Justice.

“But more than anything, it was due to his caring and compassion,” she said.

Madiba spent a significant part of his life – from the age of nine until he was 25, when he moved to Johannesburg – at Mqhekezweni Great Place, 35km from his home of Qunu.

Nozolile has a lot of respect for the ailing global icon.

“I respect him so much. To me, he has been a father figure, even though we are just a few years apart,” she said.

After Madiba’s intervention, the couple reconciled and eventually added two more children to their family.

Justice Mtirara died in 1974, leaving Nozolile to raise their children.

The regent king, Jongintaba Mtirara, died in 1942.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba speaks of how he learnt to nurture his leadership skills while watching the regent king as he presided over tribal issues under a tree, which served as the tribal court in Mqhekezweni.

The big gum tree situated near the kraal at the Mqhekezweni Great Place still stands.

So does the rondavel that Madiba shared with his friend Justice.

Mqhekezweni is a place filled with great history. It was the birthplace of the late AbaThembu king Sabata Dalindyebo, who was born in one of the rondavels there, and was also the headquarters of the AbaThembu nation.

Next door to the great place is the Mqhekezweni Methodist Mission, which Madiba attended as a child.

Last Sunday a full church service there was dedicated to prayers for Madiba.

Nozolile said she was saddened by Madiba’s continued hospitalisation.

“We don’t know when God will take him. We are all anxious because we don’t want to lose him. He is such a source of strength. Most of us will suffer when he dies because no one will take care of us,” she said.

She said even after Madiba was released from prison he did not abandon his roots in Mqhekezweni.

In the first year of his release, he built her a five-bedroom house and furnished it.

“He said he wanted to thank me for keeping the fires burning and for taking care of the home since he had asked me to return. It’s so funny because I am the one who should be thanking him,” she said.

“He is such a humble human being.”

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