He rented a back room with no bathroom facilities from a family in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg.
Apartheid began in 1948, the policy of the newly elected National Party chosen by white voters on a promise to intensify segregation and violently suppress black political expression.But even as that put the minority regime on a collision course with the black majority, it was a time of social and political ferment and possibility in which the tall, handsome, educated Thembu princeling discovered his romantic self.In 1944 he had met his first wife, Evelyn Mase, a cousin of African National Congress stalwart Walter Sisulu, at the Sisulus’ home.Former South African President Nelson Mandela (Centre) flanked by his former wife Winnie Mandela (Right) and current wife Graca Machel (Left) at the ANC Madiba 90th Birthday Celebrations on August 2, 2008 at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane, South Africa “I was hardly a Don Juan,” wrote Nelson Mandela in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom.“Awkward and hesitant around girls, I did not know or understand the romantic games that others seem to play effortlessly.” While this bashful account may have been true of the younger Mandela – a country boy making his way in a big city whose ways were not yet familiar to him – by all accounts he grew to become a legendary charmer and shameless flirt.
The fact that two women came to mourn the man one of them referred to as “our husband,” while a third wife went to her grave angry at his failures as a spouse – and others claim romantic entanglements along the way – may speak to a love life that underscored Mandela’s oft-quoted line that "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying." His life story suggests that his earliest experience of matters of the heart were decidedly awkward – in fact it was to escape an arranged marriage that the 22-year-old Mandela fled Mqhekezweni, his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape, to work as a security guard on the mines in Johannesburg.
As a penniless boarder in South Africa’s biggest city, he also wasn’t successful in love.
Mandela’s rapid metamorphosis from country bumpkin to suave lawyer, rising political star and man-about-town was almost inevitable given his new surroundings and influences.
His coming of age coincided with the emergence of a new urban black political culture in South Africa, an age of self-discovery and social liberation even amid the strictures of segregation and apartheid.
Mandela was a young man at the dawning of the jazz age in Sophiatown, the neighborhood near Johannesburg that hosted a kind of South African Harlem Renaissance before the apartheid regime tore it down.
Still, its seeds of transgression of conservative norms in music, literature and politics would flower in the decades that followed.