Evelyn Mase (18 May 1922 – 30 April 2004) was a South African nurse, who was the first wife of the anti-apartheid activist and future politician Nelson Mandela, to whom she was married from 1944 to 1958. She was the mother of four of his children, including Makgatho Mandela and Makaziwe Mandela.
She met Mandela through her cousin Walter Sisulu and his wife Albertina, subsequently marrying him at the Native Commissioner's Court. Living together as a family in Soweto, they raised four children. However, their relationship came under strain as Mandela became increasingly involved in the African National Congress. Eschewing politics, she became a Jehovah's Witness. Accusing him of adultery, they divorced in 1958, and he went on to marry Winnie Mandela that year. Taking the children, she moved to Cofimvaba and opened a grocery store, but appeared in the South African press when Mandela was released. In 1998 she married a Sowetan businessman Simon Rakeepile. Her funeral attracted international attention, being attended by Mandela, Winnie, and Mandela's third wife, Graca Machel.
A Xhosa from the Transkei, she was the daughter of a mineworker. Evelyn's father died when she was a child, leaving behind his second wife and their six children. Three of these siblings died while still in infancy, while Evelyn's mother died when she was 12, leaving her and her sister Kate under the care of her older brother, Sam Mase. A devout Christian, Sam had a close friendship with his cousin, Walter Sisulu, with whom he went to school. In 1928, Sisulu moved to Soweto, Johannesburg, obtaining a house in the Orlando East township, later to be joined there by Sam. Becoming politicised, he encouraged Sisulu to read left-wing literature and join the ANC. In 1939, Evelyn joined her brother and cousin, to train as a nurse in the city's non-European hospital at Hillbrow, fulfilling the wishes of her late mother. There, she befriended Walter's girlfriend Albertina, whom he had met in 1941, and whom he would marry in 1944.
When Walter and Albertina moved to a larger house at 7372 Orlando West, they gave their old house to Sam. Evelyn and Sam continued to visit the Sisulus at their new house, meeting their lodger, Nelson Mandela. She would later inform Fatima Meer that "I think I loved him the first time I saw him", and they started dating after a few days. Within several months, he proposed marriage to her, delighting Sam and the Sisulus. The wedding took place on 5 October 1944 at Johannesburg's Native Commissioner's Court; they could not afford a wedding feast, with no traditional Xhosa elements in the ceremony.
The newly married couple had little money. They moved into a room at the house of Evelyn's sister Kate, where they lived alongside her husband Mgudlwa (a clerk at City Deep Mines) and two children. They didn't pay rent, but shared what money they had. She would later claim that their relationship in these early years was happy, commenting that "Everyone we knew said that we made a very good couple."
She became pregnant, and on 23 February 1945, at Bertram's Nursing Home, she gave birth to a son, Thembekile. Requiring greater space, the couple moved to a two-roomed house at 719 Orlando East for several months before relocating to 8115 Orlando West circa early 1947, where they paid rent of 17s 6. Nelson's mother came to stay, and she got on well with Evelyn.
It was during this period that Mandela was becoming increasingly interested in political activism, adopting an African nationalist ideology. Mandela's sister Leabie noted that Evelyn "didn't want to hear a thing about politics."
Evelyn became a Jehovah's Witness, and separated from Mandela in 1955 after what her husband described in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as an irreconcilable conflict between politics and religion. "I could not give up my life in the struggle, and she could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and her family", he wrote. "I never lost my admiration for her, but in the end we could not make our marriage work."
Evelyn moved to Cofimvaba in the eastern Cape, where she opened up a shop, and pinned a notice to the gate asking media to leave her alone. One reporter, Fred Bridgland, did manage to obtain an interview, in which he discussed the proposals surrounding Mandela's release from prison. She was angry at the situation, believing that it was being treated like the second coming of Christ and proclaiming "How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man."
Evelyn spent much of her later years working as a Jehovah's Witness missionary. She kept the name Mandela, but in the late 1990s she married retired Soweto businessman Simon Rakeepile.
She died on 30 April 2004. Mandela attended the funeral along with his second and third wives.