Rachel Lundell: Nelson Mandela’s secret love
Rachel Lundell, mother of rock chick Jo Wood, has revealed how as a teenager she stole the heart of Nelson Mandela.
Rachel Lundell was 16 when she won a pledge of undying love from Nelson Mandela, who at the time was living in a tiny village in Umtata in the Eastern Cape.
Jo Wood’s mother, now 78 and living in Devon, had just finished convent school in 1951. She was working in her aunt’s fruit store and cafe after having second thoughts about life as a nun.
Rachel Lundell had first been offered a job at a baker’s shop in nearby Mount Frere but was sacked before she had even started when the owner discovered that Desmond, the black delivery boy, was her brother.
She said: “Desmond was darker than me; I was blonde, freckled and white. My father was white and my mother looked white but her grandmother was black and she passed those genes on to us in varying degrees.”
Desperate for work, Rachel Lundell was then offered a job by her aunt, Gertie Morrison. But it was Gertie Morrison who put paid to any chance of romance with Nelson Mandela in apartheid-era South Africa.
Rachel Lundell explained: “We had a lot of black customers and he was no different, buying cigarettes and peanuts in quite large amounts.
“There was no frisson of excitement when he came in or anything like that. He certainly wasn’t what you would call handsome but he had a twinkle in his eye.
“One day he came in and I served him as usual but after he left, I noticed there was a letter on the counter addressed to me. I opened it and there was yards and yards of it.
“It started off lovey-dovey enough but before long it had turned into something of a political missive all about how he was going to free the blacks in our country. Not very romantic really.
“Then Gertie came in and saw me reading the letter. She asked who it was from and I told her.
“She snatched it out of my hands and threw it on the fire, saying I wasn’t going to be going out with any black men.”
Rachel Lundell never saw Nelson Mandela again. Soon afterwards, he moved for good from Umtata, now called Mthatha, a former military post for colonial forces, to Johannesburg where he continued his political struggle.
She continued: “I wish I still had the letter. Imagine what it might have told us today about how Mandela predicted what lay ahead for him and his country. It would have been a special piece of history.
“All I’ve got left are the memories and the endless jokes from my eventual husband and children about what might have been. I know he was a bit of a ladies’ man in later life and it would seem he might have been then, too.”
Little did Rachel Lundell know at the time that Nelson Mandela was already married to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, with whom he had three children: Thembekile, Makaziwe, who died aged just nine months, and Makgatho, born in 1951 – the year of the love note.
That same year, Nelson Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress Youth League and by April 1952 was spearheading the so-called Campaign of Defiance.
Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, standing down five years later.
In November 1952, Rachel Lundell set sail herself for a new life in England on a Dutch cruise ship with a passport and ticket arranged for her by a missionary.
Her destination was suburban Surbiton, South-West London, where she lived with her sister Joan.
About a year after arriving, Rachel Lundell was gardening at the front of the house when a local boy, Michael Karslake, strolled past and persuaded her to go to the cinema instead of the square dance she had planned.
Rachel Lundell said: “I was all dressed up in my check shirt and denim trousers but something told me to go. I was supposed to be going off travelling in Europe and he had a job lined up in Canada.
“We never looked back, though. We married in 1954 and I’m proud to say I found the right one for me. Mike gave me four lovely children, the first of whom was Josephine.”
Jo Wood, now 57, was famously married to Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood for 26 years and has just published a new memoir – Hey Jo.
Eventually, Mike karslake and Rachel Lundell retired to Devon. Mike Karslake died in 1990, leaving Rachel Lundell with just four cats for company.
Rachel Lundell said: “I still talk to him and only the other day his picture floated down off the shelf. I knew it meant he was still with me.”