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South Africa: What it’s really like to be a Mandela

By Romain Chanson, in Johannesburg
Posted on Friday, 3 December 2021 11:48

Former president Nelson Mandela surrounded by his grandchildren on 18 July 2013. © Themba Hadebe /AFP

Eight years after former South African president Nelson Mandela’s death, some of his family are cashing in on his freedom hero status, while others are keeping his memory alive – or fighting over his estate.

‘Buy any case of House of Mandela wines and stand a chance of winning a Nelson Mandela’s Struggle series unsigned print’. This is the promotional message that pops up on the website of the House of Mandela (HOM) lifestyle brand.

With its high-end offering of wines, art, jewellery, books and clothing, the business venture doesn’t seem to take inspiration from the late anti-apartheid activist’s purportedly humble disposition. The brand is marketing papers over reality, selling customers a gold-embossed version of Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba – his clan name.

“Our business isn’t about the man himself – it’s about the history behind the House of Mandela,” Tukwini Mandela says, defensively. Madiba’s 47-year-old granddaughter founded the HOM brand alongside her mother, Makaziwe Mandela, in 2010. The pair of descendants of Evelyn Mase, Mandela’s first wife, have said they want to pay homage to their ancestors and tell the story of a lineage that produced a hero. “People tend to think my grandfather fell from the sky like some kind of Greek god, but that’s not the case. He was a human being with a real sense of family lineage,” Tukwini says.

‘We pay bills like everyone’

Though the company claims to tell the story of the Mandela family, it is solely run by Makaziwe and her children. They represent just one small branch of a family that includes Mandela’s three wives, six children and 17 grandchildren. Has the venture sparked any jealousy? This question irks Tukwini.

“There’s no jealousy because our surname belongs to all of us. Each part of the family gets to choose what to do with it. The important thing is that we act with dignity and that we respect my grandfather’s legacy,” she says.

Mandela’s eldest grandchild, Ndileka Mandela, 56, who is a cousin to Tukwini from a different branch of the family tree and doesn’t own a stake in HOM, agrees. “We pay bills like everyone,” she says. “These people who take issue with how we monetise our name are just ridiculous.”

Retail workers show off T-shirts emblazoned with Nelson Mandela’s face in a Johannesburg shopping centre, 5 February 2010. © Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP

Some critics have gone after what they term as opportunists who can’t resist making a buck off the Mandela name. One example is Nelson Mandela Square, a shopping centre in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton. Part of a huge retail complex, the section bearing the ex-president’s moniker is little else than a consumer mecca.

As a matter of fact, House of Mandela’s flagship store is located there. In between shopping, customers can take a selfie with wax statue versions of Nelson and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The retail destination also features a store operated by the brand Presidential, where shoppers can buy shirts inspired by Mandela’s signature floral-print wardrobe staple.

African Kardashians?

In 2013, two of the former first couple’s granddaughters launched their Mandela-themed clothing line at the shopping centre. Items included hats embroidered with ‘Mandela’ and T-shirts printed with the slogan ‘Freedom’, indistinguishable from the kind of kitschy merchandise found in souvenir shops. That same year, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and her sister, Swati, starred in a reality TV show with the understated title Being Mandela. Any similarity to a widely popular American reality programme is purely coincidental, of course.

To a lot of people, being a Mandela is all fun and games, globe-trotting and loads of money. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“We’re definitely not the African Kardashians,” Dorothy Adjoa Amuah, a cousin who appeared in the series, told reporters back in 2011. The show premiered in February 2013 in the United States, where the sisters grew up, but follows their lives as budding entrepreneurs in South Africa. After it first aired, the low-budget reality series was met with a barrage of criticism on social media and in the press. “South Africa is now sufficiently free that even the grandkids of its twin liberation icons can unselfconsciously cash in by acting silly,” said a journalist from the national news outlet, Mail & Guardian.

The show portrays the two heiresses as leading a glamorous lifestyle, but the family’s day-to-day reality isn’t so rosy. “To a lot of people, being a Mandela is all fun and games, globe-trotting and loads of money. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Ndileka says in her book, I Am Ndileka: More Than My Surname, published in 2019.

“[H]aving the ‘Mandela’ name does not automatically grant you a meeting or grant you funds.” The former ICU nurse has had her share of financial woes, but they pale in comparison to the hardships her cousin, Zoleka Mandela, has faced. As Zoleka recounts in her own memoir, her life has been darkened by drug addiction, alcoholism, cancer and the loss of two children. Both books underscore that carrying the Mandela name doesn’t guarantee wealth or protection from life’s difficulties.

Political exodus

Though some members of the family have written tell-all books, served at the helm of small foundations or sounded off on social media, most Mandelas prefer to keep a low profile. What’s more, they have all but abandoned politics, with just one family member currently holding office in parliament: Mandla Mandela, who has held a seat for the African National Congress (ANC) since 2009 and is also a tribal chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council in Eastern Cape Province – where Madiba was born – as well as a pro-Palestinian activist.

The family’s political influence has waned in the absence of a ‘Mandela junior’ who can carry on the struggle of the father of the South African nation.

“Our appetite for politics is gone,” says Mandela’s granddaughter Ndileka, who has frequently mentioned that she no longer plans to vote for the ANC. The sacrifices her grandparents made to advance the anti-apartheid cause inflicted lasting damage on the family – chiefly because Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. “His long imprisonment disconnected him from his family,” she says.

People might see us as his grandchildren, but in reality, the women who raised us are the ones who shaped us.

Mandela never even really belonged to his family, as he went from being an activist on the run, to a political prisoner, to president of South Africa (1994-1999), becoming an international icon along the way. “He was never able to be the father he wanted to be,” says his granddaughter Zoleka. It is only his advanced age and illness that brought him back to his family’s side. His grandchildren were able to bond with him while they took turns caring for him. Ndaba Mandela, 39, was one such grandson. “[S]omehow my granddad and I crossed the valleys that separated us,” he says in his book, Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons from My Grandfather, Nelson Mandela.

A life lived away from family

Though Mandela reconnected with his family later in life, a world still stood between him and his descendants. When he created his foundation in 1999, he kept his family out of the organisation’s affairs.

To this day none of his children or grandchildren are involved in its leadership. “That was a stroke of brilliance,” says medical doctor and former anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele. She was one of the first members appointed to the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s board. Today she lauds Madiba for his keen strategic thinking. “His family’s actions have no bearing on the foundation’s work. Mandela understood the unfortunate reality that because he didn’t raise his children, he couldn’t expect them to share his values. I’m grateful that he was honest with himself.”

Wrenched away from his family by his extraordinary destiny, the Mandela they knew was absent and distant. To tell their story, it’s best to start with his wives. “His legacy lives on in my mother [Zindzi Mandela, who died in 2020],” Zoleka says. In Ndileka’s words: “People might see us as his grandchildren, but in reality the women who raised us are the ones who shaped us.” Mandela’s granddaughter, Tukwini, shares a similar sentiment, observing that her “grandmother played the role of mother, father and grandfather for a very long time”.

He consumed us all. He was an extraordinary person. When he died, each one of us needed to find our own way.

The pivotal matriarchs of the Mandela family are no longer with us. Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, passed away in 2004, and Winnie departed this life in 2018, leaving only his third wife, Graça Machel. Mandela’s death, occurring in 2013 after several gruelling hospital stays, ended up dividing the family. “He consumed us all. He was an extraordinary person. When he died, each one of us needed to find our own way,” Ndileka says.

But there is still Qunu, the small Eastern Cape village where Mandela grew up and the family owns a home. It’s also the place where he lived out his last days. He is buried there beneath the grass-covered earth of his ancestors. The cemetery serves now and again as a gathering place for his grandchildren. As they meditate by the icon’s graveside, they stand above the man who towered over an entire generation.

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