Who is a Mandela?

2013-07-07 14:00

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In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, former president Nelson Mandela says his people in the Eastern Cape are “proud and patrilineal” – and that everyone knows his or her place in the social order.

So when Mandla Mandela asked this week whether his married aunt and her children were entitled to use the Mandela surname, he was giving voice to a question many have asked on social networks in recent weeks.

After all, his fractious family took its name from the global icon’s grandfather, Mandela, which shows how important the male line of descent is in many clans.

But Mandla’s criticism of his aunt is odd in light of Nguni traditional practice, in which women usually keep their maiden family or clan names after marriage.

For example, Makaziwe Mandela and her sisters would still be addressed by their clan name as “MaDlomo”, irrespective of their marital status.

During a press conference in Mvezo on Thursday, Mandla repeatedly referred to his aunt as “a Mrs Amuah” who should focus on her marital family’s business.

“At the moment, it seems like anyone and everyone can claim that ‘I am a Mandela’ and demand to be part of decision making in this family,” he said.

What role, then, do women play in their birth families in Nguni tradition once they are married?

“Even if she is married, (Makaziwe) still has responsibilities as Mafungwashe (the eldest daughter) to look after her father’s house,” says traditional leader Patekile Holomisa.

Xhosa cultural expert Nokuzola Mndende says daughters in a family remain just that and they never assume their husband’s identity.

“Makaziwe is one of the cultural leaders in her family, so it is not true that she doesn’t fit. It is her right to stand up when things are not going well.

“She participates in the family’s cultural rituals. For example (as an aunt), she plays a role in brewing beer for traditional ceremonies,” says Mndende.

In all Nguni communities, the family or clan name is traditionally passed down through the male lineage.

This means, traditionally, only the six children of Mandela’s two late sons have a legitimate claim to the Mandela name among the icon’s grandchildren.

They are listed in the family tree as Ndileka, Nandi, Mandla, Ndaba, Mbuso and Andile.

Does that mean their 11 cousins are not true Mandelas and, therefore, have no say in family affairs?

Is it wrong, for example, for Zenani Mandela’s children – who are Dlaminis through their father – to use the Mandela name for their reality show Being Mandela?

There are no easy answers.

Both Holomisa and Mndende say custom recognises children who were born to the family’s daughters out of wedlock.

A complicating factor with the Mandelas is that some of the grandchildren have simply chosen to be identified through their mothers in a patrilineal society.

Mndende says while those children have limited rights to lead the family when it performs cultural rituals or when it takes key decisions, culture does not discriminate against them simply because they are daughters’ descendants.

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