Madiba 90

Madiba my grandfather

2008-07-18 09:47
<b>Nelson Mandela celebrates his grandson's induction as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council in 2007. (Jerome Delay, AP) </b>

Nelson Mandela celebrates his grandson's induction as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council in 2007. (Jerome Delay, AP)

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Mandela: SA needs good leaders

Now as much as ever, South Africa needs disciplined leaders, Nelson Mandela has said at birthday celebration in Pretoria.

East London - When Zwelivelile Mandela met his grandfather for the first time, he was confused and overwhelmed. "Who are you?" the nine-year-old wondered, as Nelson Mandela beckoned to him.

It was 1983, and the young boy was visiting his grandfather in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison.

He'd met his step-grandmother, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the previous day, after driving from Johannesburg to Brandfort with his Aunt Zinzi and her boyfriend in an old beetle.

That meeting, too, was a daunting experience. Winnie, whose movement was restricted at the time by the apartheid government, was buzzing with excitement. She showered him with sweets and affection while he hung back, reserved and shy.

"Who is this old lady?" he thought to himself, mystified. But they were en route to Bloemfontein early the next morning to catch a flight to Cape Town before he could get any answers.

Standing before a tall man later that day along with Winnie, in a place he associated with criminals, was frightening.

Ripples throughout South Africa

"I was extremely puzzled about why he was in prison, you know," Zwelivelile recalls 25 years later in an exclusive interview with News24. "I thought he must have been a criminal."


He laughs as he remembers how Winnie and his grandfather (pictured left on their wedding day in 1957) hugged and kissed euphorically, forgetting the nervous little boy in the room for a good five minutes.

"Then gently he turned to say: 'Oh is this Mandla?' and I was sitting there thinking 'yes'," Zwelivelile says, relating the story of their first encounter. "And he said: 'Oh come to me' and I'm thinking: 'Okay I must come to you - and you are who?'"

The son of Mandela's eldest son, Makgatho Mandela, Zwelivelile (formerly known as Mandla) is the famous statesman's direct heir after Makgatho's Aids-related death in 2005.

After that uncertain meeting Zwelivelile started hearing cries of "Viva Mandela!" chanted in Soweto around the time of June 16. "I would ask my father: 'Why is our name being shouted in the street?'"

It was at boarding school in Swaziland, where he was sent for safety, that he began to learn exactly who his grandfather was and the ripples he was causing throughout South Africa.

When it came to his beloved family, Mandela did not allow 27 long years of imprisonment to stop his involvement in their lives.

Zwelivelile, now chief of the Mandelas' tribal home of Mvezo, remembers his first present from the grandfather he grew to love. He was 11 and had been writing letters back and forth to the world's most famous prisoner.

"He would send letters and ask me: 'What sports do you do? You must try boxing,'" says Zwelivelile. Mandela, who was an amateur boxer himself, wanted his grandson to try the sport. "But I said: 'Oh there is no boxing here.'" It seemed his grandfather respected the young boy's choice of soccer instead. Soon there arrived a gift from Mandela: a pair of brand new black soccer boots, with two silver stripes down the side. It is his most cherished gift to date.

Mandela's attempts to influence his grandson's choices in life didn't stop there. Zwelivelile grins as he notes that on the world stage Mandela is the ultimate democrat but at home he is anything but.

A strong foundation

"He knows exactly what he wants for his children as well as his grandchildren and he won't compromise on those standards, so he can appear very dictatorial at times," he jokes.

It's clear that he values every inch of his grandfather's input. So much so that he left behind a successful business career in 2003 to study, at Mandela's insistence.

It wasn't without a fight. "I wouldn't listen and it got to the point where we started to compare exactly how successful I had been in the business sector," he recalls. Realising that his grandson was doing well, Mandela tried a different tactic. "He then appealed to me and said: 'As your grandfather and the head of the family I would like you to go back to school and gain a strong foundation for yourself'. Those words have always echoed in my head."

At Rhodes University he tried to study law as Mandela had done and directed him to do. Struggling, he switched to politics and history. The subjects came more naturally to him thanks to an upbringing where such topics were dinner table conversation.

His education took on a new significance with his father's death in 2005. Looking back Zwelivelile realised his grandfather had found out Makgatho was HIV+ at about the same time he insisted his grandson go to university. "He wanted to ensure that the next one in line to look after the Mandela legacy had a good foundation."

Intimate relationship

Today Zwelivelile (pictured left in Mvezo), 34, still enjoys an intimate relationship with the man most people clamour to have one meeting with. He talks fondly about his grandfather notorious sense of humour and his gift for storytelling. It was Mandela's stories about his childhood in the royal household in the Transkei that lead Zwelivelile to assume the position as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council.

He left behind a comfortable life in Johannesburg to live in the villages of the Transkei, where little has changed in hundreds of years.

It is grandfather's influence too that gave him an abiding appreciation in the traditions of his forefathers. He is concerned that much of the Mandela legacy and tradition is being eroded away and simplified in the hype around his grandfather.

"This is really where my interest is," he says earnestly. "To give birth to the identities of who we are as the people from the rural areas, what traditions we believe in and what our culture is about."

The greatest lesson his grandfather has taught him is to put people first and humble himself to those he serves. "My grandfather said to us: never think, as a leader, that people must follow behind you. You follow behind the people and do what the people's will is."

The boy who didn't know who his famous grandfather was now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt who this great man was and what he stood for.

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