Back from the brink

2013-11-12 11:00

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If there is hell on Earth, Zoleka Mandela has had a taste of it. Yet she drew from her inner reserves and now, through writing her memoir, has emerged stronger than ever.

She’s just 33 but has experienced more in her three-and-a-bit decades than most people have in a lifetime: the death of two children, drug addiction, a messy public break-up, breast cancer… it sounds enough to push anyone over the edge.

Zoleka Mandela has had her dark days, no doubt about it. Yet the woman who meets me on a sunny early summer afternoon in Johannesburg radiates serenity and is so full of smiles you could be forgiven for thinking you’re greeting the wrong person.

But it’s her all right – granddaughter of South Africa’s most beloved citizen, Nelson Mandela, member of the most famous family in the country.

Zoleka – the daughter of Madiba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s younger daughter, Zindzi – has just released her autobiography, When Hope Whispers, about her journey to the edge of darkness and back again.

It’s a bravely honest account of loss and despair yet, as the title suggests, is ultimately an uplifting story. Some of her experiences have left scars that might never heal but she’s keen to share her tale and offer hope.

‘My grandmother always says to me, “Darling, God really had to make an example of you. You are going to change so many lives, even though the process has been so difficult.

‘I wouldn’t wish some of the things I have been through on anybody but I do want my life to be made an example of. I want someone’s burden to be eased because of my story.’

Her book didn’t turn out the way she had intended it to, she adds. ‘Originally, it was meant to be about my journey with breast cancer. It slowly grew into something that anyone who has been through loss, addiction, cancer – and a past that’s brought them shame – can relate to.’

A hazy decade

For 10 years – from the start of the millennium to 2010 – Zoleka was an addict. ‘Cocaine, alcohol, sex – I was hooked on them all. I wouldn’t recognise the Zoleka I was then. I’m not saying I’m a saint. I still make mistakes and feel challenged by life. But I have a lot more focus.’

In her book she goes into detail about her life during that turbulent decade and admits she has moments when she worries she may have revealed too much.

‘But, ultimately, I’m okay with it. I recently called my editor in a bit of a panic when I was nominated as Role Model of the Year for the Feather Awards [when the gay community honour people who have inspired or amused them over the past year].

‘Things like that, beautiful as they are, make me nervous because people haven’t read the book yet. There are some chapters that are shocking and on the day I was nominated, I thought maybe they should read those parts and rather choose someone else. Role models are expected to have no faults. But I’m still in the phase of trying to make the right decisions.’

It took a tragedy to bring Zoleka’s drug abuse to an end. Her 13-year-old daughter, Zenani, was killed in a car accident after attending a concert to herald the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The driver of the car, the son of the partner of Zoleka’s aunt, Zenani, was charged with culpable homicide and eventually acquitted.

When Zoleka speaks of her daughter, her pain is visible. She battles to hold back the tears. ‘Her death didn’t make sense to me,’ she says quietly.

‘I have always identified myself as a mother first. I always said my life began when I had my daughter. When I had her at 17, I felt like I knew why I was here – that was my life’s purpose.’

With touching candidness, Zoleka – who also has a 10-year-old son, Zwelami – adds, ‘So I struggle to understand how motherhood could be so important to me yet I was still less than perfect as a parent. Her death made me think of all those times I left home – when I wasn’t there for her. Two months after she died, I checked myself into rehab and have been clean ever since.’

Fighting a new battle

Three months after her daughter was killed, she and her then-partner, 7de Laan actor Sekoati Tsubane, discovered they were expecting a baby – and for the grief-stricken mother, it was a sliver of happiness amid the pain.

In June 2011, exactly a year after Zenani’s death, she gave birth to a son she named Zenawe.

But the little boy was born three months premature and lived for just two days before passing away. ‘That was very difficult,’ she says. ‘There was so much happening in my life at the same time.’

Not long after Zenawe’s death, Zoleka and Sekoati went through a painful public break-up. ‘I was hoping not to speak much about SK,’ Zoleka tells me.

‘I was too open about my relationship with him then. I spoke a lot about us on Facebook and on BBM. I now realise that was a mistake.

‘He put me through a lot and, as if that wasn’t enough, he went public with his insults. He put things up on Facebook about me and my family. People would send me this information even though I’d rather not have known about it. He even spoke about us openly in magazines.’

She eventually managed to find a way to put the relationship behind her and was just moving on when disaster struck – again.

‘A few months after I lost Zenawe, I felt a lump in my left breast. I was scared so I postponed getting it checked out. But when I felt a second lump I went to Milpark [hospital] and was diagnosed with breast cancer,’ she says.

Zoleka felt like she’d been handed a death sentence. ‘But I was fortunate to have Dr Carol-Ann Benn as my doctor.

She was supportive and persistent – I refused treatment initially. I was afraid of the impact my being sick would have on Zwelami.

I didn’t want to have to go in and out of hospital or lose my hair. I just decided the cancer should have its way with me.’

Thankfully, in July 2012, she changed her mind and decided to fight for the sake of her child. Her treatment started with a bilateral mastectomy and was followed by six months of chemotherapy.

‘I speak about this time a lot in the book. This was when I decided to start making a video diary of my journey through cancer. The initial plan was to make a documentary about my battle. Instead, it turned into this book. I am grateful that this chapter of my life allowed me to accept my past. I can’t say I’ve forgiven myself for everything I’ve done but I have accepted myself.’

Into the light

It’s been seven months since Zoleka underwent her last session of chemotherapy and she’s feeling great. ‘I have a lot to be grateful for: I’m still here, I’m in good health again and I’m living a great life.’

She says she loves the fact that she has the opportunity to be a better mother to Zwelami and has the chance to make her family proud of her.

‘I’ve been blessed with an amazing family who have seen me through tough times. I hope to make them and my children proud one day. I’m also very lucky to have a partner like the one I have,’ she says.

The person in question is businessman Thierry Bashala, currently with Sanlam, who she started dating two months before she found out she had cancer.

‘When I got diagnosed, I told Thierry it was better for him to leave immediately, rather than later. He said he wasn’t going anywhere – and he meant it. Throughout it all, he never treated me any differently. Really, he’s heaven sent,’ she says.

So where to from here for Zoleka?

‘I want to continue to do the activist work I am doing for road safety in memory of my daughter. I want to continue on my journey to becoming the best Zoleka I can be. And I want to help educate and touch people’s lives through my story. Hopefully, when people see me still standing, still smiling, they’ll feel inspired to do the same.’

When Hope Whispers by Zoleka Mandela (Jacana, R195) is available from bookstores nationwide. Follow Zoleka on Twitter @ZolekaMandela.

Writer’s Hat

Zoleka shares what it took to complete her book.

Pure focus: ‘I started writing in January this year. It came easily to me because it’s my story – I know it so well. Writing gave me something to focus on and I really enjoyed it. By June I was signed by publishing house Jacana, which was so exciting. In September I handed in the manuscript.’

A learning process: ‘As I was writing I realised there was a lesson in everything I went through. Everybody suffers loss or goes through something they are ashamed of. And, generally, people want to do right and change for the better. I learnt I am about making that change.’

Content creation: ‘The documentary I’d planned on doing required a lot of money. So I decided to write this book, which I feel was meant to happen. The process was painful in parts and freeing in others. You learn about yourself when you write, and I’d like to keep on doing that. I also still plan to make that documentary one day.’

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