The Mandela we forgot – 50 years since Madiba Thembekile’s death

Ndileka Mandela and Nelson Mandela
Ndileka Mandela and Nelson Mandela

As she commemorated the 50th anniversary of her father’s death, Ndileka Mandela says it is her responsibility to keep his memory alive – along with that of the three other victims of the Touwsrivier crash.

Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Madiba Thembekile “Styles” Mandela (known as Thembi Mandela) and others in a devastating three-car collision on the misty morning of July 13 1969 at Touwsrivier Road in Cape Town.

The collision not only ended Thembi’s life, it also killed Christina Johanna Klaassen, a middle-aged woman (who was travelling with her daughter Christina Klaassen, granddaughter Christina van den Berg and husband Johannes Klaassen); an Italian tourist, Angelo Egidio; and Irene Simelane, Thembi’s sister-in-law.

Thoko Mandela – Thembi’s wife and the mother of his two daughters, Ndileka and Nandi – along with Klaassen’s family members, were the only survivors of the crash.

In conversation with City Press, Thembi’s elder daughter, Ndileka, said that her father’s story was often a forgotten one – a story of the forgotten children of struggle icons whose sacrifices went unnoticed.

“It is almost as if he never lived,” she said.

Ndileka founded the Thembekile Mandela Foundation in 2014, in the hope of immortalising her father and, eventually, of passing his legacy on to her children.

This year, Christina’s whereabouts were traced and she was connected to Ndileka telephonically.

The two shared their personal memories of the tragedy that claimed the lives of their loved ones.

Thembi was the eldest child of Evelyn Mase and former president Nelson Mandela.

Ndileka said she had no memory of her father as she was only four years old when he died.

Her only impressions of him have been created through the fond memories and narratives of family members and his friends.

“I was a baby and I have no recollection of him. Unlike other older family members, I don’t know what he looked like and I have no memories of his laughter or his character. The closest I have gotten to know him is through anecdotes from family members.

“For instance, my sister remembers how he liked dressing her in cowboy clothes,” she explained, while in conversation with staff from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Uncle Matoto, a friend of my father, remembers how they used to love listening to jazz together; and my late maternal grandmother, Lilian de Jager, remembered how he used to like dressing up.”

Thembi is remembered for his impeccable fashion sense, hence the nickname “Styles” was perfectly suited to him.

“I know that we would have had a lot in common. I sometimes sit and wonder how my life, my sister’s life and the lives of our entire family would be had he lived,” added Ndileka.

Ndileka Mandela. Picture: Supplied

Late statesman Nelson Mandela, who was incarcerated on Robben Island when Thembi died in July 1969, was not allowed to attend his first-born son’s funeral – nor was he furnished with any details of the crash.

He was only alerted to Thembi’s death by telegram after details had been published, albeit inaccurately, in a newspaper.

Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island were forbidden any access to newspapers until 1980.

Mandela described the anguish he suffered at the news of his son’s passing, which followed soon after the death of his mother, Nosekeni Mandela, in September 1968, as the lowest point of his life.

Since then, extensive research has been conducted by the National Library of SA in Cape Town, and by several other stakeholders, to clarify the circumstances that led to the collision and to fill in the missing pieces of significant history that were erased by the apartheid system.

“It was only after 1990 that Mandela was able to visit the scene of the accident to find closure and solace,” said Christiaan du Plessis, chair of the Touwsrivier Heritage and Conservation Society.

On Thursday, the world will celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day in honour of Madiba.

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