Zindzi Mandela was clever and complicated. She was charming, very funny and brave beyond words. Sometimes she was cross and scary. Always she was awesome in the truest sense of the word. And she was also really good at cooking eggs.
Ismail Meer’s curried eggs were her speciality. As with everything Zindzi did, she made “uncle Ish’s” recipe with an ebullience that belied the trauma that was fried into every bite.
I was very pregnant with my first child when I met Zindzi Mandela. I was at that point where everyone offers advice. Almost all of it was/ is of little value. Not so Zindzi’s, even now, 13 years later, I find myself mulling almost daily over her wise words on what it means to be a mother.
More than anything, Zindzi was motherly. When I subsequently encountered Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zindzi together, I often thought that the daughter mothered the mother, at least as often as the other way around. Theirs was an intense bond. As a tiny girl Zindzi saw her mother repeatedly persecuted and alone.
Babies and toddlers can carry an inflated sense of their own power to engender both good and evil. With great power comes great responsibility. Pitting a toddler against the might of the apartheid regime is not a fair fight but she took on the role of her mother’s protector when she was too small to know that.
The pattern stuck. When the deification of her father resulted in the vilification of her mother, Zindzi stood firm in her ferocious, primal purpose.
She carried her personal pain with such a good grace that it was often overlooked and underestimated. She told endless funny stories about her dreadful experiences. She did great impressions of both her parents. She avoided painful thoughts and generally chose to focus on those who brought comfort amid the confusion.
She had her father’s ability to recognise the limitations of others and not to expect more from them than they could give. She realised that very few people could understand how bad it had been and she didn’t seem to resent their failure to comprehend.
The horrors of the adult Mandela experience of parenting in extremis have been better articulated and appreciated than those of the children who lived in the same context but with less autonomy and understanding. We know from prison letters that the problems of explaining a complex political struggle to very young children weighed heavy on Madiba’s mind and conscience.
We know much less about the experience of children he was worrying about. Since prison regulations barred those under the age of 16 from visiting inmates, both Zindzi and her sister Zenani lived through the darkest days of their parent’s persecution with nothing but written contact with their father.
Madikizila-Mandela’s descriptions of having her daughters pulled from her arms by home invading security police officers are grim. Her recollections of making imaginary meals for absent children as she started to lose her grasp on reality in solitary confinement are terrifying and terrible.
But what of the two-year-old girl (and the woman she later became) who remembered waiting with her older sister (who was herself only three) in the dark, in a car outside the police station while her mother went inside and persuaded the officer on duty to take food to her newly arrested father. A father who all the adults understood was probably never coming out of custody again.
What of the little girl who experienced endless educational disruption because: “I was in Grade 1 and Zeni was in Grade 2 and they had to do a fiddle to get us into the school – because we never lasted in any of the schools in Soweto. The moment they learnt who we were, the principals were harassed and we were asked to leave. We went to Coronation, Kliptown, Doornfontein and so forth, and my mother would have to give us false surnames and straighten our hair and make us wear ribbons and all types of things, but it never worked for very long because the cops would catch on to us.”
Apartheid geography being what it is, such primary schools were far from home and difficult to get to when your mother is banned and then imprisoned.
School days frequently required Zindzi and Zenani to be billeted on friends who lived in the afore mentioned communities. In later life Zindzi often spoke fondly of Manomani Naidoo’s cuddles because: “If there’s anybody’s lap and shoulder I remember most from when I was really little, it’s Amma Naidoo’s.
She made this thing that we loved with warm rice and butter and sugar. Thinking about it now, I’m sure it was because of her budget actually but, yow, we loved that thing. She used to make that for us all the time. Then after a while the cops caught on and I remember that’s even how we left Amma’s because we had been schooling somewhere around there and they caught on to us.”
Such arrangements ensured a degree of stability in otherwise chaotic childhoods but eventually police harassment became intolerable and the unlikely trio of Soweto shebeen tycoon Elijah Msibi, English aristocrat Lady Birley and political stalwart Helen Joseph came together to provide the means to send the teenage Zindzi and Zenani to a boarding school in Swaziland.
Even then, school holidays were often peak periods of police aggression. Zindzi remembered: “We would come home from boarding school in Swaziland and they would lock my mother up that same day. So, we would come home to an empty house.”
A plan was made whereby Dr Ntato Motlana, Fatima and Ismail Meer, Helen Joseph and Ilse Wilson were on standby to provide emergency parenting. Which is where the eggs come in.
These arrangements weren’t always easy. Fatima Meer remembered that Zindzi and Zenani “were rarely happy with the arrangements and often complained or became the targets of their benefactors’ complaints”.
And yet, in later life, Zindzi chose to focus on the positive remembering: “We loved Aunt Fatima’s curried eggs – well, they were actually Uncle Ish’s eggs, Aunt Fatima doesn’t cook.
I now know they are great for a hangover too – they work wonders, especially on toast. But back then during school holidays, if mummy was locked up we would go to Aunt Fatima. Uncle Ish showed us how you fry an egg with grated onion, chopped up the chillies and masala. In recent years my kids have added a twist by putting grated cheese on top, but that’s not in the original.”
A sunny-side up egg is an entirely appropriate epitaph for a woman who always tried so hard to see silver linings and sun beams through dark days. So here is the recipe.
Recipe supplied by Zindzi Mandela in Hunger for Freedom: The story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido (Jacana Media)
2 teaspoons sunflower oil
½ onion, grated
3 small green chillies, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons masala curry spice
- Heat the oil and add the onion. Gently fry the onion over a medium heat. When the onion is cooked through, about five minutes, remove the pan from the heat and add the chillies and spices. Mix well.
- Return the spice and onion mixture to the heat, then crack the eggs into the pan. Cook until the eggs are at the required level of softness.
- Serve with toast.