New mom Zoleka Mandela opens up about her experiences with depression, addiction, loss and motherhood

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Zoleka Mandela is all about empowering people regardless of their differences and celebrating people for who they are and not what they are.
Zoleka Mandela is all about empowering people regardless of their differences and celebrating people for who they are and not what they are.

She has never been one to shy away from addressing issues of mental health and using own life experiences as examples.

Recently, she joined the NESTLÉ Cremoya Joy of Inclusion #EveryonesIncluded campaign to promote positive mental health, normalise discussions about addiction, depression, and loss, and encourage people to realise that inclusivity is a joint responsibility.

Two-time cancer survivor, author, activist, columnist, and mom of six, Zoleka Mandela (42) believes that through her story many people will be more aware of how negative attitudes can force people into isolation and silence.

Zoleka says depression, cancer, and loss - which she has experienced - are subjects that are still shrouded with so much discrimination and stigma.

“From my experience, there is nothing worse than feeling like you don’t have a voice, that no one understands you. Feeling alone only worsens an illness like depression which is already very isolating,” she says.

"People need to learn to be more compassionate and more understanding. Mental health is a very serious illness and it’s not something you should be ashamed of it's not your fault and things can get better with the right treatment.”

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According to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in six South Africans suffers from anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorders and many are scared to open up about it. 

With her new venture, Zoleka hopes that her story will encourage positivity while driving a bigger inclusive circle and change perceptions by initiating honest conversations around mental health issues.

“I want to remind people that they shouldn’t feel alone. There is someone out there going through exactly what ‘you’ are going through,” she says.

The author of When Hope Whispers was only diagnosed with depression in 2010.

“This was shortly after my daughter’s death. But, with my current understanding of depression, I realised that I had been living with depression for a very long time - very well into my teenage years,” she says.

“So, I want to be a beacon of hope for people on my social media pages and share my cautionary tales.”

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Zoleka’s journey has not been easy, and at times, she felt lonely. The death of her two kids has been difficult. Her daughter Zenani died at the age of 13, in a car accident in 2010. Her son died within days of his birth in 2011, due to complications associated with being born prematurely. This year she gave birth to her sixth child, while still fighting depression, daily.

“When I think about what I have gone through, what sticks out the most for me is how lonely it has been, even as someone coming from a very large family.”

She often openly shares her thoughts on social media in the form of diary entries for those who can relate.

“It’s about being honest with myself and being okay with every single aspect of my life first,” she says.

“There were so many things in my life that were not my fault and for a very long time I blamed myself - the physical and sexual abuse for example.”

The title 'granddaughter to one of South Africa’s most loved anti-apartheid icons, Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela' may sound glamorous and prestigious but it comes with its own pressures.

But she has never shied away from her discussing her challenges with mental health and grief with over 500 000 of her social media followers.

“I’ve had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin. In my case, it has also come with age. Having to look at yourself in the mirror and every aspect of yourself – even those parts that you don’t like about yourself – is something I do a lot of in therapy,” she says.

“These are things that you must work through as an individual. I take these things very seriously because I understand that to be the mother that I want to be to my kids, I must look after myself too.”

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