These are the words that runneth over, fed by encounters with the world. They are a snapshot in time, a record of peoples, places, moments passed, seconds frozen forever. They are the pebbles dropped into the river of life, the ones whose ripples will be felt downstream through time...
Thursday, 10 November 2011
Return of the Mandelas
The air is thick, dry with heat, making it
the parched companion to this arid environment. Thousands of aloes stand like
stony sentries dotted along ridges, hills and plateaus, their headdresses a
fiery red against the earth coloured surrounds. There is a deafening silence
broken only by a gentle breeze that whistles in the ears.
Inside a nearby boma (traditional
hut) sits the inkosi (chief). Traditional beadwork adorns his head, arms
and ankles with a more elaborate piece covering his neck and torso, the lion
skin that some moments ago hung from a shoulder now rest under him. To his left
and right sit his headmen and advisors, they are locked in deliberation, he is
only here for a few hours and so must deal with all matters requiring his
attention. He sits silently, listening, before saying anything.
He is the embodiment of mediation, justice
and leadership as is his duty through birth and custom, a heritage traced
through a line of kings that go back twenty generations. History is alive in
him today as he carries on his broad shoulders a responsibility to his people,
both living and the dead. He is Inkosi Zwelivelile Mandlasizwe Dalibhunga
A distance away a great leader speaks loud
and powerful but without a voice:
“In my youth in the Transkei I listened to the elders of my
tribe telling stories of the old days…of wars fought by our ancestors in
defence of the fatherland…I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity
to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom
struggle. This is what has motivated me in all that I have done.”
His words, captured in this simple monument,
tell part of the story of a man whose life began in this place ninety years
ago. He is Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibhunga Mandela and this is his ancestral home,
The story of how these two came to be here
is intertwined and it lies in the history of those who laid the foundation from
which grandfather and grandson came. It is located in the product of
generations of Thembus, a subgroup of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their
Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa is a Zulu high Sanusi,
the highest level healer – thought to be the last in South Africa and one of
only two remaining on the African continent – and custodian of umlando
(tribal history) and culture. “The baThembu people,” says Mutwa, “were a deeply
philosophical people, a nation of highly regarded intellectuals, thinkers and mystics.”
The nineteenth century Thembu Paramount Chief (king) Ngubengcuka, he continues,
“was a very wise man to whom people went for discussion and advice and from him
came people, whom I can say, were Christ-like in their training and outlook.”
Ngubengcuka helped unify the Thembu people
and from him came a line of leaders, mediators and reconcilers. “These are a
people who are born to rule. The Ngubengcuka people are not only bloodline
royal, if you look back into history you will find amongst the amaXhosa people
men and women who were trained to become light bearers, who were people bred to
lamula imfazwe, to stop the war,” says Mutwa, “It is their tradition.”
In Thembu monarchy the king’s wives formed
houses, the first three being the core; Great, Right and Left. The Great House
traditionally produced the king’s heir but failing this a son of the Right
House would be chosen. As well as the king, the royal houses also produced the chiefs,
each with his own sphere of influence. Trained in conciliation and peace
keeping, the sons of the Ixhiba or Left Hand house, as minor chiefs, were
responsible for settling royal disputes between the two main houses.
A “chief by both blood and custom”, Gadla
Henry Mphakanyiswa was a descendant of the Ixhiba or Left Hand House through
his father, the original Mandela and son of Ngubengcuka’s third wife.
Gadla was a staunch traditionalist, an
acknowledged expert in Thembu history and culture, and an unofficial priest who presided over traditional
rites. His sense of self and the world came from the
spiritual-religious system of the Thembus, their worldview. This was based on of
belief in complete interconnectivity through Qamata, the great spirit of the
Xhosas, and “characterized by
a cosmic wholeness, so that there is little distinction between the sacred and
the secular, between the natural and the supernatural”.
Around 1920 Gadla was summoned by the white
magistrate after a ruling he had made in a local dispute was overturned. A
strong sense of being wronged and a belief that he was accountable only to
Thembu law drove his reply: “Andizi, ndisaqula!” (I will not come, I am
preparing for battle). The magistrate charged Gadla with insubordination and
deposed him, ending the Mandela chieftaincy.
Gadla never fought a battle and instead
suffered the indignation of losing his title, wealth and land. So,
what battle was he preparing for? One answer lies in the birth of a son.
What’s in a
Three rituals were performed for a young
boy in 1918. The first was the burial of his inkaba (umbilical cord).
The word inkaba symbolises interconnectivity and the place of its burial
determines the connection of a child to its family and ancestral land. The imbeleko
ritual is the physical, but more importantly, spiritual introduction of the
child to its community and ancestors, who are asked to accept the child, bless
and watch over them.
Finally, the name given a child reflects
some circumstance, event or natural phenomenon, or a family’s hopes or wishes for its future. As
is the right of the father, it was Gadla who marked his son Rolihlahla, meaning
tree shaker or troublemaker. His son would later write of this: “I do not believe that
names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later
years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I
have both caused and weathered.”
In 1928, shortly before his death, Gadla called
on the Paramount Chief, Jongintaba, descended of Ngubengcuka’s Great House. Gadla
had helped Jongintaba, whose mother was from a lesser house, to obtain his
position. He presented his son saying “I am giving you this servant,
Rolihlahla. This is my only son. I can say from the way he speaks to his
sisters and friends that his inclination is to help the nation. I want you to
make him what you would like him to be; give him education, he will follow your
"Unanimity or not at all”
At age nine the young Nelson went to live
with Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni, the heart of the monarchy.
It was under the guardianship of Jongintaba that Nelson was groomed, like his
father, to become an advisor to the future king. Tutoring at Mqhekezweni he
learnt about the inherently democratic system of his people, the rights of every individual to access
traditional councils, to be heard, and how these “ended in unanimity or not at all”.
He attended school, the first in his family,
and later Fort Hare University, the training ground for many African leaders. Both were opportunities
his father would not have been able to provide. While this western education captivated
his mind and opened his eyes to the world, the Eurocentric portrayal of history
he encountered there clashed with his education in Thembu history.
It was also under his guardian that Nelson
made his transition to manhood inside the circumcision rites of passage. Arguably
the most important rite in the life of a Xhosa male, it represents the gateway
into adulthood and full clan membership. As part of the ritual Mandela was given a manhood name
Dalibhunga, meaning founder of the council, one he gave more importance to
than his others.
“My life, and that of most Xhosas at the
time, was shaped by custom, ritual and taboo. This as the alpha and omega of
our existence, and went unquestioned. Men followed the path laid out for them
by their fathers…I also learnt that to neglect one’s ancestors would bring ill-fortune
and failure in life,” he writes in Long Walk to Freedom.
The Mandela biographers, such as Mary
Benson, Fatima Meer, Anthony Sampson and Tom Lodge, all note how his rural upbringing
was key to his future development. In 1941
the young Nelson, together with Jongintaba’s son Justice, left the Transkei for
Johannesburg, his head full of ideas about ubuntu and the injustices of history.
In a later jail memoir he wrote of this time: “I could see the history and
culture of my own people as part and parcel of the history and culture of the
The difficult early years in Johannesburg
further opened his eyes to the broader problem of a racialised South Africa. His
early legal work and political involvement with various individuals and
organisations committed to the idea of an inclusive, egalitarian South Africa
helped radicalise a man with an existing dislike of the injustices of his
On a Monday in October of 1962 it was
Rolihlahla, armed with a “proud rebelliousness” and a “stubborn sense of
fairness” inherited from his father, who walked into a Pretoria court to face charges of treason. Dressed in a
traditional leopard-skin kaross (cloak) he stood out in stark contrast. “I had chosen
traditional dress,” he says, “to emphasise the symbolism that I was a black
African walking into a white man’s court. I was literally carrying on my back
the history, culture and heritage of my people. That day, I felt myself to be
the embodiment of African nationalism, the inheritor of Africa’s difficult but
noble past and her uncertain future”.
Nelson, himself a lawyer, played the white
justice system at its own game and effectively put the apartheid system on
trial in its own courtroom. After duping the prosecution he used his plea in
mitigation to make a political statement about the country to a captive
audience. In closing Nelson made the bold forecast that history would declare
him innocent. The speech was directed at both his prosecutors and the listening
world. It marked the beginning of his international reputation.
This scene was repeated again in April 1964
during the Rivonia Trial when, despite facing a possible death sentence, he
again exploited court procedure. As the defence’s first witness he was to set
the tone and it was decided that, rather than testifying, he would make a
statement from the dock. He spoke for four hours.
Nelson again invoked his heritage through
reference to his youth, the stories of his forefathers, of how he desired to make
a contribution as spurred by his “own proudly felt African background”. He
argued that his singular goal was to create an inclusive, democratic South
Africa before laying down a challenge by declaring “it is an ideal for which I
am prepared to die”. The troublemaker was striking at the ideological system
that deposed his father, the battle had reached fever pitch.
The accused were given life sentences, to
be served on Robben Island. The island’s history is long and notorious, its
first political prisoners having been sent there in 1658. During the 1800s prisoners
were mostly Khoikhoi and Xhosas from the eastern Cape frontier, among them the
Xhosa prophet Makana and several Thembu chiefs of the eighth British-Xhosa war
in 1850. The parallels did not go unnoticed by its newest inmates.
Richard Stengel, who collaborated on Long
Walk to Freedom, recently wrote that the “key to Mandela is those prison
years. He went in emotional and headstrong and emerged balanced and
disciplined”. The years in “Robben Island University” were an individual and
collective maturation process during which young radicals became elder
“An umbilical cord ties us former prisoners
to it,” said former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada at the opening of esiQhitini:
The Robben Island Exhibition in 1993. This metaphor of the island as a
nurturing force was a strong one, challenging the idea of prison life as mere hardship. Instead, Kathrada read, “It is a picture of great warmth, fellowship,
friendship, humour and laughter; of strong convictions, of a generosity of
spirit, of compassion, solidarity and care,” a communal environment requiring
“one to temper, but not obliterate one’s individualism in the interest of the
Nelson, in a bid to inspire and give
advice, wrote of this process of personal development in a letter to his wife Winnie
Madikizela-Mandela in 1973 during one of her periods in detention:
“You may find that the cell is an ideal
place to know yourself…In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus
on external factors…but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing
one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility,
purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men –
qualities within reach of every soul…the foundations of one’s spiritual
life…Never forget that a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.”
The Nelson who emerged from prison was not
the troublemaker who had entered it. In a sense those 27 years had helped him shed
his young skin and become his manhood self, Dalibhunga (founder of the council).
As Mandela biographer Anthony Sampson writes, he was now equipped for the task
of “refounding a nation” and that “he personified a county looking for a
Nelson was grounded in and understood the ancient
Xhosa proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is not a person without
people). Lifelong lawyer and friend George Bizos commented on this: “He is not
an egotist. I have hardly ever heard him, when discussing political matters, to
say ‘I’. It is always ‘we’ or ‘my organization’, or ‘the liberation movement’”.
This understanding was part of the collective evolution of a movement towards a
truly universal humanist philosophy; the traditional African concept of ubuntu (humanness)
in its most inclusive form. Part of this was the recognition that the fates of all
South Africans, oppressor and oppressed, were intertwined.
Stengel writes that, during the early 1990s,
Nelson’s leadership style mirrored that of his earlier guardian, Jongintaba.
Mandela would call meetings at his home with his colleagues and listen quietly
as they spoke before summarising their positions, adding his own and steering
the group towards a decision. This quality, says Sampson, made him “not so much post-modern,
as pre-modern”, the vision of a “chief representing his people and being
accessible to them…making them all feel part of the same society”.
This commitment to the
many peoples of his country stands
captured in the monument at his birthplace in Mvezo: “I
stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the
people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be
here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” Though
originally made in Cape Town on 11 February 1990, the
day of his release, here in Mvezo it seems to speak as much to the dead as the living.
Power of a
“I am the man I am today because of him,”
says Mandlasizwe (33). These two lives parallel each other; Nelson the troublemaker,
who left his rural world for the city of gold (Johannesburg) while Mandlasizwe,
meaning power of the nation, made the reverse journey, returning to his rural roots from his urban
birthplace. The other similarities, their physicality, core values and outlook,
Standing in the ruins of a boma in
which granfather’s infant years were spent, Mandlasizwe, pointing to his
traditional attire, reflects on his place in history. “I usually dress like
this when I am at Mvezo,” he says, “Nowadays it (identity) is being eroded and
we need to remind the youth of their culture, their heritage. Without culture
you have no identity”.
At Mandlasizwe’s inauguration in April 2007
Nelson said that the fact that his grandson had taken up the chieftaincy would
ensure that he rested peacefully in his grave. As an heir the position was open to him but
he declined it in favour of national and international affairs, a decision
which left him with much guilt. “This is a chieftaincy that was dead for 87
years,” says Mandlasizwe.
The challenges of modern traditional
leadership, however, are far more complex than before. In a globalised world
rural areas are some of the most impoverished and marginalised. In Mvezo unemployment is
close to one hundred percent. Mandlasizwe’s challenge is to create local
solutions to global problems for the nearly 130 000 people in his charge.
He shares his grandfather’s love for the
youth and a strong belief that education is the route to meaningful development. He has
organised cultural learning trips for the youth of his village, one of these being
to China where the choir performed at the 2007 Miss World. These trips are
significant as most youth have never left the village or owned a passport. Significantly, they are made possible by the fact that Mandlasizwe’s government-paid traditional
leader’s salary is used for his people. This is a gesture that emulates that of his grandfather he donated his entire income while president to his Children’s Fund.
Furthermore, as if called by his Left Hand house
heritage, Mandlasizwe studied political science, focusing on Southern African
politics and conflict resolution, opening the possibility of a future in
politics or diplomacy. However, these ambitions are a mixture of the personal that
will be guided by the people: “I have always been a believer in my
grandfather’s determination that you need to serve the people, and as long as
you are committed to the people and are serving them the people shall determine
what they want from you.”
For now, Mandlasizwe’s being here
represents the righting of a historical wrong, the culmination of a cycle that
started in the time of Ngubengcuka and was continued by descendants such as
Gadla and Nelson. It is a return to the title and land of his ancestors.
Mandlasizwe has re-founded his family’s
council, a process given added meaning in that it was Nelson that gave his two
month old grandson the name Dalibhunga during a family visit to Robben Island.
He is one part of the future generations of Mandelas, and as the custodian of
tribal customs and culture is the continuation of an ancient way of life.
civilization,” writes Credo Mutwa in his book Isilwane, “we live in a
strange world of separatism: a world in which things that really belong
together and which ought to be seen as a greater whole are cruelly separated.”
As the party prepares to leave the Mvezo
Great Place, Jongisizwe Dani, Mandlasizwe’s cousin, adviser, and headman, comments that
when projects to restore the original homestead are complete a series of
traditional ceremonies will be performed. “We will slaughter a cow here and one
at the river. To get the blessings of the ancestors, to let them know that the
Mandelas have returned...”