Between trips to Mveso, I stopped by the Mandela mansion in Houghton one morning, to speak with the two younger siblings in the group of four sons of Makgotho Mandela's. They were the youngest of the four, and like their older brothers they had been fetched from Soweto at young ages to live with their older brothers in their grandfather's house. Andile and Mbuso, though, were unlike their older brothers in that they were from the Born Free generation. They had grown up city boys in the new dispensation. Ndaba had picked the two younger boys up at the home of an aunt, where they were living then, in Hyde Park, a high-tone neighborhood not far away. The three of them hunkered down on the couch, with Ndaba as a chaperone for our conversation.
Mbuso, 16, was dressed in a red-and-white Fly Emirates soccer shirt, and Andile, thirteen, had his white Nike sweatshirt zipped all the way to his Adam's apple and was decked out in calf-length powder-blue jeans. The three of them, sitting side by side, made a striking tableau; Ndaba's resemblance to his grandfather was closest, but the two younger brothers could have been stand-ins for the Old Man in his teenage years as well. I asked what it was like studying modern South African history when your own grandfather was at the center of it. Mbuso replied that he had been reading up on the history of the Black Consciousness Movement in school, and he told me that he admired its chief proponent, Steve Biko, more than anybody else. He said that Biko, after all, had been the one to convince South African blacks to be proud of themselves.
Mbuso Mandela didn't venture an opinion about the central role his grandfather had played in promoting a multiracial ethos so often at odds with black nationalist thinking. But he thought it was quite cool that when he was watching films in history class, and his grandfather came on screen, his classmates razzed him by saying, "Oh, Mbuso, you're now on TV!" It was clear, right from the start of our conversation, that, unlike their older brothers, the younger boys considered the apartheid period as something remote and strange, like ancient history. "It's weird. You never think that a human being could reach so low -- that he could think someone who doesn't look like himself is scum of the earth," Mbuso offered. "I don't judge people based on the past," Mbuso volunteered. "I just look at the present, and see what happens now. Things have changed. Can't hold a grudge forever."
"The only real revolution that could emerge today in this country is out of traditionalism."
The brothers were heavily invested in trends in modern music, and were especially drawn to the songs of Lil Wayne and Young Jack. Politics had been the old family business, but their aunts and uncles were now engaged in various private enterprises. Mbuso thought his future lay in business administration; Andile hoped he could find a way in producing music. The big ceremony they had attended with their grandfather, the one making their oldest brother chief of Mvezo, had been memorable, they said. But they also confessed that they hadn't understood much of what was going on because neither could speak isiXhosa. Andile said that he had learned isiZulu as a first language, because his mother was Zulu speaking, but his older brother, Mbuso, had begun teaching him English when he was just five years old. In a single generation, then, the sense of rootedness in Xhosa language and Xhosa culture, celebrated so lyrically in Nelson Mandela's autobiography, had almost completely disappeared among his younger grandsons.
The way Mbuso talked about his identity reminded me of the children of Mexican immigrants whom I had gotten to know as a young reporter in the agricultural valleys of my native California. They often stopped speaking Spanish as soon as they started school, and you would often visit homes where the parents were fluent only in Spanish and the children understood only a fraction of what they said. The difference here, of course, was that the Mandelas had not migrated across national lines; they had simply become urbanized in a mix of ethnicities and languages. Theirs wasn't the classic story told, of displacement and loss of language and culture caused by immigration, for they had filled the interstices of discarded identities with something new -- a cross-cultural, cross-class, distinctly South African embrace of an emerging global identity.
"So when you think about your identity, do you consider yourself amaXhosa or not?" I asked. Did they consider themselves part of the Xhosa-speaking people,in other words. "No," Mbuso replied, matter-of-factly. Ndaba's eyes widened, in disbelief. "You wouldn't say you were Xhosa?" he asked, with an edge. Mbuso pulled his chin down and turned away from his older brother. "I didn't say anything," he protested. Ndaba glared at him. "The man asked you how you see yourself!" he exclaimed. I interrupted, deflecting attention to Andile to try to ease the tension. "Say someone dropped from Mars and he asked who you were. What would you say about who you are and where you're from?"i
I was thinking of Jacob Zuma's introduction of himself on my tape: "I am Jacob Zuma and I come from Nkandla." Andile looked puzzled, but he replied, like a shot, "I would say, I'm Andile and I live in Hyde Park." I pressed him a little further: Did the boys think of their oldest brother as a kind of repository of respect for their family's traditional life? "Xhosa is part of my heritage," Mbuso murmured, shifting in his seat. "But I don't think it would be one of the first things I would say if someone asked me, 'Who are you?'"
At that point the door opened and their oldest brother came in. Mandla and his wife, Thando, had arrived to visit with his grandfather before embarking on a business trip to China. Chief Mandela was moving into the oil business in an arrangement that often took him to Beijing and the Middle East. Unfortunately, there had been an incident on the way from the airport. His wife, traveling separately, was forced off the road and rousted from her car at gunpoint. It would be a scramble to replace her clothing in time for their departure the next day. Being nkosi of Mvezo, and a Mandela no less, provided no immunity from the daily reality of crime. The younger brothers rose and left the room. They weren't about to discuss their tentative sense of belonging, in Xhosa language and culture, in front of the sibling who had chosen, at considerable effort, to spend the rest of his life reinventing it.
On Christmas morning, I drove back to Mvezo to see how the new chief was faring. He and his wife had swapped lives rooted in Johannesburg and Grahamstown for a rural existence after taking up his new role as nkosi. In the intervening months, Ndaba Mandela had hinted several times that the transition had proved harder than anyone expected for the new chief and his wife. This time, as I drove out from the highway, there were no government ministers and royal visitors also lurching along the terrible road. Instead, young women and little boys, barefoot, were hauling buckets of water uphill.
By the time I found the ridgetop and drove on to the overlook marked as Mandela's birthplace, the sun was blazing in a midsummer sky. Chief Mandela had been up since dawn to prepare for his first Christmas as village leader. A group of men had helped him slaughter seven sheep for a feast he was offering children from the surrounding area. Behind the five new rondavels built to accommodate Mandela's family, meat was cooking in huge metal pots over open fires. Since I had seen him at his installation, the new nkosi had plunged with enormous energy into a new and complicated role. He had taken twenty children from the village to the Miss World competition in Beijing, and he also had chaperoned a delegation of teenage girls to the Reed Dance in Swaziland, where they engaged in the traditional ritual of being tested for virginal status.
The children who had accompanied him to China had traveled on an airplane for the first time. I thought of Jonathan's first flight, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where he had met Nelson Mandela. None of the children from the village had ever left it before. "It was their first time seeing Chinese people," Chief Mandela said, smiling. "We went to see the biggest Buddha in the world. For them, it was the most amazing thing to see people worshipping another religion." The girls who had gone with him to Swaziland -- he referred to them as "our maidens" -- wowed the Swazis with their singing, he reported. "It was about our maidens going to the Reed Dance, meeting the maidens there, and gaining an understanding of the cultural values in Swaziland, and having our kids teaching those kids what our values are on this side," he said.
For all the pride he took in these accomplishments, though, the new chief was already deeply distressed by the enormous obstacles he had encountered in his efforts to bring change to Mvezo. He had made countless appeals to provincial and national officials to get help in widening the roads. There was desperate need for a health clinic. He had plans for low-tech economic development projects on the outskirts of the village. But Mandela felt that the provincial government officials had stonewalled him. He was left steaming with frustration that he had not been able to accomplish more in his first eight months. Now he said that he understood, firsthand, why traditional leaders felt so much bitterness toward the ANC and the central government.
Since 1994, the focus of national policy had been concentrated on urban "nodes of development." Little had been attempted in areas like this one. "I feel I've been beaten," Mandela told me. "You tend to want to pull back and understand why certain things have not gone the way they should. You start afresh, as to what should be the way forward." Chief Mandela wore a long-sleeved blue shirt and faded dungarees cinched by a studded brown leather belt. His face was creased with worry and a hint of sadness. At his investiture he had stood tall, with his shoulders thrown back. Now he hunched over, looking depressed.