Long Walk From Freedom: Mandela's Grandchildren and a New South Africa

About 60 children lined up across uneven ground to receive Christmas candy and a loaf of bread. Mandela instructed the kids to sit on the slab near an enlarged photo of his grandfather in the traditional garb he had worn as he prepared to testify at the Rivonia Treason Trial, where he had been convicted and sentenced to prison forty years earlier. Then, Nelson Mandela had been about the age Chief Mandela was now. The grandson had closed the circle, bringing all of his inherited influence back to bear on the home village.

The children waited, jostling one another to receive their special meal. Ndaba, his brothers, and cousins arrived from their grandfather's in Qunu to help serve. Chief Mandela upbraided them for being late and put them to work right away. They fetched steaming mutton in paper bowls from the cooking pots down the steep hill, ferrying it up to the children. The young ones held their hands out, sitting wedged in, hip-to-hip, on the concrete slab. It was moving to watch the grandchildren of Nelson Mandela serving poor, hungry children a rare meal with meat at the birthplace of their grandfather.

Chief Mandela put on a canary-yellow sport coat. Behind us, women watched, many of them with infants strapped to their backs. The chief had insisted that parents drop their children off at the edge of the clearing and wait for them out in the field. Some villagers had refused to allow their kids to come because they disagreed with his decision to make it a feast for children only. A light rain started, and the parents looked hungry, wet, and resentful. As the children dug into the meal, the nkosi helped the youngest ones settle their bowls in their laps. When adults called on the kids to bring the food uphill into the field to share, he waved them back into their seats. Mandela had upended tradition, trumping the power of the parents to apportion their family's rations.

By the time most of the kids had eaten their mutton, the misting rain had turned into a downpour. The storm shrouded the dying sun, casting the surrounding landscape into sudden darkness. On the outskirts of the village, you could see bonfires burning, and teenagers clustered around them. Mandela told me of his disappointment that more teens hadn't shown up for the celebration. As we left the Great Place, it became clear where the adolescents had been all this time, partying along the narrow, treacherous road.

On the drive past them, groups of older girls and young women danced toward the car, slipping and sliding in the mud. Wet clothing clung to their bodies, translucent in the headlights. "Take us, don't you want us?" one girl shouted at me, holding her arms out and pressing her breasts up against the side window. Another young woman shimmied toward the passenger side of the car, beckoning at my companion their desperate invitation, and that drunken call -- take us, don't you want us? -- haunted me all the way to Mthatha, the town where we were staying.

Early in the morning, on the day after Christmas, we made the muddy drive back out to Mvezo. The roads were clear of people. All the bonfires from the night before had been doused. Scattered remnants of charred wood were the only signs of the wild, roving celebrations that had taken place in the rain. It was overcast, and threatening gray clouds gave the impression of a sky brought low. When we arrived at the Great Place, Chief Mandela was meeting with a dozen local residents in one of the large rondavels down below the ridge.

These were the villagers who had been sent as delegates to the ANC national conference at Polokwane. They were mostly elderly men wearing blankets. Each man took turns relating what had happened at the conference, all in rapid-fire isiXhosa. There was lots of laughter and even some acting out of the arguments during the discussions about policy and candidates, of comments about the victory celebration afterward. "They said, 'Madiba, we did exactly as you instructed us to do,'" Mandela said, turning to me. It struck me, then, that this use of the family's clan name, commonly reserved for Nelson Mandela, had been transferred in Mvezo to the new nkosi. "They said, 'We didn't compromise our votes,'" he continued. The chief insisted that he had not influenced their votes, but only had warned them against the undue influence of others. The delegates should be true to the feelings of the members of local branches, the chief had argued. The net effect, of course, was to weigh in on Zuma's side since he had won 62 percent of the vote, against Thabo Mbeki, in a local ANC branch meeting.

Halfway through the political discussion, ceramic bowls were brought in. The bowls were filled with a charred delicacy, the brains of the sheep that had been slaughtered to feed the children on Christmas Day. The brains were spongy and tasted salty. Mandela picked at his share, sitting and listening for more than an hour, as long as the elders wanted to talk. His head cocked, he nodded occasionally and interrupted to ask questions. The outcome at Polokwane pleased him, because he had been rooting for Zuma. His grandfather, he told me, felt exactly the same way.

It had been quite distressing for the elder Mandela to see the party in such disarray under Thabo Mbeki, he added. "My grandfather told me, 'I said I would only serve one term as an example to the rest of Africa. I never in my lifetime thought that the ANC that I've been part of would want to discuss the issue of a third term.'" The effort by Mbeki to cling to power "had been troubling to him," the chief reported. The outcome in Polokwane, he assured me, had left the elder Mandela "happy to see that South Africa has become a mature democracy, you know, and that we were able to unpack the difficulties."

As the chief talked to the delegates recently returned from Polokwane, the cloud cover lifted. There was a bright, clear view of the valley below. The rises were covered with tall grasses, common saffron brush, broom cluster fig, and Cape ash. When his grandfather's father was chief, early in the last century, the family controlled the entire valley all the way to the horizon. Over the years, the land was divided up, sold, and resold. Reclaiming ownership had proved far harder than he had expected, though. Mandela told me that the provincial government had placed procedural obstacles in the way. First, the premier had offered to compensate current landowners, assessed the value at what Mandela considered inflated rates, and then failed to provide the money. Finally, King Dalindyebo had suggested to Nelson Mandela that he raise the funds needed for purchase of the land privately.

Even after money raised by the elder Mandela was deposited in a bank, national and provincial officials put off approving transfer of the title, the chief said. For the next three years, this issue would continue to fester. What Mandela had thought would be a quick and clean process of reclaiming family property turned into a long, hard, and complicated slog. Conflicts over boundary lines for the land eventually would place him at odds not only with government officials but also with significant numbers of his own villagers. Years later, residents of Mvezo would haul him into court, accusing their nkosi of dictatorial behavior and illegal land grabs as he pushed through his plan to build a luxury tourist resort near the village. Inhabitants of Mvezo would accuse the chief, among other things, of fencing them out of traditional family burial grounds.

At a community meeting in October of 2011, a reporter and photographer from the Sunday Times were held against their will for eight hours as Mandela accused them of trespassing and denounced the villagers challenging him in court. The chief made clear he considered the journalists agents of rebellion against him. "This is war. This is not time to fold our hands," Mandela was quoted as saying. "This is going to be a long weekend which calls for the slaughtering of a bull. The ancestors have brought these men to us." In the intervening years since his celebrated arrival as chief, the powers of his position -- or perhaps, the lack of the kind of power he had anticipated -- appeared to have taken Mandla Mandela off the rails. By then, even though I called and emailed Mandela regularly, we rarely managed more than a few words on the phone. He never responded in writing and skipped scheduled meetings. When I learned of the clashes in Mvezo in late 2011, it reminded me of how noble his plans had sounded three years earlier.

Then, at the end of 2007, it was clear how important it was to the new chief to try to restore the kind of control over the village that his great grandfather had exercised before the colonial magistrate removed him in 1906. Many of the villagers in the area had deeds to parts of Mvezo that dated back to 1910, granted in the wake of the elder Chief Mandela's fall. The long delay in the recognition of his rights to control the surrounding lands the Mandela grandson had put down to a lack of respect by government bureaucrats toward traditional leaders, but there were many competing legal claims.

The younger Mandela's clashes with the bureaucrats led him to curious conclusions, though. He predicted a coming confrontation of historic proportions between the ANC government and traditional leaders. "If you come to the core problems, the only real revolution that could emerge today in this country is out of traditionalism," he argued. "So the counterrevolution to ANC dominance lays upon the traditionalists. We have the masses, we have the people."

The chief interrupted himself, then, to call a group of passing teenage girls into the rondavel. They were stunningly beautiful young women dressed in short skirts and rayon blouses, with hair pulled back from their smiling faces. When their chief began talking, though, their smiles died and they bowed their heads. He rattled off a long rebuke. The young women thanked him for his advice about how to behave in the future, and took the leftover loaves of bread, backing out of the entryway. "They were just caught up in those parties you probably saw," he explained, attributing the problem of the wild parties along the roadway to the influence of young men who lived in Johannesburg and Cape Town but had returned to the home village only for the holidays. "They come three days before Christmas with money they've brought [home] and instead of being creative and assisting their families, they engage in these shebeens," he said.

Presented by

Douglas Foster is associate professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Global

Just In