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

Mandela had grown up in Johannesburg and spent a share of his young adulthood in shebeens himself. Now he sounded like a born-again prohibitionist. "They just engage in drinking!" he exclaimed. The holiday visitors retained a sense of belonging to Mveso, he noted, but the chief thought of them more as a kind of infectious agent. The young men had been "exposed to the Western lifestyle of urban culture," he complained. "They are not in touch with tradition, they are not in touch with custom."

I noticed that the chief's wife, Thando, was absent. She had missed the feast the day before, his first Christmas in the new post. It was disappointing, for me, because I had been looking forward to learning what the transition to rural life meant for her. When I asked if his wife was doing well, Mandela slumped in his seat. He acknowledged, a little mournfully, that she had decided to spend the holidays with her own family and confessed that life in Mvezo had come as quite a shock to her. The two of them, after all, had begun their marriage as a modern couple. Their relationship had skidded up against old rules. Her identity in the small village had become circumscribed to that of the wife of a chief.

"I've always loved this traditional lifestyle we lead. On her side, she's had a lot of sacrifices," Mandela remarked. "Being a modern woman: culture changes when you're out here." She was forbidden to wear pants in the village and was expected to cover her hair, for example. Mandela didn't mention a more significant source of tension, which I knew something about only because we had mutual friends. The subject was polygamy. It was expected of nkosi in the Transkei that he would take multiple wives, stitching together varied families and clans in the area through marriage. Thando Mandela certainly wasn't ready to welcome other wives into the fold.

"This whole friction is erupting out of modernity," Mandela explained, in a rather vague reference to arguments he had had with his wife on the subject. It seemed to me that this was an updated version of the trouble many people had in reconciling the ways of the village with the ways of the city. Mandla Mandela, like Jacob Zuma, regularly shuttled between upcountry spots, where traditional authority held sway, and the most cosmopolitan settings in the country, where identity was mutable and diffuse. If you traveled frequently between villages like Nkandla and Mvezo to cities like Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, it was hard to believe that Chief Mandela wasn't merely keening for the idea of a village already lost and longing for a way of life that had never been.

Anthropologists John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, two South African scholars at the University of Chicago, had pointed out that this tension lay deep in the DNA of the new dispensation. The country's much-lauded Constitution included protection of human dignity, individual rights, and equal treatment, but it also promised a place of respect for traditional life characterized by what they called the chief-subject relationship. "For many -- perhaps most -- South Africans, it is the coexistence of the two tropes, of citizen and subject, that configures the practical terms of national belonging," they had written.

When women in customary marriages were denied inheritance rights, when widows were punished because they refused to stay indoors for a year after the death of their spouse, when a woman in KwaZulu-Natal was killed for wearing trousers -- and when both women and men accepted physical assault and rape as the appropriate response of a husband to a wife he felt was disobedient -- these loosely intertwined strands of South African life came unraveled. Often, disputes rooted in these national contradictions ended up in courtrooms, and the trickiest cases to resolve involved the role of women.

By Christmas Day, this tension was starkly evident in Mvezo, even in the nkosi's private life. Clashes over culture and power were bound to punctuate the second decade of democracy. It got Chief Mandela's back up, though, when people he knew from his old life decided that traditional ways were, at their core, oppressive of women. He launched, at great length, into a retelling of the history of the Thembu people, who had once been led by a queen. "I've always said that men and women exist as parallel parties, like tracks on a railway line," Mandela said. "No one is higher than the other, each are dependent on the other. You will never have things working right if the man and woman are not assisting one another. Once one becomes dominant, you find an oppressive system emerging."

Thando Mandela, as it turned out, would soon decide not to return to Mvezo. When she filed for divorce the following year, she accused her husband of having threatened and beaten her. The severity of the setbacks in the chief's personal life wasn't something Mandela addressed directly. He acknowledged, in a more general way, that the obstacles he had encountered in his new role left him a little downcast. As we talked into the afternoon, it seemed as though Mandela was struggling to reconcile the manifold sides of his identity -- Soweto youngster, Rhodes University scholar, and global businessman -- with this new role, as a traditional leader.

It occurred to him, as we were talking, that you could succeed in the larger world, but in the process lose a special, fragile rootedness to your ancestral place. Mandela's description of this quandary reminded me of his younger brother, the one who didn't consider himself part of the Xhosa culture. The twist was that the chief himself increasingly felt called on to play a larger role on the national stage. In 2009, the fourth election since 1994, he was placed on the ANC party list and ended up a Member of Parliament. In office, he made news mostly with sexist remarks and criticism of protections against discrimination afforded lesbians and gay men under South African law.

Chief Mandela increasingly looked toward trade with China as an element in underwriting the costs of development needed to lift more South Africans out of poverty. He certainly looked to China for business opportunities for himself. In order to deliver on promises he had made to the people of Mvezo at his investiture, the nkosi resembled his grandfather in only one respect. Bit by bit, he migrated back to the centers of national power, in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and to the places outside South Africa where big decisions were being made that would shape the future of the world. In the end, Chief Mandela had decided that he must leave the village in order to save it.

Excerpted from Douglas Foster'sAfter Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa(Liveright).

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


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


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.

More in Global

Just In