The story of Mandla Mandela retracing his grandfather's footsteps in reverse, and of a nation looking for a new identity as the memory of apartheid recedes.
Nelson Mandela was the country bumpkin made good, running away from his rural home as a teenager to become a lawyer in the big city and, later, one of the world's most famous guerrilla leaders and most lionized political prisoners. After 27 years of incarceration, he was freed in 1990 and, in 1994, elected leader of one of the globe's newest democracies, South Africa. After a single term, he stepped down in a seamless transition of power, but he has remained a father figure for the nation.
The narrative arc of Mandela's life marked the expected normal trajectory of any South African's life: migration from poor rural areas, where people were mostly uneducated, to the hybridized cosmopolitan culture of a city like Johannesburg. That's why it caused such a sensation when, in 2007, his eldest grandson, Mandlasizwe Mandela, made the reverse migration, from urban center to a life in the sticks. In the midst of high unemployment and rampant crime, the cities no longer necessarily represent the "better life for all" promised to South Africans by the governing party, Nelson Mandela's party, the African National Congress.
The younger Mandela was raised in Soweto, a sprawling slum at the edges of rapidly modernizing Johannesburg. He studied for a master's degree at one of South Africa's most distinguished universities. When he and his young wife arrived in Mvezo, where the elder Mandela had spent his earliest years, Mandla Mandela took up the post of nkosi, or head man of the Traditional Council. In the process, the newly minted chief placed a spotlight on one of the central contradictions papered at the founding of the new nation -- the guarantee of one person, one vote in a nonracial and nonsexist country up against the privileges of unchecked, regal authority still exercised by appointed traditional leaders.
It was a long drive, on perhaps the worst road in the country, to reach the village when I went to Mvezo for the first time, to watch Nelson Mandela's grandson consecrated as traditional leader. Around the country, people were migrating from the most underdeveloped, poverty-stricken rural areas in the direction of the cities. Still, for the majority of Mandela's countrymen, life as it unfolded in Cape Town or Johannesburg was still as remote as the mischief caused by the upscale characters on installments of the soap operas Generations and Isidingo.
Hills rounded like half moons rolled on to the horizon. The Mbashe River threaded lazy curlicues in clefts between the hills. On the day before the Mandela celebration, I had attended a lavish birthday party in honor of Jacob Zuma at the International Convention Centre in Durban. By then, Zuma had already mounted the challenge to then-President Thabo Mbeki that would split the ANC, lead to the ouster of a sitting president, and result in Zuma's election as president of the country in 2009 on a platform that emphasized the importance of rural development. At the International Convention Center it was smooth marble floors, cavernous expanses, bright lights, with the new business and government elite arrayed in all their finery; here it was dust, grit, tattered clothes, and the fresh air of the country.
Sharp twists and turns led to precipitous climbs before I reached the stark beauty of the so-called Great Place. Undulating lines of people, the just-risen sun at their backs, had begun walking early, streaming toward the village in hopes of catching a glimpse of their best-known native son. More than 70 years had passed since Nelson Mandela's father, headman of the Traditional Council of Mvezo, had been summarily dismissed by a British colonial magistrate. The post of village chief had remained empty through the intervening years, according to the amaThembu king I consulted, who said that the people of the village had refused appointment of anyone but a Mandela. Here, the propriety of inherited leadership still prevailed.
The younger boys considered the apartheid period as something remote and strange, like ancient history.
This dismissal of Henry Gadla Mandela in the late 1920s was presented in Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, as a stark lesson in colonial oppression. Mandela writes that his father, summoned by the magistrate, refused to bow to British rule, supposedly sending back this reply in isiXhosa: "Andiza ndisaqula" -- I will not come, I am girding for battle. The historical record produced a more complicated version of the story, including allegations that Chief Henry Mandela had made illegal sales of land along the river. In either case, ever since Nelson Mandela was released from custody in 1990, hopes flared periodically among the villagers that he would accept his father's inheritance and lead the council. Nelson Mandela had been requisitioned to run the ANC and the country instead, however.
Hope flickered among the villagers again when Nelson Mandela stepped down as president in 1999, but he demurred that he was too old to take up the post. Next in line by customary law would have been his eldest son. But that son, Thembi, had died in a car accident while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, and the next son, Makgotho, lost his life from complications related to AIDS in the early days of 2005. So the line of male inheritance was forced to skip a generation. Now, Mandlasizwe -- Makgotho's eldest son, Nelson's eldest grandson -- agreed to be wrapped in the skin of a lion.
Here was the sign of a curious reverse migration to the one Nelson Mandela had made, from rural life to city lawyer to revolutionary hero. The prospective traditional leader wasn't the only city dweller returning to rural homelands out of disappointment with the realities of cosmopolitan life. Though the predominant flow of movement within the country was toward the cities, a small number of people were coming back after they experienced terrible reverses in their lives -- joblessness, illness, and victimization from crime -- while in the big city.
Mandlasizwe, or Mandla, had grown up in Soweto and he had studied for a master's degree in political science from Rhodes University. He had budding business interests in China and the Middle East. Like his sister and brothers, Mandla was essentially a person shaped by Joburg's vibe, a cosmopolitan man. Still, he had decided to return to his grandfather's birthplace to assume a conservative, traditional role. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela described Mvezo as "a place apart, a tiny precinct removed from the world of events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years." Mandla, I soon learned, had arrived back at the family homestead with plenty of ideas about how the village would need to change.
A fierce wind blew through the gorges, rocking my car. I had stopped a few miles off the highway, and now the car was crammed with four old women in traditional dress and half-a-dozen children. It was so crowded that I could scarcely manage steering. Shifting gears was out of the question, so we trundled on in second. The women's cheeks were dusted with reddish mud, a sign they were amaqaba, or Xhosa-speaking traditionalists. Pointing in the direction of the arriving amagqoboka, the civilized ones, my passengers laughed behind cupped hands.
Luxury sedans careened past us, lickety-split up the hill. Around the bend, a BMW 4x4 was parked akimbo at the side of the road, with two tires blown out. A little farther on, a brilliantly polished Mercedes revealed a popped hood and a plume of steam. The women murmured happily at the sight of the fancy car boiling over and the man in the fancy suit who had lurched out of the driver's seat to wave his arms madly over the engine.
At the end of the road, on the overlook at Mvezo, canvas tents had been set up to shield people from an unrelenting sun. In the middle of the clearing was a square platform adorned with lion and leopard skins. Lurking beside it were stick-thin dogs with whiplike tails. Suddenly an army helicopter swooped past, landing on the top of a nearby ridge. When an oversized 4x4 pulled up, Nelson Mandela was visible in a passenger seat, with his face, fixed in a whimsical grin, pressed to the window. His grandsons -- Mandla, the man to be honored on this day, and his younger brother, Ndaba -- helped both their grandfather and his wife, Graça Machel, from the car.
The young men were shirtless and garbed in traditional robes, with beaded bands around their heads and at their ankles. They followed the elders into the tent that had been raised for them. A terrible wind kicked up, the dogs started yapping, and people stood to cheer for the father of their nation. Since the generator trucked in by the ceremony's producers had short-circuited, the sound system was also kaput. Only those of us standing right next to the stage could hear a series of speeches from struggle veterans and traditional leaders that opened the celebration.
When Mandla was summoned forward, he looked wide-eyed. Thembu King Dalindyebo, a wiry, hyped-up middle-aged man with rows of beads around his neck, placed the lion skin across the young man's back. A cluster of old men, religious leaders and royalty, placed their hands over the lion to consecrate Mandla Mandela's ascendancy. After the blessing was done, women in the crowd ululated in celebration. The brothers danced in the midst of a troupe of bare-breasted young women. Graça Machel joined them, taking the hand of Mandla's wife and leading her through the paces that had been, until this moment, intended only for the men.
Finally, it was time for the elder Mandela to speak. He was helped to his feet, but he insisted on walking under his own power to the stage. Mandela mounted the steps upright, wobbling all the way. As he passed by, you could see how frail he had become, at 88. Wind battered him from one side, and he headed in that direction, then it whipped at him from the other side and he faltered to the right. He grinned into the gusts as he saluted the new nkosi of the Mvezo Traditional Council. Then Mandela murmured something in isiXhosa. His comment drew a shocked hush, followed by a sharp intake of breath from the people around me. "What did he say?" I asked a journalist standing next to me. "Now I can die in peace," he said, sounding stunned.
When the elder Mandela finished his remarks, he and Graça Machel greeted old-timers in the VIP tent while younger guests mounted the platform to approach the new chief on their knees. It was a gesture of intergenerational obeisance to traditional authority. After the formal ceremony was over I had followed the Mandela brothers down to an overlook near where their grandfather was born. Past a rocky ravine you could see stretches of fertile land lying fallow. That's when I noticed the image of a lion tattooed smack-dab in the middle of Ndaba Mandela's back, and tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned, with a puzzled look. I asked if he intended to survey the surrounding countryside and stake a claim to leadership in a neighboring community now that his elder brother was nkosi of Mvezo. Swirling around, he whispered, "Are you mad? Man, I'm totally a Joburg boy." The slower patterns of rural life, with traditional views of the relationships between men and women, were not for him. His description of himself as "totally a Joburg boy" provided the opening for long conversations, spread over the following four years, about what it meant to be a member of South Africa's most famous family and a Joburger at heart. He seemed buoyant in the moment, though, to watch his brother's moment of triumph.
The new chief, on the other hand, looked somber, as if the weight of his new responsibilities suddenly had become quite clear. "The generators failed us today. But it was a wonderful ceremony anyway," he said. The new nkosi reported that there was no electricity in the village yet. He knew that it would be hard to convince the electricity supplier, Eskom, to install electricity way out in such a remote area. The road was abysmal, too. He noted that a number of VIPs had been waylaid by blown tires and ruined engines. He intended to revive small-scale agriculture in the area, having already offered his neighbors the services of his own bull to generate new herds of cattle for people of the village. The headman of Mvezo imagined a new kind of village -- a "place apart," perhaps, but also a rural precinct fully representative of new national aspirations. Mvezo would be more engaged in the wide world, and if Chief Mandela had his way, it would also be protected somehow from the more alienating aspects of modern life.
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.
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.
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).
This article available online at: