TBB Talks to… Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Nkosi Zwelivelile

It must be a unique experience to be the Grandson of a man almost universally recognised in the world we live in.

The life options facing descendants of such notables generally lies along two paths; immerse yourself in the legacy of your predecessor or – ‘find your own way‘. The latter option is greatly mischaracterised. It presumes that one cannot find their own way in building upon the inheritance of a great legacy.

HRH Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela has undoubtedly walked down the path of self-discovery in building on the legacy of his ancestor, Nelson Mandela. Like his Grandfather, he is a Member of Parliament for the African National Congress (ANC), continuing the family legacy of political engagement. However, while Madiba overlooked his royal inheritance in order to pursue a career of political activism, his Grandson, affectionately known as Chief Mandela, restored this familial role when he was enthroned as Chief of Mvezo, the ancestral home of the Mandela line.

The Chief joined us in the UK ahead of the Feburary 2019 opening  of Nelson Mandela: The Exhibition. The exhibit has been developed in collaboration with the Mandela Royal Family Council and pays tribute to the unique contribution made by citizens of the UK in spearheading the international Anti-Apartheid movement. The duty of sanctioning such a programme can only be bestowed on a man who proudly walks in his Grandfather’s shoes.

There is much of Mandela in the Chief’s face. A tall man with an impressionable but gentle presence. He entered the room at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA); myself and other journalists awaiting the protocol of formal introductions. Defying such norms, he approached me directly, offered his hand and introduced himself, “Chief Mandela”. Upon hearing my name “Shaka”, Chief Mandela exclaimed “Hey”, and smiled in acknowledgment of the named famed Zulu origin. He thought for a moment and took the opportunity to ask one of those classic Pan-African philosophical inquisitions:

Was Shaka a Hero or a Villain?”

A Hero of course!” I replied with all the assertiveness of a lifetime full of Pan-African seasoning. But I am not satisfied. The fact that he asked the question has me intrigued. I am curious to hear his thoughts. As we sit to begin formalities I reclaim the moment in order to return the question. His answer was full:

… If you look at it historically, Shaka emerged in 1816 and there had been atrocities meted out to our people by the colonial governments dating back as 1652. So how could it be that Shaka Zulu is now regarded the Villain and the number one contributor to the dispossession and displacement of our people? The real contributor to the dispossession of our people was the colonial government with its segregation policies. So today you’ll find that a lot of people want to hop on to 60 years of apartheid and not truly account for the 350 years of colonialism….

He goes on to make reference to the land issue “in the entire African continent”. My insincere apology for stealing the moment as it’s more a reflection of the fact that I didn’t expect him to go in the way he did, than being in a way actually sorrowful. I am certain of two things. Firstly, here’s a man who enjoys History. The second being that Chief Mandela likes to talk!

The next challenge became negotiating the limited amount of time to be shared between 6 journalists. I had a few questions. My politicised mind in the role of Journalist wanted to ask the hard questions; develop on things; probe; dissect and break it down. South Africa presents prime opportunities for such sensibilities. Political perspectives aside, however, there is often much to be gained by just listening to the stories of resistance movements from the perspective of those on the front line.

(l-r) Director of BCA Paul Reid, BCA Trustee Dawn Hill, Chief Mandela, TBB journalist ShakaRa

Chief Mandela spoke of the first time his Grandfather met him. As a premature baby, he was carried by his Mother in a handbag to visit Madiba on Robben Island. He spoke of being a young boy in Soweto, disconnected from the struggle that engulfed the society around him. Confused by the fact that his name was on the lips of all the ordinary people in the streets. This confusion prompted his father to send him on a journey to discover the history of the movement.

His earliest recognition of meeting his grandfather was as a young boy, sent to visit him in prison on this mission of self-discovery. A young Chief Mandela, Mama Nomzamo “Winnie” Madekizela Mandela and others travelled to Palls Mall Prison in search of the incarcerated activist and family man. Following the “excited hugging & kissing” between Mama Winnie and her husband, Nelson turned and said, “And you must be my Grandson…

But the experience only added to his confusion:

I thought to myself am I hearing right?’ This man just said he’s my grandfather… and I became very withdrawn and very bitter because for me a prison was for someone who had done wrong… instead of discovering the man behind the name I became very angry. Very bitter

But the instincts of his grandfather led him to write a letter to a family friend concerning his troubled grandson:

I have just had a visit from my Grandson who is the heir of the family. But I am rather concerned his English was very backward. Please assist in his development.”

The young Mandela upon reading this letter was, of course, inclined to take it literally – until it was explained:

Letters that come from your grandfather are usually marked out in Black or the entire paragraph cut out, But this because, they didn’t understand it was an encoded letter. Madiba said you visited him and you didn’t know the man he was, the ideals and the principles that he stood for, his commitment to the struggle for liberation; and he’s asked me to educate you about the man he was…

Such stories humble those who study their related histories. The sacrifices involved with being forefront in a liberation movement can never be understated. As it became my turn to question, these thoughts wrestled to find which should be asked first.

I decided upon a relatively light but pertinent one, “Can you say your full name for me if you don’t mind me asking?

Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Sizwe Talibunga Mandela.” He replied.

My reason for asking is that his Grandfather’s name is not actually “Nelson”. I attempted to say the name with my unrefined tongue. The Chief corrects me “Rolihlahla”. The chief would later explain that a teacher at Missionary school told him he would be called “Nelson” from this day forth because “Rolihlahla” was not acceptable. I continue.

The reason why I ask is in relation to the cultural significance of decolonising South Africa… They gave us these European names as an aspect of colonisation, so what is the importance of this re-Africanisation process, especially as it relates to our names and forward movement and development of South Africa?.

He smiles, thanks for the question proceeds with another extensive answer:

I think probably a lot of people have overemphasised the issue of Madiba as ‘Nelson’ Mandela…. Madiba was given the name ‘Rolihlahla’ by his father, meaning ‘pulling off a branch.’ But the true meaning of that is ‘Troublemaker’… But the second prominent name my grandfather was bestowed was upon circumcision… he was given the manhood name ‘Talibunga’ – the convenor of dialogue or the convener of parliament’… In our tradition, you cannot call a man by his boyish name.

He continues:

In decolonising Africa, you will realise that also, we are reluctant to subscribe to the titles of Chief. And I introduce myself as Nkosi. Nkosi is our indigenous title… above myself, as Nkosi, it would be ‘Kunkani’ which is equal to king. Now in the colonisation of Africa, our traditional leaders were stripped of these titles because they were not wanting to grant them the same titles as European traditional titles of Kings & Queens… It has become very important to us as Africans to uphold our indigenous titles. Therefore it’s much better and of significance to introduce yourself as Nkosi Zwelivelile or Nkosi Mandela, because that is a true identity of who you are…. These are the issues that are quite thought-provoking and require Africans to engage with in terms of colonising Africa.

That was intended to be the warm-up. I was ready to go in. But I was cut short by the facilitators. The political Journalist is again dissatisfied. I wanted to ask about Mama Winnie, Zondeni Sobukwe, the significance of their recent passings and the women warriors of the movement. I wanted to ask about the land question. But this would have to wait until I could steal a couple more moments on the tour of the BCA.

My nearly lost intentions were rescued somewhat by another journalist who asked about the vexed issue of the Marikina Massacre (16th Aug 2012), in which South African Police opened fire on a group of miners, protesting against poor working conditions. 38 were killed, 78 wounded. Among the implicated are government, including the current President Cyril Ramaphosa and the British Lonmin Mining company who control the mine which was the scene of the massacre. Chief Mandela addresses the issue:

All of us as South Africans care about any loss of life that is experienced during the post-apartheid era- and in particular, the Marikana issue… we are pained by that. But as a collective, we are saying that not all hope is lost. We can still find one another. We can find what lead to the people of Marikana being killed. But then also to look at a different aspect of that. Before that particular day, there are… just under 10 people that were killed. Who killed them? Who commanded those people to be killed? It’s not spoken of. We focus only on the mania on that morning and do not speak about the other – about 10 of them – who were killed… some of them were just security people at the mine. Therefore I say we need to probably stop pointing fingers and find solutions that ensure that such an awful incident doesn’t happen again.

It’s a political answer, only increasing my desire to dig deeper into these issues. Even after the British media began to vilify Mama Winnie Mandela, she remained the hero of the Anti-Apartheid movement for many Pan-African activists in the UK. To not have a moments’ focus on her would just be wrong. So I sneak in a question about Mama Winnie and the lesser-known, Zondeni Sobukwe when the conversation shifts to Madiba’s visit to the UK in the 90’s:

I think it may be wrong to say that Mama Sobukwe is not known… we know her! We know the role that she played in our own struggle for liberation. And many women for that matter. It’s not an isolated issue to Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela. People like Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie Dubre, Helen Joseph… Mama Albertina Sisulu, Adelaide Thambo. They were in the forefront…. So we owe this freedom we have to these gallant warriors.

Finally, I ask about the land issue and where it is moving. Nkosi Mandela replies:

“We are very excited and happy as South Africans that our president… has initiated dialogue about this issue. It can no longer be accepted that 10% of the population owns over 80% of the land. And if there was any forefront issue in the struggle for liberation, it was to get the land issue addressed. We continually say since the drafting of the freedom charter, South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Not just the 10% of predominantly white supremacists. It belongs to all South Africans… and we have to initiate a campaign of redress. 350 years of colonialism brought segregationist policies and also dispossessed a lot of land of our people. And therefore we are saying that’s it is high time that we engage on this issue…

There are clear cases of families, communities, forcefully removed, killed, murdered, over the land. And we are saying that if a family can clearly articulate that ‘we used to reside on this land’ a governments responsibility is to see as how they are returned to that land. And therefore South Africans can not only be confined homemade reserves that were created by the regime in the Bantu policies. We are saying that now that we are free, 24 years later, we need to engage the dialogue of populating South Africa in its entirety. We want to decolonise apartheid… not just legislatively but it must translate to economic terms…

As always, there’s more to ask, there’s more to probe, there’s more to explore, but that’s for another day. What is for sure is that exhibits such as Nelson Mandela: The Exhibition will continue to shine a light of the legacy and people of the Anti- Colonial Movement in South Africa, providing much need inspiration, information, and lessons for time and people to come.

Nelson Mandela: The Exhibition opens at the newly opened Leake Street Gallery in Waterloo, February 8th 2019. Find out more and book your tickets here.


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