Grandson Shares Mandela’s Life Lessons in New Book

An entire generation has been born since Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from a South African prison, where he spent almost three decades for his anti-apartheid activism.

Ndaba Mandela wants to make sure those young people understand his grandfather’s role – and his values – in fighting for racial equality and later in trying to heal divisions as South Africa’s first black president.

“That is the very reason why I wrote this book,” Ndaba Mandela says of “Going to the Mountain” (Hachette). His goal with the memoir – released last month, in time for Wednesday’s 100th anniversary of the late leader’s birth – is to show the elder Mandela “not as this huge, great icon” but as a supportive grandfather figure they might relate to.

The 35-year-old shared views of his grandfather – who died in late 2013 at age 95 – both in the book and in a recent visit to VOA headquarters here. Ndaba describes him as “courageous” and “fearless” in his quest to end South Africa’s white minority rule, but says that commitment came at great personal cost.

“That is a man who went against the system, who sacrificed his family, sacrificed his own life for the greater good of his people,” Ndaba tells VOA, alluding to his grandfather’s 27 years in detention.

It’s a complicated, extended family, given Mandela’s three marriages and five children. Ndaba’s father was Makgatho Mandela, “the Old Man’s second son by his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase,” he writes, using a term of affection.  

Mandela was imprisoned while that son grew up and became a street hustler in Soweto. Ndaba says his own childhood was chaotic and impoverished, with his parents caught up in alcohol and sometimes fighting bitterly.

“A lot of the time, I would eat at my neighbors’ house, you know, when my parents couldn’t afford to get dinner for me,” he says. “… By any standard, I grew up in a broken home.”

In 1989, 7-year-old Ndaba met his grandfather at Victor Verster Prison, from which the leader was freed several months later. The boy was 11 when he moved in with Mandela and his staff in a house in Johannesburg’s Houghton suburb. He would spend much of the next two decades there – being cared about, and then caring for, the Old Man.

Subtitled “Life Lessons From My Grandfather,” the book explores the older man’s motivations and approaches.

Among those lessons:

“Nonviolence is a strategy,” Ndaba writes, quoting the Old Man. His grandfather subscribed to Gandhi’s strategy “of noncooperation and peaceful but unstoppable resistance. … He was a judicious leader who understood the power of doing the right thing until it overwhelms the wrong thing.”

Education is essential. Nelson Mandela “valued education because it was something that was stripped away” from blacks, says Ndaba, who admits he himself at one point “didn’t perform well at school” and had “a rocky adolescence.” Like his grandfather, he went on to earn a college degree.

Weeks after becoming president in 1994, Mandela established what became the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, donating about a third of his presidential salary every year, his grandson writes. As the elder man had told parliament, “The emancipation of people from poverty and deprivation is most centrally linked” to quality education.

Respect your heritage. The phrase “going to the mountain” refers to ceremonial circumcision – a monthlong rite of passage for young men in the Xhosa ethnic group. Ndaba was almost 21 when he underwent cutting and related psychological and spiritual testing. It was a turning point in his relationship with his grandfather, who then “expected critical thinking and welcomed civilized disagreements,” he writes. “… From the time I was a kid, I knew I could depend on him. This is when he knew he could depend on me.”

Don’t expect change all at once. When Ndaba eventually realized that his grandfather had orchestrated his parents’ separation and also kept them away from him, he writes, “I struggled to forgive him.”

Ndaba’s mother, Zondi, was already gravely ill when he learned that she had HIV/AIDS. She died of its complications in 2003, though a family press release attributed her death to pneumonia.

Ndaba writes that Mandela tried to address the country’s AIDS epidemic in 1991 by promoting safe-sex education, but backed off when accusations that he was “encouraging promiscuity” threatened his political prospects. When Ndaba’s father succumbed to the same disease in early 2005, Mandela called a press conference “to announce that my son has died of AIDS.”

“It’s impossible to overstate what this meant to the millions of people who live in fear of seeking help or disclosing their HIV status and to the millions more people who loved them,” writes Ndaba Mandela, now an ambassador for UNAIDS, the United Nations effort to curb the disease.   

Show leadership through service. Mandela was a man of “integrity, humility,” one who “dived into public service,” his grandson says. “A leader is not someone who says, ‘Look at me, I’m the best’ – a leader is there to serve.”

For Ndaba, service comes through Africa Rising, a nonprofit that he and cousin Kweku Mandela formed in 2009 to improve the continent’s socioeconomics. “We need to empower young Africans,” he says, “to give them a heightened sense of pride and confidence in being African.”

This report originated in VOA’s English to Africa Service.

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