One glance at the “football” plug adaptor I was about to buy and the man in Heathrow’s duty free shop had guessed I was on my way to South Africa. All he now needed to know was which one of South Africa’s major cities, Cape Town or Jo’burg, I was going to. But I was going to neither. I was off to Mthatha.
Chances are that you, like the salesman, have never heard of it. And yet from Mthatha, and the area surrounding it, came many of South Africa’s greats including the country’s, and arguably the world’s, most famous man – Nelson Mandela.
More trading post than city, and in the poorest part of South Africa’s poorest province, the Eastern Cape, Mthatha (previously made pronounceable to white tongues by the apartheid spelling of Umtata) is a long way from the glamorous images of African modernity or the sharp edge of urban poverty that were showcased by the World Cup. And yet as administrative capital of the all-black “homeland” of the Transkei it was a central plank of the apartheid government’s policy of separate development. Its men and women would cross the “border” to work in South Africa’s mines or white homes while inside the Transkei, employment was inflated by economic concessions the apartheid government gave to industry to prove that the system worked.
Nowadays Mthatha is just another desperately poor part of rural South Africa whose inadequate services for 80,000 must be stretched to provide for 400,000. Its urban sprawl encompasses the identically laid-out small brick houses of the government’s housing programme, many of them still under half-hearted construction, as well as huge stretches of informal settlements of shack and tin. Unemployment in the region tops 52 per cent and at least one in five people is illiterate.
So far, so feel bad. But, struggling as it undoubtedly is, Mthatha has reasons to celebrate. Its old administrative building, the Bunga, has been turned into one of South Africa’s foremost heritage sites – the Nelson Mandela Museum. Also in the area is the village of Mvezo, where Mandela was born a chief’s son; Qunu, where he lived until his father’s death (and where he will eventually be buried); and the Great Place of Mqhekezweni, where the King Regent of the Thembu prepared Mandela for the job of counsellor, and from where Mandela eventually fled. All of them are being developed as special places of pilgrimage. And so it was to them that I went in my effort to get to grips with the man and his myth.
Unlike the salesman in Heathrow, I knew where Mthatha was. Having written a novel set in the Eastern Cape, I had travelled through some of this landscape. But I had never stayed long enough to appreciate how thoroughly the traditional and modern South Africa collided in the one man, Nelson Mandela. My journey was to provide me with an understanding of how long, and how far, his walk to freedom was.
Step into the cool stone halls of the Mandela Museum, and you are met by screenprints that complement narratives of Mandela’s early life. They are simply told but with scholarship enough to take issue with Mandela’s account of a rebel father expelled as a chief for refusing to pay obeisance to a white court and a white magistrate. The court records, the museum says, show that Mandela’s father did attend the court and that he was actually sacked over a problem involving land claims, the details of which remain obscure.
Going left down a corridor, I was pursued by an audio loop of that unmistakeable voice pronouncing those unforgettable words: “During my lifetime … I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities…”, followed by that rousing finale: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” with which prisoner Mandela had concluded his statement to a court that could have sentenced him to death.
Down the right-hand corridor, and into the more contemporary rooms, and a very different audio loop filled my ears. Amongst a sequence of video clips of President Mandela greeting his many famous fans, including Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and the Spice Girls, is a short conversation with South African-born actor, Charlize Theron. “I love you, Nelson Mandela,” the emotional Charlize says as she practically nuzzles him. A slight pause, and then that voice comes again, this time to say: “I love you, too.” There lie the twin poles of the man: the inspirational revolutionary who was driven to start an armed struggle against a brutal state; and the daddy of all celebrities who enjoys his fame enough to make other, less famous celebrities feel at home. Between these two polarities is the countryside that shaped Mandela.
Heavy rains and spectacular thunderstorms should by now have turned the veldt into the lush green grazing lands through which the young Mandela roamed. But this year the rains are late and the landscape is a tawny study of browns and greys. Towards the end of the road that links East London to Mthatha, a fast road made hazardous by livestock, is a sign to Qunu, that conglomeration of small villages in one of which the child Rolihlahla (rechristened Nelson by a white schoolteacher) grew up. Opposite this turn-off is an ugly brick building. Seeing walls, wires and a sentry box, I assumed it was a police station, placed at the side of the road for easy access. It turned out to be Nelson Mandela’s home, the one he had built after coming out of prison and the one whose gardens the BBC Ground Force crew had landscaped. It was here that we were to photograph Mandela’s grandson, Nkosi (chief) Mandla Mandela.
We were shown into the adjoining visitors’ house. It’s not pretty and, we soon discovered, it also is not original. It is, in fact, a copy of another house, the one in the grounds of Victor Verster prison to which, in 1988, Mandela was moved in preparation for his 1990 release. To model part of your house on a prison! And yet, of course, the place in which he had a room rather than a cell, a garden rather than a quarry, and in which he was able to welcome visitors almost as a free man, must have seemed like a paradise to that prisoner of more than 25 years. A home from home.
In this real home, that is a copy of a prison, now are objects that would never have made it into prison. In particular, the stuffed upright of a roaring lion, the symbol of a Thembu king, and, laid out in obeisance at its feet, the skin of a leopard that represents the system of chiefs who sit under the king and administer justice.
When Mandla Mandela – whose retinue includes a stylist – appeared in traditional garb for his photograph, he was dressed, not in the leopard skin of a chief, which he is, but in the lion skin of a king, which he is not. The skin had been given, as a special honour, by the real king to his grandfather. Seeing Mandla wearing it, I felt an uneasy echo of the doubt that had insinuated itself in my mind during our previous day’s encounter.
We had met in a rondavel in Mvezo – the place where Nelson’s father had been chief, and where his grandson has now taken up the mantle. Growing up, I had been taught to call Nelson Mandela by his clan name: Madiba. The white girl that I was had thought it was his special, his individual name. Now I found myself in the large thatched hut with five Madibas – four men related to Nelson Mandela’s father, and his grandson, Mandla, whose four-wheel drive has, as its number plate, Madiba 1. The other men were there, Mandla said, because when there were visitors, or issues to be discussed, tradition brought the whole family (or at least its men) together.
Tradition was Mandla Mandela’s theme. Perhaps he sensed the doubts that I have about tribalism, for his subject was the line of succession of the Thembu dynasty. As he scrolled through the centuries, describing the lineage, I began to wonder how secure and how rooted he actually was in this tradition. A suspicion grew in me: that he might be placing himself so firmly in this landscape because it might once have felt foreign to him. I asked him how well he had fitted into this structure when he was a child.
Then there emerged a different story. Of a boy with separated parents who was told nothing of his grandfather and therefore of his roots. In 1982, in fact, when students commemorating the 1976 Soweto children’s rebellion shouted that ANC slogan, “Amandla”, and its response, “Awethu” (“power to the people”), the nine-year-old Mandla thought they might be shouting his name. When they followed through with the slogan, “Viva Mandela,” he was sure of it. Home he rushed to ask why they were celebrating him. Only then did his step-grandmother, Winnie Mandela, take him, for the first time, to meet his grandfather in prison. And Mandla went on to describe how in 1990, on hearing of his grandfather’s release, he had hitched a lift to Nelson’s Soweto house, where he was almost turned away by an ANC guard who had never heard of him and who did not believe in his existence. And yet here he was, in modern-day South Africa, a chief because of who his grandfather is, and what his grandfather did, invoking his heritage and the primacy of the bloodline.
His insistence on traditional inheritance puzzled me. In a manner not dissimilar to the way Nelson Mandela had journeyed from country to city to escape the constraints of a life pre-ordained, my family had also migrated. In their case they were Jews from Lithuania and Latvia and who, having experienced something of the persecution that results from racism, chose to support the struggle for justice in their adopted country. By doing so, they set themselves apart from their race and their community. As a result we, their children, were brought up to be suspicious of tradition.
Now, the further I travelled into Nelson Mandela’s homeland, the more I began to appreciate the impact his early years, and his relationship to tradition, had on his politics. True, he broke with tradition. Rather than marry a woman who loved his guardian’s son, Justice, he and Justice ran away. Until he came out from prison, he hardly ever went back. As one of his daughters once accused him, he chose the nation over his family. But before this, he had chosen the nation over his tribe. Still, the strength of his tribal roots is what enabled him to become the great conciliator for which he is most renowned. I had thought it was royalty that ran through him that gave him that certainty and grace: now I began to realise how deeply embedded in his overall culture, and not just the royal one, is his way of being.
I saw it when I interviewed Chief Nokwanele Balizulu in Qunu. She is a rare woman chief. Not a full chief – she’s acting as regent until her son finishes his education. She was given the job after the death of her husband – killed in a succession battle with his brother – and the reason that it is hers is because of the Madibas and, in particular, Nelson Mandela. Consulted as to who should be regent for the 14-year-old, he suggested her. When, in the first two years, she asked to be released because it was too hard for a woman, he told her to carry on and that it would get better. And it has, she told me, they accept me now. Putting on her chiefly garments, she was transformed from a rather weary, ageing woman in a badly furnished shack, into someone with dignity, authority, and a piercing grin.
Her job is not an easy one. The traditional way of life is on a collision course with modernity. Freedom brought electricity (and therefore TV), more schools (although not nearly enough), and easier access to water. It also brought politicians who grow richer by the day, and the aspirations of the young to grab their share of the cake. Chief Balizulu was not the only woman I met whose major complaint against the new South Africa was that its constitution had eroded traditional values. In particular they disapproved of the right given to children not to be sjamboked (whipped) by their elders. As a result, they said, crime, and especially violent crime, had soared. It was the kind of kneejerk conservatism that worries me – whipping does not seem to me to be the ideal way of preventing violence – but when the chief went on to describe how traditional courts, once able to hold parents responsible for their children’s actions, were now undermined by legal courts which targeted the crime-doer, rather than their parents, the one to be targeted, I began to see how much could also have been lost in this community. Tradition can indeed be a bar to progress. But in a place where scores of young men sport plaid jackets even years after their coming-of-age circumcision for which the jackets were purchased, partly to prove their manhood and partly because they have no money to buy others, the erosion of that traditional way of life may indeed have created the vacuum into which crime can fall.
Sit in a chief’s rondavel and, when the sour milk comes round, it is to be shared from the same container with those who sit around you. That is the world from which Mandela sprang. South African as I am, I have very different roots. And yet, travelling in this unknown territory, I also found my heritage summoned up. There wasn’t an interview I conducted in which my father (a leader of the ANC’s underground army who became Mandela’s first housing minister) didn’t have his name mentioned. Pronounced as if it is one word, Joeslovo, the references were frequent and frequently personal. There’s an area in Mthatha named after him, one person told me; or, from another, “Oh, that man, he was too big a smoker.” And not only my father. Putting on my sunglasses, I drew the comment: “In those shades you look just like your mother.” I was stunned. My mother, who had indeed always worn dark glasses, was killed 28 years ago. And yet here, in the Great Place of a kingdom that is feeling the strain of the new South Africa, there is a youngish man who not only remembers who she was but who also knows what she looked like.
They know these things because this is ANC heartland. Unlike in the town, where the ANC share of the vote is down to 60 per cent, more than 90 per cent of rural voters remain faithful to their party. Theirs is a vote for the organisation that delivered freedom, water and electricity. But above all, it’s a vote for one man, Nelson Mandela, who is one of theirs. Who built a house so as to be amongst them and who made sure that schools and clinics and houses were there. He is a man who did not forget his origins, and who, I began to realise, despite his modernity and the long way he has travelled, still remains true to them. Notwithstanding the problems I may have with the way tradition can be used to keep people, and in particular, women, in their places, seeing Mandela’s world has left me with a much better sense of why the great man is as he is, and how his sense of belonging to this long-established community could have given him the confidence to break with his past.
Gillian Slovo’s family memoir, ‘Every Secret Thing’, is published by Virago. ‘Conversations with Myself’ by Nelson Mandela is published on October 12