Thursday, 10 November 2011

Return of the Mandelas

The air is thick, dry with heat, making it the parched companion to this arid environment. Thousands of aloes stand like stony sentries dotted along ridges, hills and plateaus, their headdresses a fiery red against the earth coloured surrounds. There is a deafening silence broken only by a gentle breeze that whistles in the ears.

Inside a nearby boma (traditional hut) sits the inkosi (chief). Traditional beadwork adorns his head, arms and ankles with a more elaborate piece covering his neck and torso, the lion skin that some moments ago hung from a shoulder now rest under him. To his left and right sit his headmen and advisors, they are locked in deliberation, he is only here for a few hours and so must deal with all matters requiring his attention. He sits silently, listening, before saying anything.

He is the embodiment of mediation, justice and leadership as is his duty through birth and custom, a heritage traced through a line of kings that go back twenty generations. History is alive in him today as he carries on his broad shoulders a responsibility to his people, both living and the dead. He is Inkosi Zwelivelile Mandlasizwe Dalibhunga Mandela.

A distance away a great leader speaks loud and powerful but without a voice:

 “In my youth in the Transkei I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days…of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland…I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle. This is what has motivated me in all that I have done.”

His words, captured in this simple monument, tell part of the story of a man whose life began in this place ninety years ago. He is Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibhunga Mandela and this is his ancestral home, Mvezo. 

The story of how these two came to be here is intertwined and it lies in the history of those who laid the foundation from which grandfather and grandson came. It is located in the product of generations of Thembus, a subgroup of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their complex culture.

The Light Bearers

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa is a Zulu high Sanusi, the highest level healer – thought to be the last in South Africa and one of only two remaining on the African continent – and custodian of umlando (tribal history) and culture. “The baThembu people,” says Mutwa, “were a deeply philosophical people, a nation of highly regarded intellectuals, thinkers and mystics.” The nineteenth century Thembu Paramount Chief (king) Ngubengcuka, he continues, “was a very wise man to whom people went for discussion and advice and from him came people, whom I can say, were Christ-like in their training and outlook.”

Ngubengcuka helped unify the Thembu people and from him came a line of leaders, mediators and reconcilers. “These are a people who are born to rule. The Ngubengcuka people are not only bloodline royal, if you look back into history you will find amongst the amaXhosa people men and women who were trained to become light bearers, who were people bred to lamula imfazwe, to stop the war,” says Mutwa, “It is their tradition.”

In Thembu monarchy the king’s wives formed houses, the first three being the core; Great, Right and Left. The Great House traditionally produced the king’s heir but failing this a son of the Right House would be chosen. As well as the king, the royal houses also produced the chiefs, each with his own sphere of influence. Trained in conciliation and peace keeping, the sons of the Ixhiba or Left Hand house, as minor chiefs, were responsible for settling royal disputes between the two main houses.

A “chief by both blood and custom”, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was a descendant of the Ixhiba or Left Hand House through his father, the original Mandela and son of Ngubengcuka’s third wife.

Andizi, ndisaqula!

Gadla was a staunch traditionalist, an acknowledged expert in Thembu history and culture, and an unofficial priest who presided over traditional rites. His sense of self and the world came from the spiritual-religious system of the Thembus, their worldview. This was based on of belief in complete interconnectivity through Qamata, the great spirit of the Xhosas, and “characterized by a cosmic wholeness, so that there is little distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the natural and the supernatural”.

Around 1920 Gadla was summoned by the white magistrate after a ruling he had made in a local dispute was overturned. A strong sense of being wronged and a belief that he was accountable only to Thembu law drove his reply: “Andizi, ndisaqula!” (I will not come, I am preparing for battle). The magistrate charged Gadla with insubordination and deposed him, ending the Mandela chieftaincy.

Gadla never fought a battle and instead suffered the indignation of losing his title, wealth and land. So, what battle was he preparing for? One answer lies in the birth of a son.

What’s in a name?

Three rituals were performed for a young boy in 1918. The first was the burial of his inkaba (umbilical cord). The word inkaba symbolises interconnectivity and the place of its burial determines the connection of a child to its family and ancestral land. The imbeleko ritual is the physical, but more importantly, spiritual introduction of the child to its community and ancestors, who are asked to accept the child, bless and watch over them.

Finally, the name given a child reflects some circumstance, event or natural phenomenon, or a family’s hopes or wishes for its future. As is the right of the father, it was Gadla who marked his son Rolihlahla, meaning tree shaker or troublemaker. His son would later write of this: “I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.”

In 1928, shortly before his death, Gadla called on the Paramount Chief, Jongintaba, descended of Ngubengcuka’s Great House. Gadla had helped Jongintaba, whose mother was from a lesser house, to obtain his position. He presented his son saying “I am giving you this servant, Rolihlahla. This is my only son. I can say from the way he speaks to his sisters and friends that his inclination is to help the nation. I want you to make him what you would like him to be; give him education, he will follow your example”.

"Unanimity or not at all”

At age nine the young Nelson went to live with Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni, the heart of the monarchy. It was under the guardianship of Jongintaba that Nelson was groomed, like his father, to become an advisor to the future king. Tutoring at Mqhekezweni he learnt about the inherently democratic system of his people, the rights of every individual to access traditional councils, to be heard, and how these “ended in unanimity or not at all”.

He attended school, the first in his family, and later Fort Hare University, the training ground for many African leaders. Both were opportunities his father would not have been able to provide. While this western education captivated his mind and opened his eyes to the world, the Eurocentric portrayal of history he encountered there clashed with his education in Thembu history.

It was also under his guardian that Nelson made his transition to manhood inside the circumcision rites of passage. Arguably the most important rite in the life of a Xhosa male, it represents the gateway into adulthood and full clan membership. As part of the ritual Mandela was given a manhood name Dalibhunga, meaning founder of the council, one he gave more importance to than his others.

“My life, and that of most Xhosas at the time, was shaped by custom, ritual and taboo. This as the alpha and omega of our existence, and went unquestioned. Men followed the path laid out for them by their fathers…I also learnt that to neglect one’s ancestors would bring ill-fortune and failure in life,” he writes in Long Walk to Freedom.

The Mandela biographers, such as Mary Benson, Fatima Meer, Anthony Sampson and Tom Lodge, all note how his rural upbringing was key to his future development. In 1941 the young Nelson, together with Jongintaba’s son Justice, left the Transkei for Johannesburg, his head full of ideas about ubuntu and the injustices of history. In a later jail memoir he wrote of this time: “I could see the history and culture of my own people as part and parcel of the history and culture of the human race.”

The difficult early years in Johannesburg further opened his eyes to the broader problem of a racialised South Africa. His early legal work and political involvement with various individuals and organisations committed to the idea of an inclusive, egalitarian South Africa helped radicalise a man with an existing dislike of the injustices of his country.

Shaking the apartheid tree

On a Monday in October of 1962 it was Rolihlahla, armed with a “proud rebelliousness” and a “stubborn sense of fairness” inherited from his father, who walked into a Pretoria court to face charges of treason. Dressed in a traditional leopard-skin kaross (cloak) he stood out in stark contrast. “I had chosen traditional dress,” he says, “to emphasise the symbolism that I was a black African walking into a white man’s court. I was literally carrying on my back the history, culture and heritage of my people. That day, I felt myself to be the embodiment of African nationalism, the inheritor of Africa’s difficult but noble past and her uncertain future”.

Nelson, himself a lawyer, played the white justice system at its own game and effectively put the apartheid system on trial in its own courtroom. After duping the prosecution he used his plea in mitigation to make a political statement about the country to a captive audience. In closing Nelson made the bold forecast that history would declare him innocent. The speech was directed at both his prosecutors and the listening world. It marked the beginning of his international reputation.

This scene was repeated again in April 1964 during the Rivonia Trial when, despite facing a possible death sentence, he again exploited court procedure. As the defence’s first witness he was to set the tone and it was decided that, rather than testifying, he would make a statement from the dock. He spoke for four hours.

Nelson again invoked his heritage through reference to his youth, the stories of his forefathers, of how he desired to make a contribution as spurred by his “own proudly felt African background”. He argued that his singular goal was to create an inclusive, democratic South Africa before laying down a challenge by declaring “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. The troublemaker was striking at the ideological system that deposed his father, the battle had reached fever pitch.

The accused were given life sentences, to be served on Robben Island. The island’s history is long and notorious, its first political prisoners having been sent there in 1658. During the 1800s prisoners were mostly Khoikhoi and Xhosas from the eastern Cape frontier, among them the Xhosa prophet Makana and several Thembu chiefs of the eighth British-Xhosa war in 1850. The parallels did not go unnoticed by its newest inmates.

Richard Stengel, who collaborated on Long Walk to Freedom, recently wrote that the “key to Mandela is those prison years. He went in emotional and headstrong and emerged balanced and disciplined”. The years in “Robben Island University” were an individual and collective maturation process during which young radicals became elder statesmen.

“An umbilical cord ties us former prisoners to it,” said former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada at the opening of esiQhitini: The Robben Island Exhibition in 1993. This metaphor of the island as a nurturing force was a strong one, challenging the idea of prison life as mere hardship. Instead, Kathrada read, “It is a picture of great warmth, fellowship, friendship, humour and laughter; of strong convictions, of a generosity of spirit, of compassion, solidarity and care,” a communal environment requiring “one to temper, but not obliterate one’s individualism in the interest of the greater whole”.

Nelson, in a bid to inspire and give advice, wrote of this process of personal development in a letter to his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1973 during one of her periods in detention:

“You may find that the cell is an ideal place to know yourself…In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus on external factors…but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men – qualities within reach of every soul…the foundations of one’s spiritual life…Never forget that a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.”

Founding the nation

The Nelson who emerged from prison was not the troublemaker who had entered it. In a sense those 27 years had helped him shed his young skin and become his manhood self, Dalibhunga (founder of the council). As Mandela biographer Anthony Sampson writes, he was now equipped for the task of “refounding a nation” and that “he personified a county looking for a future”.

Nelson was grounded in and understood the ancient Xhosa proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is not a person without people). Lifelong lawyer and friend George Bizos commented on this: “He is not an egotist. I have hardly ever heard him, when discussing political matters, to say ‘I’. It is always ‘we’ or ‘my organization’, or ‘the liberation movement’”. This understanding was part of the collective evolution of a movement towards a truly universal humanist philosophy; the traditional African concept of ubuntu (humanness) in its most inclusive form. Part of this was the recognition that the fates of all South Africans, oppressor and oppressed, were intertwined.

Stengel writes that, during the early 1990s, Nelson’s leadership style mirrored that of his earlier guardian, Jongintaba. Mandela would call meetings at his home with his colleagues and listen quietly as they spoke before summarising their positions, adding his own and steering the group towards a decision. This quality, says Sampson, made him “not so much post-modern, as pre-modern”, the vision of a “chief representing his people and being accessible to them…making them all feel part of the same society”.

This commitment to the many peoples of his country stands captured in the monument at his birthplace in Mvezo: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” Though originally made in Cape Town on 11 February 1990, the day of his release, here in Mvezo it seems to speak as much to the dead as the living.

Power of a nation

“I am the man I am today because of him,” says Mandlasizwe (33). These two lives parallel each other; Nelson the troublemaker, who left his rural world for the city of gold (Johannesburg) while Mandlasizwe, meaning power of the nation, made the reverse journey, returning to his rural roots from his urban birthplace. The other similarities, their physicality, core values and outlook, are striking.

Standing in the ruins of a boma in which granfather’s infant years were spent, Mandlasizwe, pointing to his traditional attire, reflects on his place in history. “I usually dress like this when I am at Mvezo,” he says, “Nowadays it (identity) is being eroded and we need to remind the youth of their culture, their heritage. Without culture you have no identity”.

At Mandlasizwe’s inauguration in April 2007 Nelson said that the fact that his grandson had taken up the chieftaincy would ensure that he rested peacefully in his grave. As an heir the position was open to him but he declined it in favour of national and international affairs, a decision which left him with much guilt. 

“This is a chieftaincy that was dead for 87 years,” says Mandlasizwe. 

The challenges of modern traditional leadership, however, are far more complex than before. In a globalised world rural areas are some of the most impoverished and marginalised. In Mvezo unemployment is close to one hundred percent. Mandlasizwe’s challenge is to create local solutions to global problems for the nearly 130 000 people in his charge.

He shares his grandfather’s love for the youth and a strong belief that education is the route to meaningful development. He has organised cultural learning trips for the youth of his village, one of these being to China where the choir performed at the 2007 Miss World. These trips are significant as most youth have never left the village or owned a passport. Significantly, they are made possible by the fact that Mandlasizwe’s government-paid traditional leader’s salary is used for his people. This is a gesture that emulates that of his grandfather he donated his entire income while president to his Children’s Fund.

Furthermore, as if called by his Left Hand house heritage, Mandlasizwe studied political science, focusing on Southern African politics and conflict resolution, opening the possibility of a future in politics or diplomacy. However, these ambitions are a mixture of the personal that will be guided by the people: “I have always been a believer in my grandfather’s determination that you need to serve the people, and as long as you are committed to the people and are serving them the people shall determine what they want from you.”
For now, Mandlasizwe’s being here represents the righting of a historical wrong, the culmination of a cycle that started in the time of Ngubengcuka and was continued by descendants such as Gadla and Nelson. It is a return to the title and land of his ancestors.

Mandlasizwe has re-founded his family’s council, a process given added meaning in that it was Nelson that gave his two month old grandson the name Dalibhunga during a family visit to Robben Island. He is one part of the future generations of Mandelas, and as the custodian of tribal customs and culture is the continuation of an ancient way of life.

“Under Western civilization,” writes Credo Mutwa in his book Isilwane, “we live in a strange world of separatism: a world in which things that really belong together and which ought to be seen as a greater whole are cruelly separated.”

As the party prepares to leave the Mvezo Great Place, Jongisizwe Dani, Mandlasizwe’s cousin, adviser,  and headman, comments that when projects to restore the original homestead are complete a series of traditional ceremonies will be performed. 

“We will slaughter a cow here and one at the river. To get the blessings of the ancestors, to let them know that the Mandelas have returned...”


Originally published in The Weekender 

All photographs by Tom van der Leij

No comments: