By David Smith –
The family of South Africa’s former president has spread its wings to take advantage of the freedoms he won for them
“Do you understand that you were nearly born in jail?” Nelson Mandelaonce wrote to his daughter, Zenani. “Not many people have had your experience of having been in jail before you were born.”
Zenani’s mother, Winnie, had been detained by apartheid police for taking part in a women’s protest shortly before giving birth to her in Soweto in 1959. Her father was imprisoned when she was five. There would be no innocence of what it meant to bear South Africa‘s most famous surname.
Zenani (the name means “what have you brought to the world?” in the Xhosa language) Mandela-Dlamini emerged from her father’s shadow last week to join the country’s diplomatic corps. The 53-year-old, who studied science at Boston University and became a Swazi princess through marriage, was named as ambassador to Argentina after a successful career in business.
The appointment was widely described as the first foray into public life by one of Mandela’s children, although this may be harsh on Zenani’s sister, Zindzi, who was active in the African National Congress underground during the anti-apartheid struggle and famously relayed a defiant message from her father to a crowd in Soweto in 1985.
Mandela’s grandson and oldest male heir, Mandla, has followed him into parliament. But he is very much the exception. The Mandelas cannot be characterised as a political dynasty.
This in a nation where the name Mandela confers a priceless cachet and is attached, for example, to a bridge, square, theatre, annual lecture, scholarship, wine label and more than one museum and street. The ANC has been criticised for dragging the frail former president, who turns 94 later this month, to its election rallies.
A charismatic successor with his DNA might have been unstoppable. Such manoeuvres are not unknown in Africa but Mandela, who stepped down after one term, is different.
“I don’t find it surprising at all,” said Verne Harris, head of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. “My father was a jazz musician and I very deliberately didn’t pick up an instrument because I didn’t want to be subject to scrutiny and found wanting. This is probably a common response from the children of successful parents.”
South Africa‘s first family could never be described as ordinary. Mandela’s devotion to politics came at a high price. His children have recalled that, even when not in prison, he was emotionally cold and distant, seeing his role as disciplinarian and provider.
He has married three times and fathered six children. Three have died: one as an infant in 1948, another in a car crash in 1969 and a third from an Aids-related illness in 2005.
His surviving children are all women: Maki, by his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and Zenani and Zindzi, by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. He divorced Winnie in 1996 and is now married to Graca Machel. According to the Centre of Memory, Mandela currently has 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Maki, 58, is a businesswoman and founder of the House of Mandela wine label, taking on a white-dominated industry. Asked if she had ever considered a career in politics, she told the Observer: “I’m not a politician. I think one or two people in politics is enough in this family. We need to spread. I really want to cut my teeth in business and see how it goes because I think that we can. It’s one thing to win politically. We still have a battle in terms of the economic centre. Black people are nowhere in terms of the economy. We will know this country is truly transformed when a significant population of black people really actively participate in the economy. Right now we’re not there yet.”
Her daughter Tukwini, 37, who also works for House of Mandela, added: “I think that my grandfather and Walter Sisulu and the other struggle fighters fought so that we could have self-determination to be whatever we wanted to be. The opportunity for us to do those things is now. Not all roads lead to politics; they lead to other things as well.”
Tukwini’s brother, Kweku, is a filmmaker, though the patriarch’s gravitational pull is strong: projects include a TV mini-series about Mandela’s life and a documentary showing him with his grandchildren. Three Mandela granddaughters have announced plans to star in a reality TV show. Some family members appear to revel in celebrity while others shrink from it.
The diversity of the family is clear. But according to some observers, the house of Mandela is divided against itself. They point to animosity between factions, in particular the descendants of first wife Evelyn, who died in 2004, and second wife Winnie, now 75.
Perhaps the most polarising figure is Mandla, a village chief who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather. Negative headlines swirl around him. He ordered the exhumation and reburial of Mandela’s late children and, controversially, built a replica hut on the remains of the statesman’s birthplace.
But one family member said: “One day he is going to be the head of the family. That’s the custom and we have to respect it.”
Maki Mandela burst into laughter at the suggestion of internecine warfare. “Show me one family that doesn’t have,” she said. “Churchill’s family was. Every family has its intricacies. Ours is no different; it’s got its own intricacies, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t get along…
“Yes, there are times when you don’t see eye to eye on things – you don’t see eye to eye with your brothers, with your sisters. That’s why there’s something called sibling rivalry. We Mandelas did not create it. It’s something that’s out there.
“But I think one of the things that unite us is our dad. We can come from different mothers but the uniting person is tata [father].”