Democ­racy un­der the blue gum tree

Telling lessons in the young Nel­son Man­dela’s po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion were learnt at the Great Place near Qunu, the vil­lage des­tined to be his shrine, writes Robert Brand

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THE THREE blue gum trees un­der which Nel­son Man­dela learned to be a leader still stand at the Mqhekezweni Great Place near Qunu, for­merly the seat of kings of the abaThembu tribe in the East­ern Cape.

Un­der those trees more than 80 years ago, tribal el­ders and the re­gent would meet to dis­cuss mat­ters rang­ing from drought to laws im­posed by the white gov­ern­ment. Any­one, the young Man­dela heard as he hid nearby to lis­ten, was free to speak.

Tomorrow, Qunu will be the burial site of the man who gov­erned by the prin­ci­ples of the Great Place, as South Africa’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent. Man­dela is mourned by lead­ers around the world as the man who led his coun­try out of racial dis­cord af­ter 27 years of im­pris­on­ment un­der apartheid. In Qunu he is that, and also is a phys­i­cal, per­sonal pres­ence.

“Madiba was like a fa­ther to each and ev­ery per­son here,” said Ze­bron Sand­lana, 67, us­ing Man­dela’s tribal name. Sand­lana grew up about a kilo­me­tre from the house where Man­dela lived with his mother, and knew the fam­ily. “When he came here for Christ­mas, he used to visit each and ev­ery house, to greet ev­ery per­son.”

Sand­lana pointed to a church in the dis­tance. “He built it for us,” he said. “Lots of things he did for us. That is how he sup­ported this com­mu­nity.”

The vil­lage bus­tled this week with prepa­ra­tions for the fu­neral. Work­ers were con­struct­ing a 4 000seat pavil­ion and in­stalling por­ta­ble toi­lets and mar­quee tents at Man­dela’s home. Gangs of work­ers rushed to com­plete the high­way that passed the house, paint­ing lines on the road, lay­ing paving and con­struct­ing road­side bar­ri­ers.

Sweep­ers have been clean­ing the road lead­ing from the air­port in nearby Mthatha, where most of the dig­ni­taries at­tend­ing the fu­neral will ar­rive, while still more work­ers have been lay­ing paving along the pave­ments.

It was at the meet­ings in the Great Place that Man­dela learned both lead­er­ship and de­ci­sion-mak­ing by con­sen­sus. Af­ter his elec­tion in 1994, Man­dela reached out to his for­mer op­pres­sors, serv­ing in a gov­ern­ment of na­tional unity with for­mer pres­i­dent FW de Klerk.

He pro­moted rec­on­cil­i­a­tion through sym­bolic acts in­clud­ing hav­ing tea with Bet­sie Ver­wo­erd, widow of Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd, the fa­ther of grand apartheid. Th­ese acts earned him crit­i­cism from some of his com­rades. In his ru­ral heart­land, that was noth­ing less than would be ex­pected from a chief.

“It was democ­racy in its purest form,” Man­dela wrote in his 1994 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, A Long Walk to Free­dom.

“As a leader, I have al­ways fol­lowed the prin­ci­ples I first saw demon­strated by the Re­gent at the Great Place. I have al­ways en­deav­oured to lis­ten to what each and ev­ery per­son in a dis­cus­sion had to say be­fore ven­tur­ing my own opin­ion. Of­ten­times, my own opin­ion will sim­ply rep­re­sent a con­sen­sus of what I heard in the dis­cus­sion.”

Man­dela was born in 1918 in Mvezo, his fam­ily’s an­ces­tral vil­lage on the banks of the Mbashe River about 1 200km from Cape Town. His fa­ther, Gadla Mphakany­iswa, was the lo­cal chief and a de­scen­dant of the abaThembu King Ngubengcuka, who had died in 1832. Al­though a mem­ber of the ex­tended royal fam­ily, Man­dela wasn’t in line of suc­ces­sion to the Thembu throne, as his grand­mother wasn’t Ngubengcuka’s pri­mary wife.

The fu­ture pres­i­dent lived in Mvezo un­til he was three, when his fa­ther was stripped of the chief­tain­ship af­ter a dis­pute with the lo­cal mag­is­trate, who rep­re­sented the white ad­min­is­tra­tion.

To­day in Mvezo, a tarred road, com­pleted this year, has re­placed the dirt track link­ing the vil­lage with the main high­way to Mthatha. The road snakes around steep hill­sides cov­ered in boul­ders and suc­cu­lent aloe plants to the com­pound where Man­dela was born. His grand­son Mandla Man­dela now oc­cu­pies the chief­dom.

Signs of de­vel­op­ment are ev­ery­where, from a new school and clinic to houses be­ing built and sewage pipes be­ing laid. Mandla Man­dela, also a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for the ANC, is re­spon­si­ble for that, said Siya Mashone, a taxi driver who grew up in Mvezo and now plies his trade in nearby Mthatha.

“It’s a nice place to live now,” Mashone said in an in­ter­view in Mvezo. “Mandla has brought a lot of things here, and that’s also cre­ated jobs for peo­ple in Mvezo.”

Af­ter his fa­ther’s death, young Nel­son Man­dela moved with his mother to Qunu, a larger vil­lage to the east. In his book, Man­dela de­scribed Qunu as a grassy val­ley criss­crossed by clear streams and sur­rounded by green hills. Peo­ple lived in mud-walled cir­cu­lar huts un­der thatch roofs.

Man­dela shared a hut with his mother, sleep­ing on a mat on the ground and eat­ing mostly maize meal cooked in a three-legged pot over an open fire. Other sta­ples were beans and pump­kin; wa­ter had to be fetched in buck­ets from streams.

While most of Qunu’s roads are still un­tarred, with the ex­cep­tion of the high­way, some roads lead­ing into the town­ship have been given a tar­mac cover. Many of the huts have been re­placed by mod­ern, mul­ti­room houses with tin roofs.

The ex­cep­tion is Mqhekezweni Great Place, which Man­dela de­scribed as an im­pos­ing col­lec­tion of huts with pris­tine white-washed walls sur­rounded by care­fully tended lawns. Those lawns are gone. The hut that Man­dela shared with his cousin still stands, but needs a fresh coat of paint. The house that the re­gent oc­cu­pied is di­lap­i­dated and va­cant, the doors boarded up.

With other boys, Man­dela herded cat­tle and sheep, col­lected wild honey, hunted birds with a sling­shot and learned to stick-fight. On the hills above Qunu were large smooth rocks down which the boys raced on sleds made of flat stones. The rocks are still there, within walk­ing dis­tance of the Nel­son Man­dela Mu­seum, the paths worn by the bot­toms of count­less chil­dren still clearly vis­i­ble.

Man­dela also went to school: a sin­gle-room, pitched-roof build­ing where chil­dren were taught the English lan­guage, cus­toms and in­sti­tu­tions. There he re­ceived the name by which most of the world knows him: his teacher, a Miss Mdin­gane, an­nounced that all chil­dren should have English first names and chris­tened him Nel­son.

Af­ter vis­it­ing Qunu as pres­i­dent in 1995, Man­dela per­suaded Bill Ven­ter, chair­man of Al­lied Elec­tron­ics Corp Ltd, to fi­nance through his foun­da­tion a ren­o­va­tion of the school that in­cluded new classrooms and state-of-the-art com­puter and biology lab­o­ra­to­ries.

When Man­dela was nine years old, his fa­ther died and he was taken into the care of his un­cle Jong­intaba Dalindyebo, re­gent of the abaThembu at Mqhekezweni. There he would hide be­hind the fence of a sheep en­clo­sure to lis­ten to the coun­sel­lors de­bat­ing. He was sent off to school at the age of 16 to be ed­u­cated so that he, too, could also be­come a coun­sel­lor to the king, in ac­cor­dance with his un­cle’s wish.

In his years as pres­i­dent, Man­dela brought paved roads and elec­tric­ity, as well as the school­house, to Qunu. What he and his suc­ces­sors couldn’t bring was jobs. About onequar­ter of the coun­try’s work force is job­less; in the east­ern Cape the rate is 50 per­cent.

“We were the first vil­lage in this re­gion to get elec­tric­ity, and we have wa­ter, and schools,” said Lungile Xozwa, who grew up in Qunu and at­tended the same ele­men­tary school as Man­dela, though it is now equipped with a com­puter lab..

Al­izwa Sizani, 64, who lives close to Mqhekezweni Great Place, said:

“He has given us lots of things but what we still need is jobs for the youth. When they don’t have any­thing to do they turn to crime. There is noth­ing for them here.” – Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE CINDY WAXA

FOR THE CHIL­DREN: The Nel­son Man­dela School of Sci­ence in Mvezo, Man­dela’s birth­place, while it was un­der con­struc­tion.

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