Ndaba Mandela: ‘I’m protecting his legacy’
When his grandfather took him in as a boy, Ndaba Mandela felt like ‘the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’. Now touted as a potential future president of South Africa, he tells ANDREW LYNCH how he’s repaying that debt by protecting Nelson’s legacy
When Ndaba Mandela was 15, he went to a South African international football match with his grandfather Nelson. Their car entered the stadium and Ndaba quickly jumped out, eager to meet some of his country’s biggest sporting stars.
He remembers feeling a huge wave of anticipation from the crowd, followed by a sound that could best be translated as, “Aw man — who’s this guy?”
Two decades on, Ndaba is determined not to disappoint people again. Many South African political pundits are already calling him “the new Mandela” and predicting that he, too, will occupy the president’s office one day.
Currently an NGO worker and motivational speaker, he does not deny those long-term ambitions but freely admits that his iconic relative would be the ultimate hard act to follow.
“Of course I’m not Madiba,” he says, using Nelson Mandela’s clan name.
“I don’t always have his patience. I could never have spent 27 years in prison and then forgiven my enemies the way he did. But I learned so much from him and I believe he saw a good man in me. I may not be able to walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, but we can all walk in his light.”
Talking to Ndaba Mandela can be a slightly unnerving experience, even in an interview conducted via the Apple app FaceTime. As well as looking remarkably like his late grandfather, the 35-year-old speaks in a rich and sonorous voice that sounds eerily familiar.
“I can hear it myself as I get older,” he acknowledges, “and it makes me choose my words a little more carefully.”
Ndaba is currently touring the world to promote Going to the Mountain, an earnest memoir that doubles up as his political manifesto. It focuses heavily on the 20 years he spent living with Nelson, a time when he got to know “the Old Man” as well as almost anyone.
“I wrote it partly for young people who have no knowledge of Madiba,” he says. “He once took care of me, now I’m trying to repay him by protecting his legacy.”
At the time of Ndaba’s birth in 1982, his grandfather had already been locked up for 19 years. He was a poor and sometimes hungry child, shunted between different cities because his parents’ marriage was troubled.
He remembers being tear-gassed while taking part in an anti-apartheid march and was, to use his own description, “an unruly little shit”.
Ndaba first visited Nelson at the age of seven, by which time the prisoner was negotiating for his release and had been moved to a large house with a swimming pool and private chef. “It was so much nicer than where I lived that I went away saying, ‘when I grow up, I want to go to jail.’”
The meeting itself was strangely formal, with Nelson asking about Ndaba’s education and receiving only a shrug in reply.
Three years later, Ndaba was shocked when a black BMW pulled up outside his humble Soweto home and the driver told him to get in. He refused on that occasion, but was later told by his father: “If that man returns, you go with him.”
It soon transpired that Nelson Mandela had decided to raise the boy himself, a life-changing event which made Ndaba feel “like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.
Sharing a mansion with the world’s most revered statesman seems to have been a mixed experience.
“Madiba was a very strict disciplinarian. He would constantly tell me to tidy my room and would not let me keep a dog. When he scolded me, I felt like I had been punched in the throat.
“The Old Man often said, ‘Your name is Mandela and so people expect you to be a leader. You must always get the best marks in class’. At first I resisted that pressure because I just wanted to have fun like a normal kid.”
Of course, there were also compensations. Ndaba sometimes returned home and found himself shaking hands with the likes of Michael Jackson or Oprah Winfrey.
He remembers how one of their lunches was interrupted by a telephone call from the British queen, who Nelson always addressed as ‘Elizabeth’ on the grounds that he came from a royal tribe himself.
“I think the most important thing he taught me was humility. He spoke to kings and millionaires exactly the same way that he spoke to the woman who cooked our meals. He was also an amazing listener, keeping perfectly still and concentrating on your every word. I have tried to emulate that.”
As Ndaba and Nelson both grew older, their relationship deepened. They took exercise, watched late-night boxing matches and read the daily newspapers side by side.
Ndaba became more politicised and was profoundly affected by an incident during his first visit to the US, when a Disney World attendant asked him where he was from and then said, “So how big do the lions get?”
“I replied, ‘Sorry, I don’t work at the zoo.’ I’m sure this guy did not mean to be racist, but it made me realise that many westerners have a completely stereotyped idea of Africa. To them, we’re all about war, famine and dictators.”
He speaks scathingly about simplistic Hollywood films such as Invictus, which implies that South Africa achieved racial harmony by winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. “That’s a great fairy story, but I’m afraid real life is a lot more complicated.”
Eventually Ndaba won Nelson’s approval to ‘go to the mountain’, an elaborate circumcision ritual that signifies the boy has become a man. Since then he has taken a degree in political science and worked as an executive director for UN AIDS, campaigning to end the stigma around a disease that killed both his parents.
With Madiba’s blessing, he also co-founded Africa Rising, a non-profit foundation dedicated to empowering the continent’s youth and promoting its rich culture around the world. “In the apartheid era, at least we could see who our enemies were. Now Africans need to break the mental chains that are holding us back.”
Ndaba’s plan is to work with Africa Rising until his 40th birthday, then think seriously about a political career. While his interview answers are understandably dominated by idealistic statements, he also wants to stress that he is “a regular person” who loves hip-hop and is avidly following the FIFA World Cup.
“I’m broken that no African team has qualified for the knock-out stages,” he groans. “I’m going to support France now because they have so many African players.”
He confesses to being hazy about Nelson’s links with Ireland, but smiles broadly when told about the Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike after refusing to handle South African fruit in 1984 and were personally thanked by him in Dublin six years later.
“That’s amazing, you know? We may be a long way apart, but we’re really not so different.”
The Mandela family’s recent history has been troubled, marred by internal feuding and public scandals. In Ndaba, it may have finally found a new leader who can build on Madiba’s historic achievements.
“I am an optimist, 100pc,” he declares before politely saying goodbye. “I believe that when Africa reaches its potential, we will create a hundred Nelson Mandelas.”
Going to the Mountain by Ndaba Mandela is published by Hutchinson
I don’t always have his patience. I could never have spent 27 years in prison and then forgiven my enemies the way he did
Deep bond: When Ndaba (below) was born, his grandfather had already been in prison for 19 years