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

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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