Former president Nelson Mandela's influence transformed the village, which, in turn, has cast its brightest son in a biblical light.
If you’re looking to gauge how South Africa is handling the extended hospitalisation of its most famous son, Qunu – where Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spent a significant portion of his youth – is the wrong place to be.
Although the N2, at least from Mthatha to Dutywa, is dotted with road blocks (“business as usual”, the traffic cops protest), the first clear sign in the town of Madiba’s grave illness are hordes of helpless journalists crisscrossing the 18 villages and, more often than not, homing in on the main stretch of houses belonging to the extended Mandela family.
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Across the N2 from the stretch that includes the family graveyard, lies the mansion sometimes referred to as Mandela’s “holiday home”, to the chagrin of the locals, many of whom see it as the former state president’s permanent residence.
Mandela had been spending an increasing amount of time here before his health deteriorated late last year.
Although they are suffering from “Q&A” fatigue, barring the odd, overt request for money most residents will oblige by answering questions and posing for photographs while tastefully relaying social taboos.
“We’re holding silent prayers for him in our homes,” says Nokuzola Thethani, the spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Museum. “I’m sure in every home here [in Qunu] it’s the same. Before they go to sleep they put him in their prayers. I am also doing that.”
If you’re expecting mass hysteria or people on the edge of their chairs, earlobes glued to the speaker, you may as well pack up and ship out.
“We’re following it with our prayers,” says Nomiki Gcinindawo, echoing her neighbour, Thethani. “In church we pray for him because we want our children to see him.”
Gcinindawo has impaired vision but she turns to two young children, no older than eight, milling about the yard.
“In December 2010, these little children went to the house and touched him by the hand,” she says.
“They saw him with their own eyes. The old man, he is like a messiah. We pray to Jesus but here we see a new manifestation, from whom we ask and receive. Our hearts and spirits won’t let him go. He showed love to all equally.”
Gcinindawo lives with her sister Nothozamile Majova. The two middle-aged women receive disability grants, which they attribute to the post-1994 dispensation.
Biblical references to Mandela often feature him as a messianic figure or a character swathed in supernatural imagery – like a neighbour’s remark that he should be “born again in a Nicodemus sense”, referring to a story in the Bible of Jesus teaching Nicodemus about the necessity of every person being born again.
These off-the-cuff references make outsiders cringe but, depending on who you talk to in Qunu, the messiah remarks hold gravity.
Facing south from the hilltop location of the Nelson Mandela Museum, one has expansive views of lower Qunu and the surrounding villages.
Using the tome Long Walk To Freedom as your guide, from this vantage point (foregrounded by the familial pastoral lands Mandela roamed as a child), you can see where the young son of the royal counsellor hunted birds with a slingshot, drank milk from the udder of a cow and, humiliatingly, fell off his donkey. But the built environment reveals the patronage he was later to wield.
A confluence of established brands and international governments transformed a village that was not unlike any other into a promised land of sorts, attracting a sizeable number of migrants from other parts of the Eastern Cape.
In the distance you can see the Qunu multipurpose centre, built by Samsung Electronics Africa; the restored Methodist Church that was initially founded by Mandela’s mother, Nosekeni, and the Nelson Mandela No-Moscow Primary School that was rebuilt by the Lyoness Child and Family Foundation.
On the opposite end of the museum there is the Qunu Clinic, built by Southern Sun International and the Milton Mbekela Senior Secondary School, built by Caltex, to name but a few.
There are entire villages – like Nkalane, where Mandela’s mother grew up – that were electrified by international governments in Mandela’s honour.
Mvezo, where he was born, “is shaping up into a little Nkandla” (as one local put it), thanks largely to the fundraising efforts of his grandson, Mandla Mandela.
Then there’s the unmissable facelift in the form of the N2 road reconstruction.
Over the past few years the world has also taken notice of Mqhekezweni, where Mandela lived under the guardianship of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, regent of the Tembu people and head of the Madiba clan. Jongintaba Senior Secondary School was officially opened in 2008, although building began about a decade before.
Nozolile Mtirara, the spouse of Mandela’s childhood friend and cousin, Justice Mtirara, lives in a modern face-brick structure in Mqhekezweni Great Place (a heritage site where Mandela went to live after his father died). She says Mandela looked after them and even sent them groceries before he fell ill.
In Qunu and the surrounding areas residents differ about the prospects of the town without Madiba – that is if they are willing to flout cultural mores and entertain the question to begin with.
“We were supposed to be getting houses here but I don’t think we’ll getting those houses any more,” says Mandela’s niece, Alice Ngcebetshana.
“Things that were happening happened out of respect for him. Children here can no longer find jobs, they are told to go look underground [in the mines].”
A teacher in Mqhekezweni believes these are irrational fears, “because the association with Mandela will always be there”.
Thethani says that the media hysteria, with hacks trawling the weather-beaten footpaths of lower Qunu conducting door-to-door searches for quotes, has brought merchants of unreliable oral history creeping out of the woodwork.
Others believe that by speaking of a living man as if he’s dead, journalists have overstepped cultural sensitivities.
“He’s an icon but he’s also a human being,” said a local petrol attendant who preferred not to be named. “In our culture here, it’s wrong to talk about a person’s death while he’s alive, out of respect for his life.
“For example, the thing of his daughters Zenani and Makaziwe talking about his money while he’s still alive is wrong. We don’t do that. I know it sounds radical but you guys should probably pack up and go now.”