Of heirs and affectations

‘In my veins runs the blood of the Mandelas which has been around for centuries ­ so there’s no power struggle for me [over the Mandela legacy],” says Nelson Mandela’s grandson.

For Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela—as he demanded to be called in court last week, when he appeared over his attempted eviction of an unemployed relative from the Orlando East family home—birthright is a simple affair. As the eldest son of Makgatho, Nelson Mandela’s eldest son, who died of HIV/Aids complications in 2005, he is Mandela’s heir.

Zwelivelile (“the nation has appeared”) stands at the centre of an apparent struggle for control of 90-year-old Mandela’s last days and legacy.

Recently, former SABC news head Snuki Zikalala told the Sunday World the broadcaster had paid Zwelivelile R3-million for the television rights to Madiba’s funeral. Despite his vehement denials, the truth remains murky and the bad taste lingers.

In February this year a frail Nelson Mandela—ostensibly retired from public and political life—surprised South Africa by appearing alongside Zwelivelile and Jacob Zuma at an ANC election rally in Idutywa in the Eastern Cape.

Similarly surprised was the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which usually handles the former president’s travel arrangements. Chairperson Jakes Gerwel said the foundation was unaware of the trip and proper protocol regarding his health and security had not been followed. The ANC shot back that Mandela “was no longer a prisoner”, while Zuma and Zwelivelile asserted that he had appeared at his own request.

“Who is the ANC to steal Mandela [for the rally]? He gave his life to the party and he decides for himself. And who is Jakes Gerwel to tell me where to take my grandfather?” demanded Zwelivelile in an interview with the Mail & Guardian in his Eastern Cape home village of Mveso.

The Idutywa spat seems part of a long-running feud between Zwelivelile and the bodies that carry his grandfather’s name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Museum, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the 46664 project.

He is critical of “these organisations which are benefiting and profiting from my grandfather’s name but they give nothing to his people — Mandela’s people are dying here from Aids, yet 46664 have done nothing here [in Mveso],” he says.

They had “detached [Nelson Mandela] from his African context and loaned him to the West”.

“When I engaged with the Nelson Mandela Museum and the Nelson Mandela Foundation on who is this man [Nelson Mandela]? I put him in a rural traditional context and no one has a clue about that. No one knows who his parents were.

“This family goes back to the 12th century, yet everybody is fixed on one man—not to downplay his role, which is a gigantic one—but there were Mandelas before my grandfather and there are Mandelas after him.”

Whether it is the Spice Girls pinching the elder Mandela’s bottom or the ANC Youth League claiming his early militancy, almost everyone feels they “own” some part of him.

Zwelivelile effortlessly recites the family’s genealogy and history and proudly struts his chieftainship, which, says a spokesperson for the AbaThembu king, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, was returned to the Mandelas two years ago “in honour” of Madiba, who passed it on to his grandson.

He claims a narrow Africanist version of his grandfather and Mveso, where the latter was born before his family moved to Qunu, legitimises his interpretation.

Sitting on a low bench surrounded by elders, Zwelivelile picks chunks out of a brown loaf while sipping amasi from a glass jug. Green hoodie and gargantuan cellphone aside, he appears every bit the seigneur.

“On the day of my installation my grandfather told me he would go to his grave happy,” he says. “He advised me that being a chief is not about me or the family. Being a chief is about these people you see around me—the poorest of the poor.”

Zwelivelile says his priorities include providing more schools, better roads, running water and sanitation for the area. Having recently become an MP and member of Parliament’s new committee for rural development and agrarian reform, he feels equipped to handle the responsibilities of both jobs.

“I will still sit here every second Friday to settle disputes and adjudicate,” he says, dismissing as “nonsense” the suggestion that his meteoric rise to Parliament was payback for delivering his grandfather to the Idutywa rally.

Scanning Mveso’s desolate vista, he says he is well placed to use both his position and his famous name to galvanise development.

Yet a few hundred metres away is a half-finished collection of buildings ­- the Mveso Great Place, where the chief will one day hold court. It is being built with R15-million from the department of art’s social responsibility programme.

Some locals applaud Zwelivelile for attracting investment to the area; others paint a picture of a haughty autocrat. An AbaThembu royal house insider said that he rules with “an iron fist”.

“He hasn’t learned to listen and consult with the people, which is true leadership. He orders from above,” the insider said.

There are also tales of a fiery temper. Recalling the Nelson Mandela Christmas party in Qunu in 2004, one local said: “Instead of the usual 2 000 children there must have been 20 000. There was a mini-stampede for the gifts and he went in with a sjambok. Everybody ran.”

In 2004 Zwelivelile fell out with his grandfather who, said a family friend “threw him out of the house because he didn’t want to continue his studies”. He had just completed the first year of an undergraduate politics degree at Rhodes University.

He completed the degree and a postgraduate diploma in 2007 after “my grandfather humbled himself before me. How could I refuse?”

Before studying at Rhodes, Zwelivelile lived the high life of a Johannesburg businessman. He was educated at Waterford-Kamhlaba, Swaziland’s elite private school, and attributes his appreciation of African tradition to time spent with the Swazi royal family.

The name “Zwelivelile” was given to him after a circumcision ceremony in 1993. He is a regular at Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini’s reed dances and, although married to Thando Mabuna, is reportedly keen to marry again.

When Zwelivelile stands up to walk to his massive Toyota off-road vehicle—personalised number plate “Madiba 1 GP”—the hulking similarity to his famous grandfather becomes obvious. His arm movements and pauses when he speaks also recall Madiba. A local tells me these are recent affectations.

Zwelivelile is single-minded in his determination to claim the Mandela name. And its meaning too. It matches the world-bearing task of Atlas—even for those inheriting the physically broad Mandela shoulders.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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