/ 22 May 2014

Zenani Mandela driver seeks redemption

Lebron James sits with Savana Brinson and son Bryce Maximus in 2009.
Lebron James sits with Savana Brinson and son Bryce Maximus in 2009.

This week a R7.5-million civil claim was “indefinitely postponed” in the high court in Johannesburg against the driver of the car in which Nelson Mandela’s great-granddaughter died in 2010. A criminal court acquitted him in 2012.

In 2010 three exuberant young people drove home singing Shakira’s Waka Waka, the official Fifa World Cup song. The car slowed as it entered a highway ramp. Suddenly there was a bang. The vehicle spun and a piece of guardrail sliced into it, killing Zenani Mandela, who had turned 13 the day before.

Sizwe Mankazana, the 23-year-old driver, had returned to South Africa 10 days before, after graduating with a master’s degree in finance at a ceremony in Washington, DC, where Michelle Obama was the speaker. He and his father, Zwelakhe, a mining magnate in an eight-year relationship with Zenani Mandela, the girl’s great-aunt, were considered part of the extended Mandela family. But pain would tear at all their relationships.

In 2012, magistrate Vivian Hawkins, acquitting Sizwe, said: “There is no evidence whatsoever that the accused operated his vehicle recklessly and negligently, or while under the influence of alcohol.”

Hawkins found it “alarming” that state experts took no photographs of the vehicle’s burst tyre. There was evidence of a broken guardrail spotted earlier on the day of the accident by a senior Johannesburg municipal employee. It swung into the path of oncoming traffic. He secured it with a wire and asked for urgent repair. It was this that sliced into the Mankazana Mercedes-Benz.

Two weeks after the acquittal Zoleka Mandela, young Zenani’s mother, filed a civil claim for R7.5-million in damages against Mankazana. She was in hospital being treated for addiction at the time of her child’s death, but her loss seemed to focus her. She became active around road safety. She also revealed in a recent book that she had a double mastectomy because of breast cancer. She was still in her early 30s.

The Mandela family will not say why the civil case has been postponed. As recently as last Friday, Zenani senior, who raised Zoleka for most of her childhood, reportedly blocked a settlement agreement that talked of “shared grief”.

Since the accident Mankazana has appeared in court more than 50 times. Whereas his father Zwelakhe, the first managing director of Cell C, is exuberant and charming, Sizwe is low-key and quiet.

Zoleka Mandela has the vivacity of her mother Zindzi, Nelson Mandela’s youngest daughter. Zenani senior faced public approbation last year when she and her stepsister, Maki Mandela, unsuccessfully tried to take control of the Mandela family holdings from the men Mandela had appointed, lawyers Billy Chuene and George Bizos and tycoon Tokyo Sexwale.

Mankazana, who matriculated with three distinctions, said during a long interview: “Spirituality and faith tells me this is part of God’s plan. I am more concerned about our families and how I can bring solace.” He almost shrinks into his body as he talks of the accident; it takes a long time to get him to speak of it. He says he is now less assured and that he stopped dreaming of a future.

“On the first-month anniversary of Zenani’s passing, Zoleka and I sat holding hands at her grave, praying. Little Zenani was the light of the family; she was bright and pure, with a huge personality.

“In Soweto on the eve of the accident we were waiting for big mummy [Winnie Madikizela-Mandela] to get ready. Zenani said: ‘Sizwe, you are a really great driver.’ There are lots of things that now feel too coincidental: she wasn’t meant to come to the concert, I wasn’t meant to drive, and ultimately she came home with us because big mummy asked if I’d give her a lift. In the car she was seated on the back left seat wearing a seat belt, but at some stage, she moved to the other side. And so I see fate.

“I want to live my life in a way that honours the memory of Zeni. I’d like to impact on people’s lives in a positive way. I’ve thought a lot about what could happen if a person lacks the money for a defence. Albert Einstein said the purpose of adversity is to reveal man to himself.”

During the long years of the trial Mankazana devoted himself to outreach work in underprivileged communities with his church. “Church is my second home. I never feel judged.” Last year he began work as a financial analyst with a major institution.

Earlier this year his first child, a daughter, was born. A year before, his father’s new partner also gave birth to a girl. Recently, Zoleka gave birth to a daughter. Maybe now both families can dream of the future.