Cooking home food for Mandela, the 'ordinary man'

Xoliswa Ndoyiya, Mandela’s chef for 18 years

Xoliswa Ndoyiya, Mandela’s chef for 18 years

Xoliswa Ndoyiya prepared meals for Nelson Mandela for 18 years; his personal chef saw a very different side of the world icon.

Guest speaker at the opening dinner for the Mandela Colloquium exhibition titled Provoke/Ukuchukumisa/Daag-uit, Ndoyiya said: “Nelson Mandela was an ordinary person. I remember one morning, he woke up and wanted cereal and not his usual porridge, mixed with nuts and raisins.”

That may have sounded like a simple request, except that Mandela’s menus had to be cleared by both his medical and security teams — so Ndoyiya was forced to refuse his request. “I was worried that his blood pressure would go up and I would be in trouble.”

Mandela reluctantly ate his porridge, but then asked Ndoyiya to sit down next to him and listen very carefully. He said: “I’ve honoured my mother enough.” She then realised that all the years she had been feeding Mandela, she had symbolised his mother, who had fed him that same porridge throughout his childhood.

She also witnessed him as a father figure, loving the many grandchildren who shared his home, but also being extremely strict at times.

“He would punish and say things you wouldn’t think he could say with his mouth. He would say to the children: ‘If one of you is not at the table on time, nobody will eat.’ There were times when all the kids would go to bed without food.” It was a way of discipline that demonstrated that their actions not only affected themselves.

But more often than not, Mandela “used food to love people”. And when he hosted guests at his house, they would often enjoy “home food” — traditional Xhosa meals. These were the meals served at the exhibition dinner, carefully selected and prepared by Ndoyiya herself for the event.

She said: “The old people especially, they wanted their home food … And I used to serve everyone coming to his house with love and dignity. I knew I was doing this for all the South Africans who wished to be with him, but couldn’t be there.

“Tata would say that whether you are with your enemies or your friends, you should show them love with food. He also said to me many times: ‘If you give people food, believe me, whatever you ask from them, they are going to give it to you.’”

Ndoyiya would sometimes receive unusual requests from Mandela.

On a visit to Qunu in 1995, Mandela remembered a good orthopaedic hospital in Mthatha and wanted to visit it. They drove there, and although the care was still good, he was shocked at how the hospital had deteriorated. He later organised its upgrading.

“He looked for the ward with the children. He saw their broken legs and ribs, but he also saw the hunger in their faces. When we left, he asked me to go to the shops to buy food to feed the children.

“That was the beginning of it. We made food parcels to feed the whole village of Qunu. He always reminded me that the ANC hadn’t hired me to feed Qunu but to feed him, but still asked if I could please do this for him.”

Ndoyiya, who is now serving on president Cyril Ramaphosa’s kitchen team, was Mandela’s chef from 1992 until his death in 2013. During this time, she not only cooked for the Mandela family but also for a large number of world leaders, celebrities, academics and business people.

“Tata was always transparent with me. He would say: ‘Please prepare this food to your level best.’ And then when the guests were saying thank you, he would send for me, saying: ‘I don’t take anybody’s credit. She’s the one who’s behind it all. She’s the one who was cooking.’ What a long journey I had with food and with Tata!”

Ndoyiya’s recipe book Ukutya Kwasekhaya, published in 2011, features more than 60 of the meals she cooked for Mandela.