MVEZO – Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla wanted to be a disc jockey but his illustrious grandfather had other ideas for him — passing down a lesson on the responsibility that South Africa’s most famous surname carries.
The anti-apartheid hero chose his 38-year-old grandson as the first Mandela in decades to be chief of his rural birthplace Mvezo in the Eastern Cape six years ago.
“My grandfather has always been my role model. He’s an inspiration to the work I do today,” Mandela, whose father was Makgatho from the hero’s first marriage, told AFP.
As his 94-year-old grandfather battles a lung infection in hospital, he admitted it had “not at all” been easy trying to match up to the man who became South Africa’s first black president.
“He’s a global icon but I feel that as members of the family, the small things that we do as individuals, as a collective can one day amount to the dynamic person my grandfather became,” he said.
“South Africa, and even the Mandelas themselves, I believe will never produce another Nelson Mandela but we can always strive to embrace him, his principles and values.”
Lying on the winding Mbashe river where fiery aloes bloom and livestock wander, Mvezo is scenic but deeply impoverished.
There is no clean drinking water or sanitation in the village’s humble homes, many built of mud, or even a health clinic.
Born here in 1918, Mandela’s father was stripped of the Mvezo chieftancy by a colonial magistrate and he spent his early years in nearby Qunu village.
“We are very much as a family intrigued as to the place he comes from, how he emerged and the dynamic person that he became,” said Mandela.
“And I think for future generations of the Mandelas, we should always look to our place of our origin and draw strength from that.”
While Mandela was serving a 27-year jail term, his grandson was born in Soweto, a flashpoint of the anti-apartheid struggle far from the rural hinterland where his grandfather was born.
As a music loving high-schooler, he dreamed of becoming a DJ.
Mandela’s response? “Nonsense, no Mandela will ever become such. You need to go out and find a career,” he enacted, mimicking his grandfather’s waving finger.
“My grandfather has really been the driver behind the person that I needed to be and the anchor around that was education,” he said.
“He’s always believed that education is a weapon which one could utilise to change the world so he ensured that we got a good education so that we could be of service to the people.”
On his grandfather’s wishes, he stopped working to study further in his 20s in the Eastern Cape.
At the time, he had two businesses and diplomas in business management and marketing under his belt. But his grandfather had other plans for him.
He also spent time in Qunu — where his grandfather built a house on his prison release — which opened his eyes to the poverty stalking rural South Africans.
“Upon my graduation my grandfather said ‘so are you still that eager businessman you wanted to be?’. With his sense of humour, he had seen that I had changed and I had become more community driven,” said Mandela.
“And that’s the lesson learned from my grandfather: that Mandelas are supposed to ensure that they are of service to our people and I’ve taken that role, starting here in Mvezo.”
But the village “has just been an opening of the doors”, he says, having followed his grandfather into politics.
He joined parliament in 2009 for the ruling African National Congress, which his grandfather led into power, a move he initially resisted.
“Again I sought my grandfather’s advice and he said to me how you’re not only working for your community which is our inheritance, that of Mvezo, but you are able to work with the broader society.”
Mandla Mandela’s time as chief has not been without controversy.
His three marriages have fuelled headlines of bigamy, outstanding maintenance payments, and child paternity questions, amid a land dispute and the exhumation of Qunu family graves for reburial in Mvezo.
Under him, signs of change include a new brick-paved road which has transformed the journey to the village.
A museum — currently comprising a tiny outdoor display — is being extended in an impressive complex with the offices of the traditional council and a conference centre.
A science and technology school, the village’s first high school, is also under construction and tourist accommodation is also on the cards
Mandela believes that his grandfather’s style of collective leadership was shaped by his rural beginnings, in Mvezo and elsewhere, where he learned some of his earliest lessons.
“It’s the birthplace of my grandfather and this is where people will always want to come and visit, because it has a rich significance. There is no other birthplace except Mvezo,” he said.