Nelson Mandela: what will his true legacy be?


As, once again, the health of the man the whole world has loved to love waxes and wanes, and as prayers were held, vigils kept, doctors worked, and the whole world hoped that he should live for much longer, following yet another hospitalisation in June for a recurrent lung infection, his family has maintained a dignified silence. It is therefore with humble gratitude that amid all the media frenzy and speculation, New African’s PUSCH COMMEY was honoured to speak exclusively with Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, DR MAKAZIWE MANDELA at her residence. They discuss, among many issues, how the Mandela family will define his legacy.

Nelson Mandela is hugely credited for tackling and defeating racism of the worst kind – apartheid – the biggest institutional fraud in the modern world, which was grounded in myth, group narcissism and a vile belief system. But Mandela squirmed in humility. The defeat of physical racism was a global partnership and he was lucky to have had principled and astute mentors by his side. And best of all the African traditional value system of inclusivity – Ubuntu.

He has often been deified, but has rejected sainthood, unless in his words, “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” Like Christ, he was prepared to die for his people, and paid a heavy price – 27 years in prison. Like Christ, he preached forgiveness and reconciliation, even in victory.

All this, and much more, is what has for the past 6 decades resonated around the world – Mandela’s moral conscience in a fractious world. But like all things, there are hangovers. Turning the other cheek is saintly, but on the other hand it emboldens your bitter adversaries to nail you to the cross; those who see the world as a power relation in black and white – not in colour. Those terrible one-dimensional inhabitants of the earth.

And as Madiba or Tata (as he is affectionately known in South Africa) fought for his life in June, having been in and out of hospital in the past few months, speculation has been in overdrive and much has been made by certain media of a particular narrative, with sensational headlines such as: “The children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela have begun a mad scramble for the financial benefits of his legacy while Tata lay sick in bed.”

Meeting Makaziwe Mandela at her residence to present her with a new book for her father (100 Great African Kings and Queens) –Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, who is the head of the Mandela household, was asked to comment on such speculation:

“That is media with an agenda. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is preposterous. As Chinua Achebe said, ‘If you want to plunder your neighbour, first hire a good storyteller to spew out false narratives about him or her.’ There are those who are intent on a ‘free-for-all’ access to his intellectual property for their own commercial gain. Any attempt at protecting his name, image, dignity and legacy is countered with mudslinging in the media, witting or unwitting. We have seen purveyors of his name, in many instances for gain, and have kept a dignified silence as family. But there comes a time when we as family have to take a stand, otherwise we are not Mandela. Taking a principled stand is what defined Tata. We have no respect for crass materialism,” she told New African.

When asked why the family remains dignifiedly silent on such reports, she said: “We appreciated that the world made Mandela. For after all what is a soccer match without the supporters, the referee, the linesmen and all those who make it what it is. We are thankful. But Mandela and his legacy, is African first. His statue stands in the plush suburb of Sandton and many other places around the world, with others benefitting from the tourism spin-offs. We have no qualms. It is an honour. His face appears on the Rand, gold coins and in so many places with benefits channelled into the unknown. He is everywhere. Someone even opened a Nelson Mandela Bottle Store. While most of it is in honour of him, there are also those who see an opportunity to profit from that association. And they see the family as an impediment. We have had value extracted from his name by all kinds of entrepreneurs without question. But it is time to take a stand and protect his name, honour, dignity and legacy.”

But as the condition of the people Mandela liberated remains static after 20 years, it is a dilemma the “new” South Africa still grapples with, as its famous son’s advanced age and frequent hospitalisation brings to the fore the question of how South Africa will move on from or build on the Mandela legacy. The South Africa of today is still in conflict by and large, in terms of race, class, economics, politics, ethnicity, nationality and a myriad other known and unknown factors. But many concur, that as the curtain inevitably closes, Madiba gave his best performance, and is exiting the stage to a standing ovation. It was not easy and Mandela, as wise beyond measure as he was throughout his active life, himself acknowledged: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” he would say.

But how does the daughter and family of one of the world’s most revered people define his legacy? “People will remember him for forgiveness and reconciliation, but often forget about the children, the future,” Maki, as she is fondly known, told New African.

 “Remember, on retirement he set up the Nelson Mandela children’s fund. He committed one third of his salary to that fund. He loves children, and surrounded himself with his children and grandchildren at home. He tirelessly encouraged captains of industry to build schools. He has stated that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital is nearing completion. Our children are our future.”

And how does the Mandela family plan to carry on with his legacy? “We, as a family, are on the same page. My background is that of a social worker until I took my doctorate in anthropology in the US, to better understand my chosen profession. Despite my forays into successful businesses, children have been close to my heart too. As a family, Tata’s legacy will be channelled into improving the lot of the African child and to inspiring children of the world. We have benefitted from education, and that is what has made us. Oh, and also remember that irrespective of a chequered educational trajectory, of uncompleted degrees due to his politics, Tata never gave up on education. When he was much older and in prison he persisted and finished with all the unfinished courses he had embarked on and got his degrees. That inspiration is often forgotten.”

On the continental front there have been towering predecessor heroes like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba (who paid the ultimate price), Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, to mention but a few. What makes Mandela special is perhaps his pragmatism, his forgiveness and reconciliation project that lifted him to a Christ-like figure. 

He was militant, persistent and sacrificed everything he held dear for a cause.  He had a just cause, firm principles, was persecuted and was, most tellingly, prepared to die for what he believed in.  Having given up 27 years of his most productive life in jail, he came out to lead his people to political liberation and eschewed retribution. He forgave and partnered with his oppressors and allowed them to keep their gains. With the future of his country in his heart, he believed that the future belonged to the next generation, hence he served just one term in office, when most African heads of state would bleed their countries to death just to prolong their presidency. Then after retiring from public life he dedicated himself to children, the next generation. It is that kind of timeless romantic narrative that has captured the imagination of the world. And he has been well rewarded with adulation and undoubtedly, his shoes are too large to fill. But Dr Maki Mandela has a special message to the world:

“We as a family express our great appreciation to all those who have supported, loved, and stood steadfastly by Tata during his travails. Special thanks must go to his senior counsel who defended him in the famous Rivonia trial in 1963, where he drew a line in the sand to proclaim to the world a non-racial inclusive society, and was prepared to die for it. These honourable men are Sir Sydney Kentridge (QC) and the late Bram Fischer (may his soul rest in peace). And to all South Africans, irrespective of race and creed, who stood by him. Many heroic ones stood by their conscience when their race afforded them privileges exclusive of their fellow citizens. Some even paid the ultimate price. We thank his party, the ANC, the Nelson Mandela foundation, South Africa, our African brothers and sisters on our continent, and the world. Tata is an African first. Everyone made great sacrifices to make sure that what was wrong would not triumph. Without the support of the world he would not be the revered icon that he is today. We cannot thank the world enough.”

And indeed what is also often forgotten is that Nelson Mandela, like his African brothers in the liberation struggle, started off as an African Nationalist, an ideological position he held since joining the ANC in 1943. From that perspective he stood firmly in favour of democracy and socialist ideals. He held a conviction that “inclusivity, accountability and freedom of speech” were the fundamentals of democracy and was driven by a belief in natural and human rights. Like most liberation leaders of those formative years in the mid 20th century, he was opposed to capitalism, private land-ownership and the power of big money.

The 1955 Freedom Charter, which Mandela had helped create, called for the nationalisation of banks, gold mines, and land, believing it necessary to ensure equal distribution of wealth. But Nelson Mandela evolved. After attaining the objective of freedom he said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” After all, the African National Congress did not attain a military victory, and his adversaries were an integral part of the social fabric of South Africa.

After all is said and done, the Mandela family, as Maki has explained, know what will define his legacy. But outside the family view, many may also ask, what has Nelson Mandela’s legacy really been? What comes immediately to mind is what is often described as realpolitik. Despite his socialist beliefs, Mandela nationalised nothing during his presidency, fearing that this would scare away foreign investors. This decision was in part influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc during the early 1990s, and China’s adoption of free market policies. This dilemma of an appropriate economic pathway steeped in injustice has had implications.

After his retirement from public office, economic justice has become the theme of the current South Africa, with some radical blacks including his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, accusing him of having compromised the economic liberation of his people. So the battle continues on how massive inequalities, drawn along racial lines, can be bridged. This has pitted the white owners of the factors of production and capital, inherited from apartheid, against poor and cheap black labour, also an apartheid relic. An educational and skills deficit means the blacks have difficulty in competing, and have often vented their spleen on more entrepreneurial foreign immigrants without such deficit. Even when blacks manage to get into university, a recent report has found that only 15% manage to graduate.

In the mix is the deadly time bomb of unemployment, which has partly contributed to criminality. It officially stands at 25.2%, but others project it being up to 70%. Then there are those politically connected blacks who have found economic nirvana through white anointing, to keep the waters calm. Other blacks who have found space in government employment have embarked on a looting spree of state coffers. Many people often wonder what Nelson Mandela could have been thinking about in retirement.

The long walk

Nelson Mandela’s long walk began in Mvezo Village on 18 July 1918, then a part of South Africa’s Cape Province. Given the forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning “troublemaker”, in later years he became known by his clan name, Madiba, a member of the Thembu royal family which ruled the Transkei region. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and councillor to the monarch. Nelson’s mother was Gadla’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny.

He recalled in 1994: “No one in my family had ever attended school. On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea.”

In his hometown of Qunu, his mother, a devout Christian, sent him to a local Methodist school when he was seven. She then took Mandela to the “Great Place” palace at Mqhekezweni, where he was entrusted under the guardianship of Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Raised by Jongintaba and his wife Noengland alongside their son Justice and daughter Nomafu, he developed a love of African history, listening to the tales told by elderly visitors to the palace, and became influenced by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Chief Joyi. The African value of inclusivity and collective decision making was to shape his worldview.

With Jongintaba’s backing, Mandela began work on a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree at the University of Fort Hare. He became involved in a Students’ Representative Council (SRC) boycott against the quality of food, for which he was temporarily suspended from the university. He left without receiving a degree.

Returning to Mqhekezweni in December 1940, Mandela found that Jongintaba had arranged marriages for him and Justice. The two fled to Johannesburg. Mandela found work as a night watchman at Crown Mines, but was fired when the induna (headman) discovered he was a runaway. Staying with a cousin in George Goch Township, Mandela was introduced to the realtor and ANC activist Walter Sisulu, who secured him a job as an articled clerk at law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman, run by a liberal Jew, Lazar Sidelsky, who took a keen interest in the education of indigenous Africans. At night Mandela worked on his BA through a University of South Africa correspondence course. His subsequent friendships with Gaur Radebe and Jewish communists like Nat Bergman saw him join the ANC in 1943.

The rest is history. He then began his radical political career with illustrious anti-apartheid mentors like Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Oliver Tambo. Having lost confidence in the mainstream ANC, they embarked on a path of radical opposition that culminated in the formation of the ANC youth league. After a period of political resistance, struggle and prosecution during which he was acquitted, the Rivonia trial of 1963 led to his incarceration for 27 years.

Before the trial the ANC agreed to send Mandela as a delegate to the February 1962 Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Travelling there in secret, Mandela met with Emperor Haile Selassie, and gave his speech after Selassie’s at the conference. After the conference, he travelled to Cairo in Egypt, and observed the political reforms of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He then went to Tunisia, where President Habib Bourguiba gave him £5,000 for weaponry. He proceeded to Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal, receiving funds from Liberian President William Tubman and Guinean President Ahmed Sékou Touré. Leaving Africa for London, England, he met anti-apartheid activists, reporters and prominent leftist politicians. He returned to Ethiopia to begin a six-month course in guerrilla warfare, but completed only two months before being recalled to South Africa. Thereafter African countries stood solidly against the apartheid state, sacrificing blood and treasure to help liberate South Africa.

After his release from jail Mandela personally met with senior figures of the apartheid regime, including Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow Betsie Schoombie and his Rivonia trial prosecutor Percy Yutar; emphasising personal forgiveness and reconciliation. He announced that “courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace”.

More controversially, Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond Tutu as its chair. To prevent the creation of martyrs, the Commission granted individual amnesties in exchange for testimony about crimes committed during the apartheid era. It held two years of hearings detailing rapes, torture, bombings, and assassinations, before issuing its final report in October 1998. 

Since 2004, Mandela successfully campaigned for South Africa to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, declaring that there would be “few better gifts for us in the year” marking a decade since the fall of apartheid. Despite maintaining a low-profile during the event, Mandela made a rare public appearance during the closing ceremony, where he received a “rapturous reception”. Since 2011, he has been in and out of hospital, mainly for a respiratory infection, thought to be the result of having contracted tuberculosis during his long imprisonment.

Family life

Mandela has been married three times, has fathered six children, has 17 grandchildren, and a growing number of great-grandchildren.  Mandela’s first marriage was to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, who was also from the Transkei. The couple broke up in 1957 after 13 years, and divorced. They had two sons, Madiba “Thembi” Thembekile (1946–1969) and Makgatho Mandela (1950–2005), and two daughters, both named Makaziwe Mandela (known as Maki; born 1947 and 1953). Their first daughter died aged nine months, and they named their second daughter in her honour. Mase died in 2004, and Mandela attended her funeral. Makgatho’s son, Mandla Mandela, became chief of the Mvezo tribal council in 2007.

Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, also came from the Transkei area. They met in Johannesburg, where she was the city’s first black social worker. They had two daughters, Zenani (Zeni), 1958, and Zindziswa (Zindzi) Mandela-Hlongwane, born 1960. Later, Winnie would be deeply torn by family discord which mirrored the country’s political strife, while her husband was serving a life sentence. The marriage ended in separation (April 1992) and divorce (March 1996). Mandela was still in prison when his daughter Zenani got married to Prince Thumbumuzi Dlamini, elder brother of King Mswati III of Swaziland, in 1973. In July 2012, Zenani was appointed ambassador to Argentina, becoming the first of Mandela’s three remaining children to enter public life. Mandela remarried on his 80th birthday in 1998, to Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the former Mozambican president and ANC ally who was killed in an air crash 12 years earlier.


Within South Africa, Mandela is widely considered to be “the father of the nation”, “the founding father of democracy”, “the national liberator”, “the saviour” and many more accolades. He has also received several kinds of international acclaim. In 1993, he received the joint Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed Mandela’s birthday, 18 July, as “Mandela Day”, marking his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. It called on individuals to donate 67 minutes to doing something for others, commemorating the 67 years that Mandela had been a part of the movement.

He has been awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of Canada, becoming the first living person to be made an honorary Canadian citizen. He was also the last recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. In 1990 he received the Bharat Ratna award from the government of India, and in 1992 received Pakistan’s Nishan-e-Pakistan.

In 1992 he was awarded the Atatürk Peace Award by Turkey. He refused the award, citing human rights violations committed by Turkey at the time, but later accepted the award in 1999. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John and the Order of Merit. The Obamas, inspired by Madiba’s example,  have described his story as one of “unbreakable will, unwavering integrity, and abiding humility”. In a statement celebrating Mandela’s 94th birthday Barack Obama enthused that “Nelson Mandela had changed the arc of history, transforming his country, his continent and the world”. Another former US president, Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary Clinton, are close friends and regular visitors at Mandela’s house in Johannesburg and Qunu. But the larger-than-life global icon that is Mandela has had this to say: “There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Best of all, he had a dream: “I dream of an Africa that is at peace with itself.”

That dream will be fulfilled when the fight for economic freedom is won. A new hero will arise to continue where all the great African leaders signed off. And Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, among the pantheons of great illustrious Africans, will join his ancestors in peace, while his dream is realised by the next generation.

When asked to sum up what her memories of her father have been like as the family comes to terms with what the future inevitably holds, Maki Mandela says: “For the most part his life has been a dedication to the liberation of South Africa, a commitment to his continent and a stance against discrimination, black or white; 27 years of it was in prison where visits were rare. In his latter years, he has spent most of his life with his family.

It was that gap in his narrative that was missing. And he has largely fulfilled it in his old age. We, as a family, have had the pleasure of his company and wisdom. We are grateful to God that He extended his life to make this possible.”




September 2013
« Aug   Oct »