NELSON Mandela was a mama’s boy.
It’s not what you’d expect to hear about the global human rights icon when you chat to his daughter, Dr Phumla Makaziwe Mandela, who has just launched a coffee table book in honour of her dad Nelson Mandela.
“Yes, Tata loved his mom, he was really a mama’s boy, he adored his mother,” she laughs while talking about her book, Mandela: In Honor of an Extraordinary Life.
While many books have been written about the global leader, this one is different; written from an insider’s perspective, it gives an intimate glimpse into the life of a man who was granted very little private time to be with his family. Timeous and insightful, it comes on the eve of the 10th anniversary of his death on December 5.
When Mandela started working on the project “before Covid”, she wanted to capture the essence of her dad and create a book that was not just about a politician or a statesman or as she says, “a man who is often captured as the saint that fell from the sky”, but show that he was someone with roots and to give context to what shaped the person he became.
“I wanted to capture Tata (dad in isiXhosa) in the cultural medium of a Tembu son, a boy from Transkei, an African son and emphasise what actually formed him and what shaped him, his traditions, his cultures, his customs,” said Mandela.
She says as a young man her father’s biggest dream was to improve the lives of his family but like most people he faced many struggles in his various roles as brother, uncle, son and family man.
“He regretted that he did not fulfil his wishes of getting his mother and his sisters out of poverty because he thought that when he went to Fort Hare he was going to get a degree and would be able to work and build them a big house and all of those things,” said Mandela.
However, reality turned out to be very different for the man who went on to spend 27 years in captivity, emerge as a beacon of hope for the oppressed and become a Nobel Peace Laureate.
The book serves as a repository of memories about the Mandela family.
It details his life chronologically from his birth in Mvezo in 1918. It describes how he became the first member of his family to attend school in 1925, contains a family tree, includes journal entries written during his incarceration as well as the rarely seen charcoal drawings he began at the age of 83.
It’s also a stark reminder of the devastating cost the struggle had on his family who always had to share him with the world.
And as his granddaughter Tukwini Mandela so powerfully writes in the afterword of the book, many people felt that Mandela belonged to a “benign we” and they had the right to exploit his name but when his “progeny” used the name it was seen as unacceptable and profiteering.
“It became crystal clear to me, my mother, and my siblings that the battle lines for who controlled our own name had already been drawn and if we allowed people who were nonentities to my family and my legacy to control our name, and in the long run, our destiny, our legacy would be defiled and destroyed by profiteers and thieves,” writes Tukwini.
The book takes you on a journey of his life from Transkei to Johannesburg, as head of the ANC, the role of family and customs in his upbringing and how he went from prisoner to president to philanthropist.
In all of this it was his culture that shaped the man because her dad learnt from observing his elders, says Mandela. “The whole issue of lineage and kinship meant a tremendous lot to Tata.”
It also means a lot to her, as chairperson and co-founder of House of Mandela, a global activist, and the oldest living child of Nelson and Evelyn Mandela, Madiba’s first wife.
“For me, who I am is very important. Lineage is very important, I really treasure the history of how my ancestors lived in this world and what their rituals were,” she says.
She believes that how we show up in the world, as Mandela’s life illustrated, is linked to our ancestors.
“You are a crystallisation of all those who have gone before you,” says Mandela.
So what was it like being the daughter of a man revered around the world?
“The last time I saw my dad was when I was between six and seven, face to face, and the next time was when I turned 16, then it was face to face but through a glass window when I went to visit him at Robben Island,” says Mandela.
The sacrifices were harsh; because of his imprisonment Madiba missed many of the important milestones in his children’s lives and even the mundane interactions that cement relationships.
There were letters between Madiba and his family, where he always stressed the importance of education, but it did not make up for the intimate moments they craved.
Mandela says by the time Madiba was released from jail all her brothers and sisters were grown up and they had not developed the kind of relationship with their dad as in other “normal” or “privileged” families.
She says the pain and trauma he experienced may have benefited South Africa but as a family, “the sacrifice that he made may not have benefited us”.
This is echoed by her brother Makgatho Lewanika Mandela who is quoted in the book saying: ”Tata was a father who was there but not there physically. Even when I was born he was there only for a brief moment. We had expected that once he was free we could at last spend time with him, but his plate was always full. We have to accept that Tata is married to politics and enjoy the breakfasts, lunches, dinners, birthdays we have with him. These, for us, need to be our cherished moments.”
And while his time with his dearest ones was limited, Madiba’s legacy lives on through his family. His daughter says: “He lived his life truly authentically but with a higher goal in mind.” A goal which she believes we can all emulate.
While the Mandela family is scattered all over the world, the grandchildren still make a point of getting together and Mandela keeps the memories alive and the family together with her Sunday lunches.
The hardcover coffee table book consists of 448 pages of photographs, some never before in the public domain. It contains messages and memories from luminaries like American civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton and their interactions with Madiba, named as one of Time magazine’s Most Important People of the Twentieth Century. The book retails for R1 750 and is available “wherever fine books are sold”.