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‘He was such a good grandpa’: Ndaba Mandela on growing up with Madiba

Aspasia Karras with Ndaba Mandela

06 March 2022 - 00:02
Ndaba Mandela, the grandson of former president Nelson Mandela.
Ndaba Mandela, the grandson of former president Nelson Mandela.
Image: Masi Losi

The power of the gene is eerily apparent when Ndaba Mandela walks into 1920, the Portuguese restaurant in Hyde Park I have chosen for our lunch.

I wanted a place that evoked tradition and old-school excellence. And 1920 has both, in spades.

Ndaba is Madiba’s grandson. And he looks the part. He has the aura of Madiba, when he was a young gun boxing, in that famous picture on the roof somewhere in Newtown.

He has something of the resonant timbre of that distinctive voice that moved the world, and an innate charisma. The whole experience is a bit unnerving.

He also has a way with a story. He tells me how he was summoned, at the age of 11, to go live with the old man.

“I was playing marbles with my friends outside the house in Vilakazi Street when a big black BMW pulled up and a man in a suit stepped out and said: ‘Come with me, your grandfather wants you to come to him.’ At the back of my mind I was thinking: ‘Stranger danger!’ I was like, no, I am not coming. He said: ‘Do you have any idea who your grandfather is? Please, he is going to be so angry with me.’ Eventually, he left. My father came home that evening and I told my him the story. He said the next time the man comes, go with him. The man came back on a Friday. I got my bag,  jumped in the car, we drove to the house. I go in. It was the old house — it’s a disgrace, by the way, to turn the old man’s house into a hotel.” 

I quickly realise he  does not mince his words. He quotes Trevor Noah on the subject: “He says this guy is an icon that has gone through so much … you can now sleep at his house for a price. You know what they should do? Every time you get to sleep in Mandela’s house, you should also get to sleep one night in jail. It’s like you are watering down his life.” He laughs. But he is serious.

“Anyway, I went into this house — it was busy, security, Mama Xoli made me a sandwich — the best sandwich of my life, and he finally came in: ‘My grandson, how are you? My son never had the opportunity to go to university — so I want him to go to university, I don’t want him to worry about you and focus on his studies, so you will stay with me while your father is at university.’ I come from a traditional home, you don’t ask questions.

We are living in a polarised world — everybody has different opinions but there is no real substance behind it
Ndaba Mandela

“He was such a good grandpa. He would walk past my room — it would be upside down. He would call me. ‘Ndaba, this is not how you live.’ And he would show me how to fold my shirts, how to make my bed. He even showed me how to exercise. He was very proud of his flat stomach, you know. He would take the exercise ball.”  

He still follows his advice. He stopped boxing when he broke his hand in fight. But his 11-year-old son has started boxing. 

Ndaba published a book called Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons from my Grandfather, Nelson Mandela.

“The most important lesson we all know — one that says to be free is not merely to cast off our shackles but to live in a way that protects and enhances the freedom of others. Are we doing that today, looking at the Covid epidemic, looking at the riots that took place?

“Many of the words that the so-called father of the nation said to us, we ignore them and we use them whenever it’s convenient. When the elections come around, our leaders have forgotten where we have come from.

“It is really up to us as the next generation. If we forget, the next generation will forget. If we fight, they will fight. They have never known the world without smartphones and it’s about immediate self-gratification. But they are also in danger because we are in the age of fake news.  We are living in a polarised world — everybody has different opinions but there is no real substance behind it.

“If I post something about a young man from Soweto who just graduated and got a job, I will get 50 likes. If I post me at a club with two girls on each shoulder popping bottles I will probably get 1,000 likes. That is the world we are living in. So how do you navigate this world? How do you inspire and connect with young people?

“In New York we have the Mandela Institute for Humanity — here it is called Africa Rising [Foundation]. We have designed a leadership programme to inspire young people to lead in the same light as Nelson Mandela. He was disciplined, a visionary. He had tenacity, compassion for his people. What do each of these things mean and how do you apply it at home, at your workplace and in your community? So we have designed eight online masterclasses that will feature the likes of Anne Pratt, who taught the Nelson Mandela blueprint of leadership course at  Harvard. It will feature Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, and hopefully, Bernice King will come on board, Martin Luther King’s daughter.

“The problem we have now is we have a president calling for unity, but what has he articulated? We need to unite for something, you can’t unite for the sake of uniting. I think we should unite for progress, for change. Why are we dealing with corruption for the past 20 years? We have become complacent. A person living in a shack wants to live in a house, we need to come together and work towards it.”


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