Mandela's village: Traditional leadership returns

Editor's note: This series about Nelson Mandela's home village describes South Africa's past and points the way toward its future. Where tradition vies with modern leadership. Where Mandela was no saint. Where rural poverty persists. Where Mandela’s legacy inspires future leaders.

MVEZO, South Africa — The day that Nelson Mandela left home, he was a young man on the run from tradition.

The regent who ruled the Thembu people, and had been Mandela’s guardian since boyhood, had chosen a wife for him and paid the bride price. Mandela, a member of the royal household, was being groomed to become a chief and a king’s counselor, and by tradition the king would select his wife.

But Mandela was having none of it. Stealing some of the regent’s cattle to pay for transport to Johannesburg, he and his cousin fled their arranged marriages and abandoned village life for the big city. It was a rebellious move that set Mandela on his long path to becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa. “That changed my whole career,” Mandela reflected in "Conversations with Myself," his new memoir.

Today in South Africa, the forces of political power are pulling in the opposite direction: back to tribal traditions. The current president, Jacob Zuma, rose to power on populist appeal in part by embracing Zulu traditions. He dresses in leopard skins for special occasions, has an openly polygamous lifestyle and is building an expansive homestead at Nkandla, his ancestral village.

Nearly 70 years after Mandela fled to Johannesburg, the issue of traditional leadership versus modern rule can still be found in Mandela’s birth village, where his grandson has made the return journey. Mandla Mandela swapped the bright lights of Johannesburg, where he was raised, for a new career as the chief of Mvezo, a tiny, impoverished village set in the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, where Nelson Mandela was born in 1918.

Mandla Mandela, who these days prefers to be called by his praise name, Zwelivelile (“The Nation Has Appeared”), moved to Mvezo in 2007 to take up the chieftainship, a title that had been held by his great-grandfather, Nelson Mandela’s father, until he lost it in a dispute with a local magistrate. The title was recently restored to the Mandela family by the current Thembu king, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo.

Mandla, a charismatic young man who is a favorite of his grandfather, has since been elected as a member of parliament for the ruling African National Congress, and some say his sights are set on the presidency. He has worn animal skins at ceremonies and embraced polygamy – he recently went through a marriage ceremony with a second woman while still married to his estranged first wife.

His mother, Rayne Mandela — the wife of Nelson Mandela’s late son Makgatho, who died of AIDS in 2005 — is the acting chief of the village, filling in for her son who these days is often attending parliament in Cape Town. She, too, has made the switch to rural life, moving to Mvezo in 2009 after living in Johannesburg as well as abroad in Hong Kong and London.

“Some of our traditions are lost in generations. By having the traditional leaders, you don’t lose your traditions are you grow,” she said. “If we didn’t have traditional leaders, everything would be lost and there wouldn’t be any history for the young generation.”

Mandla Mandela is building a tribal court and multipurpose center in Mvezo, part of an ambitious project that has also seen him construct a traditional homestead next to the site of the round hut (called a rondavel) where Nelson Mandela was born. The ruins of the birthplace were destroyed when Mandla built a replica of the original hut on top of the site.

This development infuriated Nelson Mandela Museum officials, who had wanted to preserve the ruins, and led to a public fallout between Mandla Mandela and the museum. (Mandla Mandela, who does not often speak to media, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Chief Mandla has also courted controversy amid allegations that he sold the rights to his grandfather’s funeral to the South African Broadcasting Corporation for R3 million (about $430,000). He also drew widespread criticism after bringing his aging grandfather to a political rally in support of ANC leader Jacob Zuma during the 2009 election campaign.

However, in rural Mvezo, the traditional practices that Mandla Mandela has implemented since becoming the chief have largely gone down well among villagers. They are happy about jobs from the construction projects, and enjoy his gifts to the community, such as blankets and shoes to village women.

Moshile Nampoko, 88, a respected village elder and one of Mvezo’s oldest residents, says that as chief, Mandla Mandela pays for elaborate feasts for the community.

“Since he became chief we don’t have to pay for everything,” Nampoko said. “He slaughters cows, and invites the public to eat,” said Manxolisa Nompoko, 48. “He loves meat.”

Mandla Mandela has also enforced more arcane traditions such as requiring villagers to take off their hats and wear long-sleeved shirts when they visit him, as a sign of respect.

In South Africa, one of the issues that exemplifies the tension between traditional and modern rule is the question of traditional justice, meted out by chiefs who are appointed and not elected, in contrast to the country’s modern rule of law.

In remote villages such as Mvezo, the chiefs play important roles as arbiters of local disputes such as theft of livestock or if a young man impregnates a young village woman.

Rayne Mandela, the acting chief, says that punishment for small crimes committed in the community, and judged by the chief, usually amounts to an apology or payment of a sheep or other animal to the victim’s family.

“We rarely have cases that go to the police because we are able to settle everything in the area,” she said. “We have petty things that would be a waste to go to the police and fill up cells.”

However, there are also reports of traditional justice being served in Mvezo in a more brutal fashion by members of the community. One man recalled seeing a villager who was badly beaten, and had to be taken to a hospital in the next big city, because had had stolen food and money from a village woman who vends at the roadside.

Nelson Mandela, though he fled his arranged marriage, has throughout his life maintained a deep respect for traditional leaders.

His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a strongly traditional man. Mandela was born to his third wife, who had converted to Christianity. It was through her involvement with the Methodist church that Mandela had the opportunity to attend a missionary school and become the first member of his family to be educated.

Despite becoming a modern and progressive president who advanced the cause of women’s rights, Mandela said in his memoirs that he feels torn between modernity and the traditions of his upbringing as a member of the Xhosa tribe.

“Like so many Africans of his day, Mandela would continue to be pulled in two directions for the rest of his life – between traditional values and customs, and modernity, represented largely by the Christianity of his early years,” says a historical account at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, the closest city to Mvezo.

Mandela these days spends most of his time in Johannesburg’s tony northern suburbs, though he maintains a house in Qunu, the village where he lived as a boy, down the road from Mvezo.

His Qunu home is a Tuscan-style mansion enclosed by tight security, with a view of the village and the museum in his honor on a hill overlooking the area where he played as a child.

While he left tradition behind and became a modern statesman, Mandela would feel the influence of his village upbringing as a member of the Xhosa tribe, in the Thembu royal household, his entire life. He said that he learned how to listen from sitting in on tribal meetings, where all men would have a chance to speak and the regent would listen patiently to each and every one.

“Western civilization has not entirely rubbed off my African background, I have not forgotten the days of my childhood when we used to gather round community elders to listen to their wealth of wisdom and experience,” he wrote in an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, excerpted in his most recent memoir. “That was the custom of our forefathers and the traditional school in which we were brought up.”

On the blustery day that his grandson took up the chieftaincy at a ceremony in Mvezo, a smiling Nelson Mandela braved a sandstorm whipping through the village to attend the event. He watched as Mandla was draped in a lion skin, symbolizing royalty, before a crowd of tribal leaders from around the country and local villagers who drummed, danced and ululated with joy.

Mandela, deeply moved by his grandson’s appointment, stood up to the podium, and gripping it tightly, addressed the crowd with a few words in the Xhosa language, saying, “That my grandson has taken the chieftaincy I was supposed to have, that he is to rule here at Mvezo will make me sleep forever a happy man in my grave.”

The Mandela legacy had returned home.

Mandela Village Mandela Village Mandela Village

Traditional ways


Rural poverty Road from Qunu