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Mandela's village: Traditional leadership returns

Young Nelson Mandela fled becoming a rural chief, but now his grandson is one.

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.”