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Mandela's village: Traditional leadership returns

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

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


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