EXCLUSIVE: Mandela’s first granddaughter carving her own legacy

“I am truly blessed to have been born a Mandela”

The first granddaughter of the former and late state President Nelson Mandela, Ndileka Mandela has buried herself in humanitarian and community work in preservation of her father’s and grandfather’s legacies, while building her own.

Ndileka Mandela, the first granddaughter of Nelson Mandela is fast becoming a humanitarian of note, following in her grandfather’s footsteps. As a community worker and social activist, Ndileka has dedicated her life to socio-economic justice issues. Her area of focus is youth development and decent education for all, but especially for girls in rural, peri-urban and informal settlements.

Back in 2012, she founded the Thembekile Mandela Foundation (TMF) in honour of her late father who is Mandela’s eldest son by his first wife, Evelyn Mase. Thembekile passed away in July 1969 at the age of 24, Ndileka was only four years old at the time.

“I was too young to understand how grandad was thoroughly affected by my father’s passing in that fatal accident. Until one day in his sunset days, when we got to spend more time together,” She said.

Ndileka had taken a sabbatical between 2011 and 2013 to spend time with Mandela. While she and Mandela sat watching one of the numerous movies and documentaries made about his life one afternoon, his warden Christo Brandt appeared on screen relating the experience of the day Madiba received the news that his son had passed away.

“Grandad temporarily let go of my hand and had this blank face that was marked by palpable pain. In the movie, Christo says that when doing his rounds [he] was walking past [Mandela’s] cell; he found him huddled in a corner with his blanket wrapped around his shoulders as if he was wrapping his pain around himself. That was an emotional moment for both of us.”

Preserving Tata’s legacy

“I wish to preserve grandfather’s legacy. He loved the people of South Africa and the world over. My grandad always encouraged young people to get an education.”

It is this legacy that encouraged but sometimes with socioeconomic challenges children, especially rural and pei-urban girls whose parents have limited means to provide for their sanitary ware miss school, this is according to research conducted by Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA). It broke my heart to learn that they miss 50 days of their academic year, and would have missed school for almost a year, by the end of their five year high school career. I had to seek justice for them,” she said.

With the Mandela’s placing high priority on education, it is no wonder that both of Ndileka’s grandparents insisted that she repeated matric when they were dissatisfied with her grades. She passed her matric in 1985 at Nozuko High School in Umtata, and then studied to become a nurse at Glen Grey Hospital in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape. From there she completed a diploma in Midwifery. In 1995 while working as a ICU nurse at St Aidans Hospital in Durban, she furthered her professional career at King Edward VIII hospital where she trained in renal dialysis. “I had been entrepreneurial since an early age, and when I decided to retire from nursing I went after a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) for which I registered in 2003 at the University of Natal. I completed only one year which earned me a Post Graduate Diploma in Management.”

Ndileka now applies the business knowledge she acquired at business school in the social sector. As a social entrepreneur, she has initiated a campaign – Sisterhood of the redscarves – which she launched on Mandela Day last year around the monumental Madiba statue, in Sandton. The campaign rallied women in red scarves who are raising funds and awareness about girls’ challenges during their menstrual cycles. “The Sisterhood of the redscarves is a rallying call to action to…supply over 10 000 girls who on our database, with a year’s supply of sanitary ware. This will help us to keep girls in school and increase their chance at a secure future. My grandad would have loved this,” she said.

Through the Thembekile Mandela Foundation she has taken on more projects in the area of youth development, supporting Science, Technology and Maths (STEM) education and literacy enhancement in learners as well as ensuring food security through agricultural training of youth. She nominated former Miss South Africa and businesswoman Basetsana Kumalo as the ambassador of Sisterhood of the redscarves.

Creating Employment for Youth

In line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on food security, the Thembekile Mandela Foundation is piloting two agricultural projects in Westonaria, Gauteng and Clarkebury, Eastern Cape which will be implemented over 10 years to ‘cultivate and ensure sustainability’.

“I see no reason for communities to have no food when we can empower each other and start agricultural projects which will not only feed families, but can turn into enterprises,” she said.

In Education

TMF has adopted Clarkebury High School in the Eastern Cape as one of its beneficiary schools. The alma mater to both Ndileka and former state president Nelson Mandela which was earmarked for infrastructural development. In 2012 TMF partnered with the Department of Basic Education and Nelson Mandela’s former classroom in particular was converted into a multipurpose centre and science laboratory complete with donated science kits and state-of-the-art laboratory equipment.

And then there is the Simunye Senior Secondary School Project. TMF previously provided only sanitary towels to these learners, but while on the visit to the school, the foundation discovered that the school has no brick and mortar structure as all classes are conducted in containers. This means that winter days are stinging cold and a blanket drive was immediately organized with all 1260 young learners being provided with blankets to keep them warm. In addition to a new building, the school will also receive a donation of ablution facilities as there are only 8 servicing 1260 learners plus teachers.

Bitter sweet family memories

Ndileka remembers bonding with her paternal grandmother Evelyn, first wife of the former state president through baking and cooking, while growing up in a village town of Cofimvaba, in the Eastern Cape.

“My fondest memories are that of my grandmother teaching me how to cook and bake. That was the one time she was not too strict and rigid. The first time she taught me how to bake, she asked me to cream butter, sugar and vanilla essence while adding self-raising flour to the mixture. I loved tasting this creamy dough as it would slide down my throat sweetly. But of the things I still love to date is cooking. From her I learnt how soothing and therapeutic cooking is. I still cook up a storm. Another time that I felt this way was my first visit to Robben Island to visit my grandad in June 1981.”

“He had a way of making me feel like I was the only person in the room and I mattered the most. Even when our contact had been restrained by a thick glass between us, we held hands by touching the glass, we spoke through the glass. When the visiting hour was over, I cried a river. Those visits were special, the reason I want others to feel so special through the work I do. Seeing a face of a child light up from receiving love through our projects is so gratifying,” she said.

“My grandad was a regal man with a keen appreciation for the small things in life. He loved the countryside. He enjoyed watching the birds chipping and trees swaying. During my visits for instance, he would ask me about all the things under the sun, including whether I had a boyfriend, and if I had had a Pap Smear. While it made me shy, having grown up in the care of grandma Evelyn, who was a strict and devout Jehova’s Witness where such subjects were taboo, he’d made me very relaxed that I found it easy to respond. To me he was like my father.”

Her convictions

Earlier this year she had said she wouldn’t vote for the ANC, the party that made Mandela a global icon. “While the ANC catapulted him into a revered figure, the reality is that what made him a global icon were his qualities of forgiveness, humility and believing that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity. My reasons for that statement are the many let downs the organisation has been making. My tipping points were the Life Esidimeni saga that saw over 100 people perish in the hands of officials and SASSA, which almost saw 17 million people not receiving their social grants. In terms of to vote or not to vote, I have reflected and the jury is still out on that.”

Often times, particularly when July 18, Mandela Day, comes around and stock is being taken of the political situation, there is a school of thought that suggests that Madiba delivered the socio, political and economic challenges SA finds itself in. Ndileka’s take is slightly different: “I would like anyone who says that, to share with me and indeed the country and the world what is it that they could’ve done differently or better?” she inquires.

Mandela’s physician Vejay Ramlakan recently revealed in his book Mandela’s Last Years some information which the family would have preferred to stay out of the public domain. Graça Machel, Madiba’s widow is said to be taking legal action against all involved in the book scribing, and Ndileka also released an official statement via social media saying that professional licenses need to be revoked. The book has since been pulled from distribution, however she still feels strongly about it.

“The excerpts that have been shared with me, make me feel very strongly that the Oath of Hippocrates was violated and I stand with Mum Graça,” she said.

Ndileka wants to be remembered as someone who has lived by the courage of her convictions.

“I genuinely care for the poor and downtrodden. If it were up to me alone, no child would go to bed without food, without sanitary wear, without adequate health care and education. My dream for Africa is Peace, Prosperity and Abundance. I am truly blessed to have been born a Mandela.”

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