6 December 2013
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, who passed away on Thursday evening, will be remembered not only as an icon whose sacrifices made the world a better place, but also as a man whose achievements came at great personal cost, to himself and to his family.
In separate interviews conducted earlier this year in Mandela’s home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, his sister Nonyekana Bulehluti and cousin Sketshetshe Mandela spoke about their relations to the revered former statesman, who passed away on Thursday evening.
Bulehluti, who has since passed away, said at the time that she could still recall the days when she used to fear her “stubborn” brother”, whom she described as someone who never talked much.
She remembered Mandela as someone who stood out from the rest of the family due to his beliefs in education and his insatiable curiosity. While they never had the normal sister-brother bond, due to his activism and the many years he spent in jail, she never doubted the love he had for her.
“I never spent time with bhuti [older brother],” said Bulehluti, who at the time of the interview had left the original Mandela home to live with her daughter about 15 kilometres away. “When I was a teenager, he was already igqobhoka [an educated man]. He was very quiet, but loved to laugh at anything, and that’s how I remember him – laughing and laughing.”
She and Mandela shared a father but were not of the same mother. Mandela’s father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, a chief by both blood and custom, had four wives, the third being Mandela’s mother Nosekeni Fanny, while Bulehluti’s mother, Nodayimani, was the fourth wife.
‘You could see he was different’
While Bulehluti was not born yet when Mandela left Qunu at the age of nine to live at nearby Mqekezweni village following his father’s passing, their later interactions revealed astonishing characteristics of a man who would later lead South Africa to its first democratic elections.
“He was born to lead,” she said. “You could see he was different from all of us. He questioned things and liked to be in the company of the elders. He never spent much of his time with us … and before we knew it, he was gone [to study].”
However, Bulehluti explained that the family never felt abandoned or deserted by Mandela, as they were aware of his passion for politics and his desire to see his people free.
“For us, it became a matter of saying – yes, he is our brother, but he does not belong to us but to the nation. It’s something that we learnt to live with over time, and I can never regret having him as a brother. Even though it was not easy at first, he has achieved what he wanted.”
‘The children must know who this hero was’
Mandela’s cousin Sketshetshe Mandela, 78, still lives in the original family yard where Mandela and his host of siblings used to play.
Mandela’s father had 13 children, four boys and nine girls, but as in any African home, the house was always filled with babies and other children of relatives. While the three huts Mandela’s mother presided over in Qunu have since been demolished to make way for a modern house, traces of the old structures are still visible.
Mandela mentioned in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that of the three huts, one was used for cooking, one for sleeping and the other for storage. “In the hut in which we slept, there was no furniture in the Western sense … we slept on mats and slept on the ground,” he wrote.
Sketshetshe, who bears a striking resemblance to Mandela’s mother Nosekeni, said that while a lot has changed since those days, the family still plants and harvests mielies as well as small scale poultry farming.
“We are still living the way he [Mandela] left us. We refused to change now that he found fame, and whenever he comes, he finds us here still doing things the old way,” he said, holding up a portrait of himself and Mandela for the duration of the interview.
On the walls of the living room are pictures of Mandela and other family members, together with other famous pictures taken during the struggle for liberation – perhaps an indication of how proud the family is of the man.
“We want the children to know who this hero of the family was,” Sketshetshe said. “We want them to continue with the legacy and the foundation he laid for the entire Mandela family and the Madiba clan.”