Country Boy: 1918-1934
Few parts of South Africa are more remote from city life than the Transkei, six hundred miles south of Johannesburg. It is one of the most beautiful but also one of the poorest regions of the country. The limitless vistas of rolling hills, pale green grass and round thatched huts, with herdboys and shepherds driving their flocks between them, present an almost Biblical vision of a timeless, idyllic, pastoral life. But the beauty is skin-deep: the land is desperately overpopulated, and the thin soil is so eroded that it can only sustain scattered groups of scrawny cattle or sheep and sporadic crops of maize.
It is here that Nelson Mandela was born and brought up, and here that he has built the house to which he retreats for Christmases and holidays, and where he intends to retire. It is a large red-brick bungalow with Spanish-style arches alongside the main road, the N2 from Durban to Cape Town, a few miles south of Umtata, Transkei's biggest town. It stands at the end of an avenue of cypresses, surrounded by a wall and a bushy garden which cuts it off from the open countryside. Mandela conceived the house during his last year in jail, and based its floor-plan on the warder's house in the prison compound where he was living. He chose the site, which looks over his home district of Qunu, in the belief that "a man should die near where he was born."
Mandela's actual birthplace is several miles south, in the small village of Mvezo on the banks of the winding Mbashe (Bashee) river, where his father was hereditary chief. (The family's group of huts, or kraal, is no longer there: in 1988 Mandela, then in jail, would ask a local lawyer to locate it, but he could find no trace.) Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo on 18 July 1918--at a time, he would later reflect, when the First World War was coming to an end, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was being consolidated, and the newly-formed African National Congress sent a deputation to London to plead for the rights of black South Africans. The British Cape Colony, which included the "native reserve" of the Transkei, had been absorbed into the Union of South Africa in 1910, and three years later the Native Land Act dispossessed hundreds of thousands of black farmers, many of whom trekked to the Transkei, the only large area where Africans could own land. The Transkei has produced more black leaders than any other region of South Africa, and it was with this history that they were brought up.
Rolihlahla's father, Hendry Mandela, suffered his own dispossession. The year after his son was born the local white magistrate summoned Hendry to answer a tribesman's complaint about an ox. Hendry refused to come, and was promptly charged with insubordination and deposed from the chieftainship, losing most of his cattle, land and income. The family moved from their ancestral kraal in Mvezo to the nearby village of Qunu, where the boy Mandela would spend his next few years. Although their fortunes had suddenly declined, they kept together without too much hardship. They shared food and simple pleasures with cousins and friends, and Mandela never felt alone: in later life he would look back warmly on that collective spirit and sense of shared responsibility, before Western influences began to introduce competition and individualism.
Hendry Mandela was a strict father, with a stubbornness which his son suspects he inherited. He was illiterate, pagan and polygamous; but he was tall and dignified, darker than his son, and with no sense of inferiority toward whites. He inhabited a self-contained rural world with its own established customs and rituals. He had four wives, of whom Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third. Each had her own kraal, which was more or less self-sufficient, with its own fields, livestock and vegetables. Hendry would move between the different kraals visiting his wives, who appear to have been on good terms with each other. He kept some home-brewed liquor in his hut, with a bottle of brandy in the cupboard which would last three or four months. He respected tribal customs: when a baby was born he slaughtered a goat and erected its horns in the house.
Hendry never became a Christian, but he had some Christian friends, including the Reverend Tennyson Makiwane, a scholarly community leader who was part of the elite of the Transkei (his offspring were later to be controversial members of the ANC). He was also close to the Mbekela brothers, George and Ben, who belonged to the separate tribal group called Amamfengu, or "Fingoes"; this group remained apart from the Xhosa people, and were more influenced by missionaries and Western customs, many of them becoming teachers, clergymen or policemen. The Mbekela brothers converted Mandela's mother to Methodism, after which she began wearing Western dresses instead of Xhosa garb. She had her son baptized as a Methodist, and later the brothers persuaded both parents that Mandela should go to the local mission school--the first member of the family to do so.
Mandela's sisters Mabel and Leabie would recall with pleasure the simple country life of their childhood in Qunu, revolving around the three round huts or rondavels in their mother's kraal--one for sleeping, one for cooking, one for storing food--fenced off with poles. The rondavels were made by their mother from soil molded into bricks; the simple chairs and cupboards were also made of soil, and the stove was a hole in the ground. There were no beds or tables, only mats. The roofs were made of grass held together with ropes. They lived largely on maize, which was stored in holes (izisele) in the kraals. The boys spent the day herding the cattle, and the girls and women of the family prepared the food together in one of the houses, grinding the maize between stones, cooking it in black three-legged metal pots and mixing it with sour milk. The family would all take the main meal together in the evening, sitting on the ground eating from a single dish.
Mandela's father already had three sons by other wives, but they had already left home. As a boy, he had much more freedom than his sisters. He was very close to his mother, but would often stay with another of his father's wives, with whom he felt the same security and love as with Nosekeni Fanny. Throughout his life he would always feel most at ease with women--particularly with strong women who could provide rewarding friendships, which may be linked to his childhood experience. He thrived within his extended family of cousins, stepmothers and half-brothers and -sisters (Bantu languages have no words for stepsisters or stepmothers, so he called all his father's wives his "mothers"). "I had mothers who were very supportive and regarded me as their son," he recalled. "Not as their stepson or half-son, as you would say in the culture amongst whites. They were mothers in the proper sense of the word." His happy experience as a son loved by four mothers made his childhood very secure, and he sometimes talks nostalgically about polygamy at that time, although he firmly rejects it in today's conditions: "Quite inexcusable. It shows contempt for women, and it's something I discourage totally."
In his letters and memoirs Mandela often harks back to his life as a country boy. From his prison cell he wrote vividly about the splendor of the hills and streams, the pleasures of swimming in the pools, drinking milk straight from the cows' udders or eating maize roasted on the cob. Many world leaders, caught up in power-politics in the capitals, have played up their romantic rural roots, like Lloyd George revisiting his Welsh village or Lyndon Johnson longing for his Texas ranch. But President Mandela would be more insistent in calling himself a country boy; and with more reason, for the security and simplicity of his rural upbringing played a crucial part in forming his political confidence.
He was also fortified by his knowledge of his ancestors. His father was the grandson of Ngubengcuka, the great king of the Tembu people who died in 1832, before the British finally imposed their power on Tembuland, the southern part of the Transkei. The Tembu royal family, however poor and dependent they might seem to whites, retained a special grandeur in the Transkei, commanding the loyalty and respect of their people. Mandela was a minor royal, and he always stressed that he was never in the line of succession to the throne. He was only one of scores of descendants of King Ngubengcuka, and he came from a junior line. But his father was a trusted friend and confidant of King Dalindyebo, who had succeeded to the Tembu throne, and later of his son King Jongilizwe. Hendry in fact was a kind of prime minister, and the boy Mandela commanded respect in his community.
His was a royal family, as they saw it, but under an occupying force, for since the time of Ngubengcuka their powers had been circumscribed--first by the British government, then after 1910 by the new Union of South Africa--and the Transkei monarchs were torn between their duties to their people and the demands of an alien power. However proud and respected the Tembu royals remained, they were always conscious that the new patricians, the British and the Afrikaners, had deprived them of their authority and wealth. When the young Mandela began to travel beyond his home district, he saw that the towns in the Eastern Cape--Port Shepstone, King William's Town, Port Elizabeth, Alice--were named after British, not Xhosa, heroes, and that the white men were the real overlords.
Many mission-educated children of Mandela's generation were named after British imperial heroes and heroines like Wellington, Kitchener, Adelaide or Victoria, and at the age of seven Mandela acquired a new first name, to precede Rolihlahla. "From now on you will be Nelson," said his teacher. His mother pronounced it "Nelisile," while others would later call him "Dalibunga," his circumcision name. His later city friends called him "Nelson" or "Nel," until he expressed a preference for his clan name, "Madiba," which the whole nation was to adopt.
In 1927 Mandela, then aged nine, came closer to royalty. His father had been suffering from lung disease, and was staying in Mandela's mother's house. His friend Jongintaba, the Regent of the Tembu people, was visiting, and Mandela's sister Mabel overheard Hendry telling him: "Sir, I leave my orphan to you to educate. I can see he is progressing and aims high. Teach him and he will respect you." The Regent replied: "I will take Rolihlahla and educate him." Soon afterward Hendry died. His body was carried on a sledge to his first wife's house, and a cow was slaughtered; but he was also given a Christian funeral conducted by the Mbekela brothers, and was buried in the local cemetery.
Mandela was taken by his mother on a long journey by foot from Qunu to the "Great Place" of Mqhekezweni. It was from here that the Regent presided over his people as acting king, since the heir apparent, Sabata, was too young to rule. Jongintaba, who was also head of the Madiba clan, was indebted to Mandela's father for recommending him as Regent, which may explain why he so readily agreed to adopt Mandela as if he were his own son. But the tradition of the extended family was much stronger in rural areas than in the towns, for which Mandela remained grateful. As he wrote from jail: "it caters for all those who are descended from one ancestor and holds them together as one family."
The Great Place at Mqhekezweni hardly conforms to the European image of a royal palace. Even today it remains ruggedly inaccessible, and is difficult to reach by car. From the main road a rough, deeply rutted dirt track twists across the landscape, down into dried-up riverbeds and up stony banks, passing isolated clusters of rondavels and huts and a deserted railway station. At last a small settlement appears: two plain houses facing a group of rondavels, with an overgrown garden between them, a school building and some huts beyond. From one house a fine-looking, naturally dignified man emerges and reveals himself as the local chief, the grandson of Jongintaba; he still presides over the local community. He points out the plain rondavel where President Mandela lived as a boy. A photograph on the wall of one of the houses shows the fine face of Jongintaba, with a trim mustache. Nearby is a solemn-looking young Mandela, alongside his smiling face on an election poster of 1994.
To the Western visitor today the Great Place may seem small and remote, but to the young Mandela in 1927 it was the center of the world, and Mqhekezweni was a metropolis compared to the huts of Qunu. It was here that Mandela spent his most formative years and gained the impressions of kingship which were to influence his whole life. He would never forget the moment when he first saw the Regent arriving in a spectacular motorcar, welcomed by his people with shouts of "Aaah! Jongintaba!" (The scene would be reenacted seventy years later, when President Mandela was hailed by cries of "Aaah! Dalibunga!") Mqhekezweni was more prosperous then, and almost self-sufficient; its chief was then also regent, attracting tribesmen from all over Tembuland to consult him.
The nine-year-old boy arrived with only a tin trunk, wearing an old shirt and khaki shorts roughly cut from his father's old riding breeches, with a piece of string as a belt. His cousin Ntombizodwa, four years older, remembered him as shy, lonely and quite silent, but he was immediately welcomed by Jongintaba and his wife No-England. Mandela shared with their son Justice a small whitewashed rondavel containing two beds, a table and an oil lamp. He was treated as one of the family, together with Jongintaba's daughter, Nomafu, and later with Nxexo, the elder brother of Sabata, the heir to the kingdom. He saw himself as a member of a royal family, with a much grander style of life than that of Qunu; but he did not altogether belong to it--which may have spurred his ambition.
The Regent, Jongintaba, otherwise known as David Dalindyebo, became Mandela's new father figure. He was a handsome man, always very well dressed; Mandela lovingly pressed his trousers, inspiring his lifelong respect for clothes. Jongintaba was a committed Methodist--though he enjoyed his drink--and prayed every day at the nearby church run by his relative the Reverend Matyolo. His son Justice, four years Mandela's elder, was to be Mandela's role model for the next decade, the ideal of worldly prowess and elegance, as sportsman, dandy and ladies' man. Justice was an all-rounder, excelling in team sports like cricket, soccer and rugby. Mandela, less well coordinated, made his mark in more rugged and individual sports like boxing and long-distance running. A photograph shows Justice as bright-eyed, confident and combative, while the young Mandela was less assertive, and strove to acquire Justice's assurance. Justice was, after all, the heir to the chieftaincy, while Mandela depended on the Regent's favors.
Mandela loved the country pleasures at Mqhekezweni, which were more numerous in those days than they are now, and included riding horses and dancing to the tribal songs of Xhosa girls (how different, he reflected in jail, from his later delight in Miriam Makeba, Eartha Kitt or Margot Fonteyn). But Mandela was also more serious and harder-working than the other boys. He thrived at the local mission school, where he began to learn English from Chambers' English Reader, writing on a slate and speaking the words carefully, with a slow formality and the local accent which never left him.
Whites were hardly visible at Mqhekezweni, except for occasional passersby. Mandela's sister Mabel remembers being impressed when he and his schoolfriends met a white man who needed help because his motorbike had broken down, and Mandela was able to speak to him in English.11 But Mabel could also be quite frightened of Mandela: "He didn't like to be provoked. If you provoked him he would tell you directly. . . . He had no time to fool around. We could see he had leadership qualities."
A crucial part of Mandela's education lay in observing the Regent. He was fascinated by Jongintaba's exercise of his kingship at the periodic tribal meetings, to which Tembu people would travel scores of miles on foot or on horseback. Mandela loved to watch the tribesmen, whether laborers or landowners, as they complained candidly and often fiercely to the Regent, who listened for hours impassively and silently, until finally at sunset he tried to produce a consensus from the contrasting views. Later, in jail, Mandela would reflect:
One of the marks of a great chief is the ability to keep together all sections of his people, the traditionalists and reformers, conservatives and liberals, and on major questions there are sometimes sharp differences of opinion. The Mqhekezweni court was particularly strong, and the Regent was able to carry the whole community because the court was representative of all shades of opinion.
As President, Mandela would seek to reach the same kind of consensus in cabinet; and he would always remember Jongintaba's advice that a leader should be like a shepherd, directing his flock from behind by skillful persuasion: "If one or two animals stray, you go out and draw them back to the flock," he would say. "That's an important lesson in politics."
Mandela was brought up with the African notion of human brotherhood, or ubuntu, which described a quality of mutual responsibility and compassion. He often quoted the proverb "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu," which he would translate as "A person is a person because of other people," or "You can do nothing if you don't get the support of other people." This was a concept common to other rural communities around the world, but Africans would define it more sharply as a contrast to the individualism and restlessness of whites, and over the following decades ubuntu would loom large in black politics. As Archbishop Tutu defined it in 1986: "It refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available to others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life."
Mandela regarded ubuntu as part of the general philosophy of serving one's fellowmen. From his adolescence, he recalled, he was viewed as being unusually ready to see the best in others. To him this was a natural inheritance: "People like ourselves brought up in a rural atmosphere get used to interacting with people at an early age." But he conceded that "It may be a combination of instinct and deliberate planning." In any case, it was to become a prevailing principle throughout his political career: "People are human beings, produced by the society in which they live. You encourage people by seeing good in them."
Mandela's admiration for tribal traditions and democracy was reinforced by the Xhosa history that he picked up from visiting old chiefs and headmen. Many of them were illiterate, but they were masters of the oral tradition, declaiming the epics of past battles like Homeric bards. The most vivid storyteller, Chief Joyi, like Mandela a descendant of the great King Ngubengcuka, described how the unity and peace of the Xhosa people had been broken by the coming of the white men, who had divided them, dispossessed them and undermined their ubuntu. Mandela would often look back to this idealized picture of African tribal society. He described it in a long speech in 1962, shortly before he began his prison sentence:
"Then our people lived peacefully, under the democratic rule of their kings and their amapakati, and moved freely and confidently up and down the country without let or hindrance. Then the country was ours, in our own name and right. We occupied the land, the forests, the rivers; we extracted the mineral wealth below the soil and all the riches of this beautiful country. We set up and operated our own government, we controlled our own armies and we organized our own trade and commerce."
It was, in his eyes, a golden age without classes, exploitation or inequality, in which the tribal council was a model of democracy:
The council was so completely democratic that all members of the tribe could participate in its deliberations. Chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, all took part and endeavoured to influence its decisions. It was so weighty and influential a body that no step of any importance could ever be taken by the tribe without reference to it.
The history of the Xhosas was very much alive when Mandela was a child, and old men could remember the time when they were still undefeated. The pride and autonomy of the Transkei and its Xhosa-speaking tribes--the Tembus, the Pondos, the Fingoes and the Xhosas themselves--had survived despite the humiliations of conquest and subjection over the previous century.
Some Xhosas had intermarried with other peoples, including the Khoikhoi (called "Hottentots" by white settlers), which helped to give a wide variety to their physical features: Mandela's own distinctive face, with his narrow eyes and strong cheekbones, has sometimes been explained by Khoikhoi blood. But the Xhosas retained their distinctive culture and language. Many white colonists who first encountered them in the late eighteenth century were impressed by their physique, their light skin and sensitive faces, and their democratic system of debate and government: "They are equal to any English lawyers in discussing questions which relate to their own laws and customs," wrote the missionary William Holden in 1866. In the 1830s the British Commander Harry Smith called the Xhosa King Hintsa "the very image of poor dear George IV."
But, over the course of a hundred years and nine Xhosa wars, the British forces moving east from the Cape gradually deprived the Xhosas of their independence and their land. By 1835 Harry Smith had crossed the river Kei to begin the subjugation of the Transkei. By 1848 he had imposed his own English system on the Xhosa chiefs, informing them that their land "shall be divided into counties, towns and villages, bearing English names. You shall all learn to speak English at the schools which I shall establish for you. . . . You may no longer be naked and wicked barbarians which you will ever be unless you labour and become industrious." In the eighth Xhosa war in 1850 the British Army--after setbacks which strained it to its limit and atrocities committed by both sides--drove the Xhosa chiefs out of their mountain fastnesses and firmly occupied "British Kaffraria," later called the Ciskei. The Tembu chiefs who ruled the southern part of the Transkei had been relatively unscathed by the earlier wars, but now they were subjugated and sent to the terrible prison on Robben Island, just off the coast from Cape Town, which became notorious in Xhosa folklore.
After this humiliation and impoverishment, in 1856 the Xhosas accomplished their own self-destruction. A young prophetess, Nongqawuse, told them to kill all their cattle and to prepare for a resurrection. As a result, over half the population of the Ciskei starved to death. By the end of the ninth Xhosa war in 1878 the two chief houses of the Xhosa people, the Ngqika and the Gcaleka, had been subjugated and were forced into a new exodus across the Kei. Successive leaders were sent to Robben Island, in keeping with the order of Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape, "for the submission of every chief of consequence; or his disgrace if he were obdurate."
It was not till 1894 that Pondoland, in the northern part of the Transkei, came under the Cape administration. But after the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910, the Xhosas faced growing controls by white magistrates. The whites, as Mandela came to see it, captured the institution of the chieftaincy and "used it to suppress the aspirations of their own tribesmen. So they almost destroyed the chieftaincy."
In the later nineteenth century the Zulus, the other major tribal power to the north, became more famous among whites and foreigners as ruthless fighters than the Xhosas, particularly the Zulu warrior-king Shaka, who had set out to conquer and unify all the southern tribes in the 1820s. The Zulus attracted the admiration of many British churchmen, including the dissident Bishop John William Colenso of Natal; but they acquired unique military fame in January 1879, when the British provoked a war with Shaka's successor, Cetewayo, whose army completely destroyed a British force of 1,200 at the battle of Isandhlwana. When the British sent out reinforcements they included the Prince Imperial, son of Louis Napoleon, who was ambushed and speared to death by Zulu assegais. ("A very remarkable people the Zulus," said Disraeli. "They defeat our generals, they convert our bishops, they have settled the fate of a great European dynasty.") The humiliation of Isandhlwana was finally avenged in July, when the British crushed Cetewayo at the battle of Ulundi and subjugated the Zulus; but their reputation for fighting spirit remained.
The Xhosa chiefs appeared less martial and intransigent than the Zulus, and after the Xhosa wars they seemed defeated and demoralized--sometimes with the help of alcohol. But out of the desolation of the Xhosa wars another tradition was growing up, that of mission schools and Christian culture, which gradually produced a new Xhosa elite of disciplined, well-educated young men and women. While embracing Western ideas, they still aspired to restore the rights and dignity of their own people. The British liberal tradition was reasserting itself in the Cape, with the expansion of the mission stations and the introduction of a qualified vote for blacks. Educated young Xhosas were exploiting the aptitude for legal argument, analysis and debate which early white visitors had observed. It was a route that would in time lead some of them into the political campaigns of the black opposition in the 1960s--sometimes called the tenth Xhosa war--and, like their predecessors, to Robben Island; but they would win their battle, and not through military might, but through their skills in argument and reasoning.
Like other conquered peoples such as the Scots or the American Indians, the Xhosas retained their own version of history, which, being largely oral, was easily ignored by the outside world. "The European insisted that we accept his version of the past," said Z. K. Matthews, the African professor who would teach Mandela. But "it was utterly impossible to accept his judgements on the actions and behaviour of Africans, of our own grandfathers in our own lands." Mandela, despite all his Western education, would always champion oral historians, and would continue to be inspired by the spoken stories of the Xhosas which he had heard from his elders: "I knew that our society had produced black heroes and this filled me with pride: I did not know how to channel it, but I carried this raw material with me when I went to college." While most white historians regarded the Xhosa rebellions as firmly placed in the past, overlaid by the relentless logic of Western conquest and technology, Mandela, like other educated Xhosas, saw the white occupation as a recent interlude, and would never forget that his great-grandfather ruled a whole region a century before he was born.
Excerpted from Mandela by Anthony Sampson. Copyright © 2000 by Anthony Sampson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.