The world knew him as the father of South Africa. She just knew him as dad. Zindzi Mandela talks about her family’s extraordinary life with – and without – Madiba
It was a windy December morning when I met Zindziswa Mandela for breakfast in a buzzy London hotel. Friendly and glamorous, in a black, polka-dot jacket, Zindzi, as she’s always known, the younger of Nelson Mandela’s two daughters by his second wife, Winnie, was excited about that night’s première of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the film of her father’s life.
She chatted about how she’d be off later to Burberry to find a shrug to help stay warm on the red carpet, how she’d be spending her birthday and Christmas at home in Johannesburg, with her two sons visiting from America, and, of course, how “whenever I have a moment” she’d be visiting her 95-year-old father at home nearby.
Just hours later, moments before the film was about to start in Leicester Square, Zindzi, 52, and her sister Zenani, 55, were told that their father was fading fast. They left, but asked that the screening continue. As the credits rolled, the audience learnt of the death of the former President of South Africa, arguably the greatest icon of our time.
Mandela had been unwell for months, but that morning Zindzi was optimistic. “I’m not yet ready for him to die,” she said. “I have so many lost years to recapture. Every moment counts and I just want to stretch it out. There are periods when we’ve been very anxious, but we take things one day at a time. My niece spoke for us all when she said, ‘We have come to terms with his death intellectually, but not emotionally.’
With her father’s dazzling smile, Zindzi was serene, but also gently reproachful about speculation surrounding her father’s health.
“Whenever he sneezes the whole world gathers at the hospital,” she said. “The impression that some of the media are looking forward to his speedy demise is very hurtful. We appreciate that people are afraid to lose him, we know he’s never just belonged to us, but it’s painful to see my father’s death treated as a scoop to be chased.”
Zindzi Mandela with her parents in 1961, and with Nelson after his release (AP Photo/Star, Alf Kumalo; Peter Turnley/Corbis)
All her life, Zindzi has had to share her father with South Africa. She was 29 when Mandela left prison. “For a long time after his release there was a lot of bitterness,” she said. “I never, ever imagined my father being president. I imagined him coming home and having a normal family life. When he came out of prison we only had a few moments with him as a family, before the reception committee joined us. I realised, ‘He’s still not mine.’ I always joke that at least when he was in prison I was guaranteed two visits a month.” She was four months old when Mandela went on the run, and 18 months when he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Her first memory of meeting him was when she was 15 at Robben Island.“I’d always wondered about him, how his voice sounded, how tall he was, but the first time I saw him he was behind a partition, so I still didn’t know how tall he was and that frustrated me. My mother had tried to prepare me for the guards on either side, analysing every word, but I found it very emotional and cried. He cheered me up by telling me to imagine being at home, on his lap in front of the fireplace, and he promised, ‘One day I’ll do this.’ It was a great example of his charm, how his word could convince you, how his aura could transport you out of a situation.”
Zindzi’s earliest memory is connected to her father. “I was 18 months and so afraid. I was waiting in the car with my sister at night outside Pretoria prison and there were hostile, uniformed men around. My mother had brought my father his favourite dish, a sort of lasagne made with soured milk and she was gone the longest time.” The image of her father young Zindzi knew best was in the newspapers with his eyes blacked out, as a terrorist. “I was so envious of the children whose fathers returned from work every day. I always knew my father was different. Every time people heard his name, there’d be a reaction – negative, emotional, but something.”
Alone with her young children, Winnie was subjected to a campaign of persecution. From day to day the family never knew when the secret police would arrive. They once dragged her out of the home at 2am with the terrified girls clinging to her skirt. She spent the next 16 months in solitary confinement.
“I never knew if she would come back alive,” said Zindzi. “They were very cruel. My mother tried to send us to nursery school, but the police would intimidate the principal and we’d be asked to leave. She tried to change our colour by straightening our hair, changing our surnames, but they would always find out and we’d have to move on.”
When Zindzi was five, friends paid for the sisters to attend a boarding-school in Swaziland. “The police would find out when the school was closing for holidays and arrest our mother. We returned to an empty house so often I lost count. They were trying to break my father, my mum, her children by ensuring we had nothing left, that we were emotionally bankrupt.”
Despite the traumas, Zindzi remained calm in public. “From a very early age I learnt to internalise, to project a very confident persona and be strong. My mother said, ‘I never want to see you cry, especially in front of the enemy.’ If we felt sorry for ourselves, she’d say, ‘Someone will be wondering what’s happened to Nelson’s children. But there are so many children in your situation no one will ask about.’ A lot of strength came from being encouraged to look beyond our personal circumstances and see a bigger picture.”
While Mandela was later to preach reconciliation, he wasn’t always against violence, and in the early stages of his career he helped found the military wing of the ANC, which was accused of more than 200 acts of sabotage.
Winnie herself went on to become an advocate of violence, especially after she and Zindzi were exiled to the Orange Free State in 1976 when Zindzi was 15. (Zenani avoided politics and married a Swazi prince.) There Zindzi became involved in the resistance movement, learning to strip an AK-47 in 38 seconds. “I had to believe one day we would be free,” she told me. “The struggle became my motivation – that’s all I could hang on to.”
After nine years Winnie and Zindzi returned to Soweto, brutalised, and gained a thuggish reputation among the black community, with their retinue beating and, on occasion, killing anyone who threatened Winnie’s supremacy. Their personal lives were also messy: Winnie openly had lovers; Zindzi, after a nervous breakdown, had four children by four different men. One was Clayton Sithole, a member of the armed wing of the ANC who was arrested just before Mandela’s release in 1990. Four days later he was found hanged in a prison cell.
“People say the defining moment of my life must have been the one shown in the film when I read out my father’s letter refusing his conditional pardon to Soweto football stadium,” said Zindzi. “But it wasn’t. The defining moment was my child’s father’s coffin being lowered into the ground on the afternoon my father’s release was announced. I was numb. I realised then more than any other time that, much as I wanted my father to come back home to me, he had come back to the nation.”
Zindzi with her daughter Zoleka (left) (Reuters)
In his autobiography, Mandela wrote, “When your life is the struggle, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret.” His attempts to compensate could be touchingly off the mark. “He said, ‘You shall live with me until some young man comes along,’” Zindzi said with a laugh. “I did, but he was imposing rules and regulations, a curfew, asking if I’d be chaperoned when I was a mother of three.” She was breast-feeding at the time, but Mandela insisted she weaned the baby. “When the baby woke at night, he’d give him his formula and change his nappy because he’d missed all of that.”
Despite public unity, the political and personal rifts between Zindzi’s parents deepened. For a couple of years she didn’t speak to her father. “I don’t regret a single moment,” she said firmly. “More people, family included, were on my father’s side, because it made them look better, but I don’t do what makes you popular. I had to do right by my mother. Without her, I wouldn’t have survived.”
The Mandelas divorced in 1996. “I didn’t want it to happen, but I saw it coming. You have to work at marriage and my parents didn’t even get a chance to cut their wedding cake – it was still stored away. Their foundations were too unstable to survive.”
When Mandela married Graça Machel in 1998, Zindzi welcomed her into the family fold. “We can be full of it, and we needed someone who represented stability, a strong woman – she was the perfect candidate.” Initially hostile, Winnie and Graça eventually became close friends. “She always deferred to my mother and there was a moment at my son’s circumcision when Graça’s headdress was like a bird’s nest and my mother fixed it. They walked on together without looking back and… Oh man!” Zindzi squealed delightedly at the memory.
The marriages of all six of Mandela’s children (only three of whom survive) broke down. Zindzi, who works in marketing, married for a second time in March, but recently separated. “It’s hard for me to be dependent on anybody and hard to find a man who can handle my strength without it affecting his self-esteem,” she said ruefully.
The South African press has revelled in disputes between Mandela’s family with his first wife, Evelyn, and his family with Winnie. “We’re not all lovey-dovey – no family is,” Zindzi said. “We’re under a lot of scrutiny and these are challenging times. But at the end of the day we are family and we look out for each other.”
Recently, Zenani’s daughters were excoriated for making a reality show, Being Mandela. “I wouldn’t have done it,” Zindzi said equably. “But their story is theirs and their grandfather fought for freedom of choice.”
Last month Zindzi’s eldest daughter, Zoleka, 33, published her autobiography, in which she claims to have been sexually abused as a child – “by some of the adults who should have been looking after me” – and talks about her alcohol and drug addictions, and the death of her 13-year-old daughter in a car crash in 2010. “I’m proud that she’s been able to share her story. She was an addict for 10 years and it affected our relationship terribly,” said Zindzi, though she hadn’t read this, nor any of her family’s memoirs. “I started Long Walk, but I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t learn about my father through the printed word. It has to be the spoken word.”
Sadly, there will not be another chance to do so. In the final days of Mandela’s life Zindzi was celebrating the film, and enthusing about Idris Elba and Naomie Harris’s performances as Nelson and Winnie. “It has been so therapeutic,” she said. “I’ve seen it four times but I need to watch it alone, because so far I’ve always had to be in control. When I can express my emotions it will complete the cathartic cycle.
“What’s so refreshing is it stresses my father was just an ordinary man. So often he’s portrayed in mythical terms, but you can’t be a tree without branches. In the movie it comes through that he is also somebody’s partner, father, grandfather.”
As world leaders gather today in Qunu, Mandela’s birthplace, it is these memories to which Zindzi clings.