The first time Ndaba Mandela met his grandfather, Nelson Mandela, Ndaba was 7 years old and the future father of modern South Africa was still imprisoned on Robben Island. The two of them watched A Never Ending Story in a cottage on the remote prison outpost. Ndaba didn’t understand his grandfather’s importance then or, he somewhat sheepishly admits, for years after. It took years of living together for Ndaba to understand why his grandfather meant so much to so many.
Nelson Mandela, Ndaba recalls, was a patient but strict guardian who expected a lot. Ndaba also recalls his grandfather, perhaps shockingly, as a goofy presence. The man loved to dance and talk about boxing. He liked jokes.
When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, the world mourned. Ndaba still does. That’s why he wrote his first book, Going to The Mountain: Life Lessons from My Grandfather, Nelson Mandela. He wanted to share with others the wisdom he had gained from hours spent in the presence of a great man.
Ndaba spoke to Fatherly about his childhood and the man who provided care to both him and his country.
I realized who my grandfather was one night when we were having dinner, just the two of us. I was a kid. He said, ‘Ndaba, you are my grandson. People will always look at you as a leader, therefore, you have to get the best marks in class.’ That was the moment I realized who he was. But I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to accept it. I was just a young kid wanting and trying to have a normal life, not understanding that no matter how hard I could try to have a normal life, I would never have a normal life.
People have certain expectations of a Mandela. They put us on a certain pedestal and see us in a certain kind of light. We cannot control that. That is just how the world works. Either you run away from it or you embrace it. You want to run away from it because you understand that with great power comes great responsibility and you do not want to take on great responsibility. You just want to be a kid.
I understood what my grandfather did and his work, but when he was at home, he took off that president hat. He was grandfather when he was at home. He loved his grandkids. He was a man who really played with the kids. You know when you joke around, and play with the kids, and become a monster? The Old Man would do that. He was full of humor. He had a great sense of humor.
He was also a disciplinarian. He disciplined me quite a bit. He was strict. He made me keep my space very tidy. We used to wake up really early in the morning — 4 or 5 a.m. — to watch boxing: me, my brothers, and him. That was special, just to see him and the way he was concentrating, so focused on the fight. We watched the famous Tyson and Holyfield fight together.
I’m not sure if a lot of people know that he was the commander in chief of the military of the ANC. A lot of people talk about Nelson Mandela and about how he was nonviolent. But he did use violence when he and his comrades felt that the peaceful protests weren’t working. When he came out of jail, he had completely changed. He didn’t want to see violence at all. He felt that our country had experienced enough violence and we needed to break that cycle of violence. Still, he loved boxing.
People underestimate the sacrifice my grandfather made. He sacrificed his own family. He gave up his time with his kid and his wife to go and focus on defeating the enemy that was oppressing the people. That was a conscious decision that he made.
They killed so many people. Why didn’t they kill Nelson Mandela? You have to ask yourself. Why? My only explanation is that there has to be God. There has to be a God out there or a higher power that is beyond us, whether you call it Allah, Jesus, God. Or you’re agnostic. There is a higher power that exists outside of us, that kept Madiba alive. Because clearly, Madiba had a greater role to play beyond the cells of his prison, you know?
Everywhere I go with my kids, they see their great-grandfathers face, or name. They have the same name, of course, and I talk to them and explain to them exactly who Madiba was, because there are people out there in the world who will have different opinions. They need to be equipped with knowledge and information. They need to be proud of who they are and stand up tall, to be a Mandela. Not in a boastful way, but in a way that says, ‘Yes, my grandfather was a leader, was a great man. I am thankful for that. And I am humbled by that. That does not make me any better than you.’
I miss the way he loved being in his village. His greatest memories were when he was growing up in the village, before he went to town and became this political animal. His greatest, happiest memories were of growing up in the countryside. I remember the last couple of years of his life, he’d say to me: ‘Ndaba. You know I have retired now. I want to spend the last few years of my life in the village. Will you come with me?’ I said, ‘Of course, I will come with you.’
He asked me that quite frequently. I’m just sad that I never got to give him his last wish.