By Kirsty OUP-UK
Yesterday a 9ft high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square. The statue has not been without its controversies: Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had wanted the statue to be placed on the North side of the Square, but permission was declined due to the space needed for the large events that take place there. Instead it stands facing the House of Commons, along with statues of other great leaders such as Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, and Abraham Lincoln. With this in mind, I decided to bring you an excerpt from our book Mandela: A Critical Life by Tom Lodge. This piece focuses on Mandela’s childhood.
In the world into which Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, children were best seen, not heard. ‘We were meant to learn through imitation and emulation, not through asking questions’, Mandela tells us in his autobiography. ‘Education we received by simply sitting silently when our elders talked,’ he explained to Fatima Meer. Despite his early upbringing in a village community composed mainly of women and children, from infancy his social relationships were regulated by strict conventions and precise rules of etiquette. In this vein, much of the emphasis in most accounts of Nelson Mandela’s childhood has fallen on what he was told and what he presumably learned rather than on what he felt or perceived.
Lineage enjoys pride of place in Mandela’s testimonies about his childhood. When Meer wrote her ‘authorised’ biography in 1988, Mandela himself, then still in prison, compiled a family tree and supportive notes for a genealogy passing through ten generations. This indicated his line of descent in the Thembu chieftaincy as a member of its ‘left-hand house’ of King Ngubencuka, who presided over a united Thembu community in the 1830s. The Thembu were one of twelve isiXhosa-speaking chieftaincies that inhabited the Transkei, the largest of South Africa’s African peasant reserves situated on South Africa’s eastern seaboard. The Thembu lefthand house, descendants of Ngubencuka’s third wife, by convention served as counsellors or advisers to the royal household, the sons of Ngubencuka’s ‘Great House’. In this capacity, Mandela suggests, his father Henry Gadla Mpakhanyiswa can be thought of as the Thembu paramount’s ‘prime minister’, though more prosaically he was accorded the post of village headman at Mvezo near Umtata by the administration of the Transkeien territories, a secular authority of white magistrates and other officials. Henry Gadla and his family belonged to the Madiba clan, named after an eighteenth-century Thembu chief: Mandela today prefers to be called Madiba by his friends and associates.
Much is made of Mandela’s aristocratic or even princely status in the various narratives of his life. In these Mandela’s genealogy is an important source of his charismatic power. ‘Since he was a small boy in the Transkei, Mandela was treated as someone special’, notes Richard Stengel, Mandela’s collaborator on his autobiography. ‘His political confidence’ was substantially derived from ‘the security and simplicity of his rural upbringing’. Mandela himself maintains that much of his childhood was a form of apprenticeship shaped by knowledge of his ‘destiny’, in which he would ascend to office as the key counsellor to the Tembu chiefdom. Popular accounts of his birth and upbringing, including those prepared by the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1960s, accentuate his social status and his royal connections.
Nelson Mandela’s father, Henry Gadla, was a relatively wealthy man in 1918, rich enough to maintain four wives and thirteen children. Mandela, incidentally, was the most junior of Gadla’s four sons and he has never explained why he was cast in the role of future counsellor to the Thembu paramount. His mother, Nonqaphi Nosekeni, may have been his father’s favourite wife; such considerations could influence inherited precedence among sons.
In the 1920s, the Transkei could still support a peasant economy although most young men migrated elsewhere to work: Mandela remembers that in his mother’s household ‘milk was always plentiful’. Mandela was named at birth Rolihlahla, ‘to pull the branch of a tree’, or less literally ‘troublemaker’, the first son of his third wife. Henry was the leader of a predominantly ‘red’ or pagan community, though Mandela’s illiterate mother had converted to Methodism at the instigation of Henry’s friend Ben Mbekela, an educated Mfengu. The Mfengu were the first of the Xhosa sub-groups to convert to Christianity, allies of white settlers in the frontier war of 1877–8; given the resulting historical animosities Henry’s friendship with Mbekela was quite unusual. Henry lost both wealth and position after his dismissal from his post as village headman, a dismissal prompted by a dispute over the extent of his jurisdiction with the local magistrate. Rolihlahla, his mother and his sisters went to live near kinsfolk in Qunu, 30 miles from Mvezo. Henry visited, once a month, as custom dictated, until his death from TB in 1928. Mandela was present when his father died, apparently, although he does not mention this in his autobiography. Mandela started attending school in Qunu and was given an English name, Nelson, by his teacher, Mrs Mdingane.
According to his surviving relatives, Mandela’s learning began well before he started attending mission school. Apparently, as ‘a solemn boy among the many descendants of the great Xhosa chief, Ngubengcuka’ he would listen by the fireside to his great uncles’ accounts of the Xhosa frontier wars with the British as well as more recent conflicts: ‘Bulhoek and Bondelswarts were names that lodged painfully in his memory just as they loomed vividly in African consciousness.’His awareness of an African proto-nationalist tradition was reinforced, Mandela tells us, by the lessons that he absorbed at the Great Place of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Regent of the Thembu, who accepted Mandela as his ward and companion to his own son, Justice, a move requested by Henry Gadla shortly before his death, another indication of a special regard for his son that Mandela leaves unexplained, as was the legacy of a revolver that Henry left him. Mandela’s first ‘authorised’ biographer, Fatima Meer, records that the pre-teenage Mandela especially sought out instruction from his elders and that ‘the young Nelson, tutored at Tatu Joyi’s feet, was fired to regain that ubuntu for all South Africans’. Meer, however, was writing during the late 1980s when ANC elders were confronted with a generational revolt, and she may have had her own reasons for stressing Mandela’s respect for patriarchal authority. Mandela himself concedes that, although the ‘real history of our country’ was unavailable in the standard British textbooks, he was to discover quite soon that Chief Joyi’s lessons ‘were not always so accurate’, a gentle signal in his narrative of an opening of an intellectual and emotional distance between himself and the world of his childhood.