Hard lessons from the 'Old Man': My life as Madiba's grandson
Ndaba Mandela’s book recounts his journey into manhood with his grandfather towering over him
Ndaba Mandela is tall, even as a teenager, but as he stands, head bowed, in front of his grandfather, Nelson Mandela, he doesn’t feel that way. The Old Man, as he is affectionately known, is giving him one of his famously harsh lectures.
Just days earlier, while a teen and in high school, Ndaba is bust “out enjoying the pleasant weather and sharing a nice fat spliff” with some friends. His school finds out and he is suspended for a week. But Madiba didn’t know about the incident until a local newspaper, without mentioning names, reported on it.
With Ndaba “already known for blazing mad joints”, he had no choice but to confront his grandfather.
“He sat in his chair, listening in that deeply listening Madiba way as I floundered through the whole sordid tale,” Ndaba says of the confrontation.
Madiba responds: “Oh, Ndaba, I can’t believe this. I’m shocked. This is so below you. I can’t believe you would do such a thing. Are you serious about your life? Do you understand the nature of the opportunities extended to you with your name? There are opportunities to help people — to do great things— and there are equal opportunities to burn it all to the ground.
“To humiliate the people who love and care for you. Your name is your name, but who are you? You have a choice. Every minute of every day, the choice is yours.”
Ndaba recalls that Mandela was “angry”.
“But more than that, he was deeply disappointed. After a while, he told me to go. Walking out of that room, leaving my granddad with this leaden expression of sadness on his face, I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. But I was determined to fix this,” he says.This story is contained in Ndaba’s first book, Going to the mountain: Lessons from my grandfather, Nelson Mandela. It is a deeply personal – perhaps surprisingly so – account of Ndaba’s journey into manhood with his grandfather towering over him.
“My thing is to find a way to answer how we make sure that people understand the value of Nelson Mandela,” he said in an interview about the book.
He said he wanted to do something around what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday, but he wanted it to be something that would carry more weight and have a long-lasting impact.
“For me, it’s particularly looking at the younger generation because the older generation are very familiar, they know exactly what the value of Nelson Mandela is. The younger generation, on the other hand, may not be as well versed with Nelson Mandela and what he means to the world. For me, it was taking lessons and making them relate to kids in the 21st century,” he said.
Despite this lofty ambition, the book is not mere fluff. It deals with hard issues, including Ndaba’s staunch criticism of how his grandfather handled his parents’ marriage, the death of both his parents from HIV (and how he drank himself to sleep in the days leading up to his mom’s death), and how his relationship with his older brother, Mandla Mandela, has broken down completely.
The book goes into depth on Ndaba’s circumcision and passage into manhood, and even how Madiba rejected the first suggestion that it was time to go through the traditional ceremony by saying: “This boy is not ready.”
It also contains lighthearted moments and jokes shared, and also reveals that Mandela was by no means soft on his family.“When he did crack down on me, he scolded proper. You felt that growl like thunder,” Ndaba writes. “This was something far worse than having him be mad at me; he was disappointed.”
“I’d be chilling in the lounge in front of the TV and hear this deep, rumbling voice from upstairs. ‘Ndaba. Come and clean your room.’ That was my cue to get up there and tidy up while he stood in the door, delivering a stern talk about personal responsibility. He made me keep my room tidy, and he kept his own room tidy — made his own bed, everything — despite the fact that household staff would have been happy to do it.
“He was strict, and that caused some friction between us over the years.”
There are moments that, perhaps, some family members might not be happy with, but Ndaba hopes that the book will be better received than the controversial offering by Madiba’s doctor, Vejay Ramlakan.
That book, Mandela's Last Years: The True Story of Nelson Mandela's Final Journey, was eventually pulled by the publisher after complaints from family members, from Madiba’s wife Graça Machel and others.
“It’s a pity [the book was pulled] because I didn’t really give the doctor’s book much of a chance, to be honest with you. Knowledge is power, and people are allowed to have their own opinions.
“But I hope that [my] one will be well received. I’m just using his life to inspire people; it’s a completely different angle to the doctor’s angle,” said Ndaba.
Going to the Mountain is available from June 28.